The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us, and by the end of it you'll feel like The Walking Dead. Hence, zombie motif!
San Jose vs St Louis
To be honest, seeing the Sharks and Blues face off in the first round isn't all that surprising. It's not even that surprising to see it as a 2/7 matchup. But the fact that the Blues are the 2 and the Sharks are the 7? That's a surprise.
What we have here are two teams that met one another's expectations. Most projected the Sharks to compete for the Western Conference crown and the Blues to scratch and claw their way to a playoff spot. Instead, St. Louis was the first team to clinch, and San Jose was among the last.
Can these two teams continue to defy the expectations? The Blues hope so. The Sharks most definitely hope not.
Here's the breakdown of the Sharks and Blues, complete with Zombified observations …
St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7)
April 12: San Jose at St. Louis, 7:30 p.m.
April 14: San Jose at St. Louis, 7:30 p.m.
April 16: St. Louis at San Jose, 10 p.m.
April 19: St. Louis at San Jose, 10:30 p.m.
April 21: San Jose at St. Louis, 7:30 p.m.
April 23: St. Louis at San Jose, TBA*
April 25: San Jose at St. Louis, TBA*
The Sharks' best weapon is their size, skill and versatility up front, as Todd McLellan can deploy a top-six of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, and Martin Havlat in any combination.
Initially, expect him to start with a first line of Thornton, Marleau, and Pavelski. But if McLellan feels the Blues are successfully shutting this group down and breaking up their cycle -- a distinct possibility -- we might see these three split up to flesh out the Sharks' attack.
San Jose will rely on Martin Havlat and Patrick Marleau to do damage with their quickness on the wing. The Blues are as big and responsible in the middle of the ice as anybody, so expect the Sharks to come down the walls with speed instead. But Havlat and Marleau both have a reputation for disappearing when it counts, and if even one of them under-performs, the Sharks could be too slow to generate much of anything.
The Blues didn't have a single scorer with 60 points (for contrast, the Sharks had four) and they only had two forwards with 5o. They will be attempting to beat the Sharks with their strong, defensive-minded forward units, which include standout and captain David Backes, Patrick Berglund and Jason Arnott up the middle.
But St. Louis has some skill on the wings as well. David Perron, Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie can dangle, and Chris Stewart is a power forward who occasionally plays like one.
And Andy McDonald is actually the team's most dangerous scorer in terms of points per game, with 22 in 25 outings.
Dan Boyle and Brent Burns lead a Sharks' defence corps which also includes the underrated Marc-Edouard Vlasic and massive Swede Douglas Murray. They'll be relied on heavily for their offense, especially on the powerplay. Their ability to create rebounds and goalmouth scrambles with their point shots, both on the powerplay and at even-strength, could make or break this series.
The Blues are led by Alex Pietrangelo, who is coming into his own as an elite defender, and Kevin Shattenkirk, who excels on a shutdown pairing with Barrett Jackman. They're not quite the big name the Sharks boast, but this could be the postseason all three show they deserve to be.
For the time being, however, the Sharks have both the playoff experience and the star power to boast an advantage.
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, Patrick Marleau will be the Sharks survivor because he's gutless, so he's not really worth trying to feed on.
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, the entire Blues team will survive. This group is basically a military regiment under Hitchcock.
Here's where the Blues really shine. Brian Elliott and Jaro Halak closed out the 2011-12 season with the William Jennings Trophy, and a case could be made for the duo taking home the first co-Vezina since the award was created. Elliott led the league in GAA with a 1.56 and Halak wasn't far behind, finishing 5th with a 1.97. Elliott was also number one in save percentage with a .940, while Halak was 6th in the category at .926.
It sounds as though Elliott won't be healthy for game 1, but Halak is a formidable challenge, especially behind this lockdown system.
Antti Niemi is nowhere near these two guys. His .915 save percentage was 23rd and his 2.42 GAA was 17th. He's been shaky all year, and with the guys at the other end being nigh unbeatable, the Sharks will need an all-world performance out of him to keep up. Can he do it?
The Blues are the walker that chases you all night through the woods. It just wears you down until finally, you trip over and fall and it feeds off your mistake. And brain.
Todd McLellan originally seemed like a genius when he stepped behind the bench and turned the Sharks from a contender to a top-tier team. But he's stalled with this group in recent years, and with the offense beginning to sputter, one wonders if he's coaching for his job now.
Ken Hitchcock is arguably this year's Jack Adams winner. He's installed the perfect system for the Blues and their adherence to it is making everyone look like geniuses.
When the Sharks' special teams units are on the ice, expect goals. For both sides. They were the second-best team in the league on the powerplay, with 57 goals on 270 opportunities, a 21.1 conversion rate. But they boasted the league's second-worst penalty kill, allowing 52 goals on 225 penalties, a gaudy 76.9 kill rate.
The Blues saw 270 powerplay opportunities as well, only converting 45 times. Their 16.7 conversation rate was 19th in the league. They were 7th on the penalty kill, however, with a 85.8 kill rate.
In order to defeat the Sharks, you play them tight and capitalize on their mistakes. They generate most of their offense off the cycle, which means you have to stay in formation and get in front of point shots.
In order to defeat the Blues, you have to play with a lead. Force them to open up in a bid to come from behind.
Blues in 6. The Sharks are better than their seeding indicates, but this Blues team is one they simply don't match up well against. They've struggled to score all year, and offensive problems are to the Blues as viscera is to zombies. The season series bears this out. The Blues won all 4 games, allowing just 3 goals in the process. While the Sharks scored 17 goals on a 4-game win streak to end the year -- 9 of them on stingy Los Angeles -- I just don't see them getting the offensive production they'll need to best St. Louis.