SAN JOSE – In the few days leading up to the Western Conference final between the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues, it may seem easy to compare this battle to the when the two teams faced off under similar circumstances in 2016.
But while there are some similar players in both lineups, we probably shouldn’t expect a repeat of that conference final battle from a few years ago.
“It’s tough to compare teams two years later, or three years later,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer told the media after Friday’s morning skate. “I know the core of both teams is probably the same. But you’ve got a different coach on the other side.”
Sure, personnel changes mean we won't see the war of words between coaches like in 2016 between DeBoer and Ken Hitchcock. Or get an encore of former Blues captain David Backes tugging on Joe Thornton’s beard – although another player could try.
But there is one thing the Sharks are definitely anticipating from their third-round opponent – a much more physical series than the one they just played against the speedy Colorado Avalanche.
“I think with St. Louis, it’s going to be a little more like the Vegas series,” Sharks’ winger Kevin Labanc admitted. “More grit, fighting, kind of a harder, heavier game. But we know how to play them, we know how to handle them. We’ve just got to make sure we’re not giving them anything in our own end.”
San Jose is already familiar with the task of getting around St. Louis’ heavy offense and two-way defense. (Blueliner and captain Alex Pietrangelo is tied for first on the team with 11 points through the Blues’ first two playoff series.) The Sharks will have a new challenge, however, facing rookie netminder Jordan Binnington, who matches Sharks goalie Martin Jones with eight wins through these playoffs.
“I think ever since he was called up he’s been a real key factor for them,” Labanc said. “We just have to make sure we’re in his eyes and doing the little things right. The goals will come, we just have to be good defensively and make sure we’re not turning the puck over.”
DeBoer said it isn’t just Binnington making an impact for the Blues, but other young players such as forward Robert Thomas who have positively contributed to St. Louis arsenal.
“I think they’ve done a really good job integrating some of their young guys – impact young guys into their lineup,” DeBoer said.
Even with some new players in the fold, San Jose remains ready for a more physical matchup and takes pride in being able to pivot from playing a more speed-and-skill oriented Colorado team.
“Our team is built where we have many layers, where we can play a physical series or we can play a more skilled series as well,” Joe Pavelski said. “But there is a certain way we want to play the game and we want to dictate the game in certain areas. St. Louis is a good team and they are physical.”
There is one element San Jose feels will work in its favor in the upcoming best-of-seven series. Unlike the 2016 series which started in St. Louis, San Jose has home-ice advantage and didn’t have to do any traveling after finishing up its seven-game stint against Colorado on Wednesday.
“That’s huge,” Labanc said about starting the series in San Jose. “Home-ice advantage, it’s awesome here. We just worked so hard all season to obtain that. It just makes the biggest difference. The past two Game 7 games in each series were unbelievable for us, and just having your home crowd cheering for you gives us that little bit of extra energy and that extra momentum.”