In a weird, misleading and almost dishonest way, the San Jose Sharks made a mistake playing their most complete game of the entire season in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round series against Nashville. I mean, they could have saved it for St. Louis, right?
Of course it doesn't work that way, hence the dishonesty, but they could have clinched their series with 85 percent of that performance, and won 4-2 rather than 5-0. They smothered a tired team, and other than a Justin Braun penalty late in the game that affected nothing, they came as close to completely pleasing head coach Peter DeBoer as they have all season. They deserve the kind things said about them and the way they sledgehammered their overriding narrative.
Now comes the left shoe on the right foot. They will have to conjure a few more of those in the next two weeks in the conference final against the St. Louis Blues in what will come to be known as The Underachievers’ Ball.
The Blues are deeper, faster and healthier than they were when the Sharks played them in the regular season, but in most areas are only slightly better than the Sharks. They do have the better reputation among the hockey punditocracy, but having seen the wreckage of the Washington Capitals and Dallas Stars, reputations are made to be dented.
All that said, the Sharks can stand to play at the level they showed in Game 7 against the Nashvilles, and before that Game 5. Conversely, they must avoid their occasional habit that they showed in Game 6, of thinking the job is done before it is. It is a sense that many think is almost in their DNA through years of exhibitions of it, and yet they keep it under wraps more in 2016 than in past seasons. Playing a better team that is better applying and maintaining pressure may in a weird way make the Sharks better, because the assumption of safety may not actually exist.
The rest of the series will be determined more likely than not by health and goaltender play. Again, the Dallas example is paramount, where having two mediocre goaltenders in Kari Lehtonen and the sainted Antti Niemi combined with the absence of Tyler Seguin to leave the Stars as less than they were, and St. Louis was perfectly positioned and constructed to punish them for it.
San Jose is currently upper body/lower body subterfuge-free, relatively speaking. DeBoer can trot out all his top players and use them as he sees fit, which is the definition of injury-free in the postseason. We here now acknowledge the Matt Nieto leg injury from Game 6, but the main point remains unchallenged. They are not crippled as they were in 2010 against Chicago or 2011 against Vancouver.
St. Louis’ injury list is about as clean, going through their two seven-game series with essentially the same 18 players, plus Brian Elliott, the goaltender who has won raves for his work throughout the postseason even though his numbers are not materially better than San Jose’s Martin Jones and worse than both Matt Murray of Pittsburgh and Ben Bishop of Tampa Bay.
In sum, we have two teams that have no built-in excuses for not making this another seven-game series. We do not guarantee that every game will be tightly played and brilliantly constructed, because that never happens, and anyway, San Jose’s Game 7 against Nashville is not all that much more inspiring than St. Louis’ Game 7 against Dallas. There is that little to choose from between the two teams.
But if this helps even a bit, under the present playoff format of four wins per round, there have only been two teams, the 2014 Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers, who have won three consecutive seven-game series to reach (and win) a Stanley Cup final. The Blues are trying to do this, and one thing we know from our study is that the more games you have to play early, the harder it gets later. The Sharks, due to their quick dismissal of the Kings in the first round, have two games in hand . . . one and a half, really, if you factor in overtime minutes.
It may not be Corsi/Fenwick quality analysis, but it’ll do until Sunday. It’ll have to.