Spring should be any sportswriter’s favorite time of year to cover pond shinny. The NHL’s pretenders and overconfident favorites have all been shucked out of the way, leaving 4 excellent clubs to contend for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The game is in full swing in Europe too. Another IIHF World Championships cycle has begun, and a pair of shocking conclusions to the women’s tournament in Finland and the undercard in Estonia (Romania, yay!) may serve as only a prelude to an NHL star-studded tournament in Slovakia.
Yet it’s times like this when things start to get a little hectic.
We rely on some kind of advance timing to properly handicap and publish worthwhile previews here on the hockey blog, and as with the sports of baseball and basketball (and soccer) sometimes the schedules move a little too fast for comfort.
Not only am I keeping track of NHL players headed to the Worlds, I’m spending a lot of time hoping that series end after a reasonable 5 or 6 games. When a Game 1 match-up in the next round is scheduled at least 3 or 4 days out, that makes everything easy.
The San Jose Sharks must be trolling handicappers. No way, Jose, are they going to let a series go less than 7 games.
The St. Louis Blues, paired against San Jose in a marquee playoff series once again, can be a similar sort of nag. 7 games against the Dallas Stars and the Blue Note is still in tune.
Let’s take a closer look at the clubs facing-off in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals at SAP Center this Saturday night. Scroll further for our handicap of MyBookie’s betting markets on Saturday’s contest and price for series winner.
Sharks vs Blues: St. Louis Still Maintains Momentum
There has been no better team in hockey than the St. Louis Blues – since winter, anyway. Late in 2018 the squad was a sham, but an epic charge to the playoffs and subsequent clutch performances by big names have put coach Craig Berube’s team in the final 4.
But it’s not as if they’re making it look easy. After securing a 4-2 series win against the Winnipeg Jets, the Blues were on the brink of elimination against Big D before Jaden Schwartz and Sammy Blais scored 2 goals only 33 seconds apart to ice a dominant 4-1 win in Game 6.
In a battle of wills between division rivals, the Blues and Stars were in a 1-1 deadlock well into overtime. St. Louis outlasted and outshot the visitors, and Dallas goalie Ben Bishop could not withstand the attack in the 2nd OT when hometown forward Pat Maroon sealed a 2-1 victory.
The Blues are playing a physical style of hockey, relying on constant forechecking and efficiency with the puck following turnovers. Vladimir Tarasenko is a deadly sniper, and Ryan O’ Reilly is one of the best all-around forwards in the game. Led by smart and gifted defenders, St. Louis’ handy neutral-zone work without the puck has been tamping-down the transition games of skilled opponents.
There are multiple fine defensemen on the squad. Alex Pietrangelo is tied for a team-high 11 points in the postseason, while a better-than-average transition game is helping left-wing Jaden Schwartz is lead the team with 8 postseason goals.
Goalie Jordan Binnington has been steady with an 8-5 record, 2.39 goals-against average, and .915 save percentage. I am not a fan, however, of how he handles the puck.
The Blues have struggled on special teams in the playoffs, exposing the shallow hype around Binnington’s puck-handling. He’s confident and daring with the biscuit in hand – that’s great. The risky outlet passes might not always work in double OT.
Shark Attack and Other Clichés
The Sharks have survived grueling battles with defending Western Conference champ Las Vegas in the 1st round and the Colorado Avalanche in the 2nd. After losing 3 straight games to Vegas by a combined score of 16-6 to fall behind 3-1 in the series, the Sharks rallied for 3 decisive wins to advance.
However, the Avalanche series did not end with momentum-fed heroics but a gritty effort to hold off a swift attacking team. Colorado was excellent in answering an early pair of goals by San Jose in Game 7, and the Sharks did not score in the 3rd period.
The return of team captain Joe Pavelski did provide an emotional lift. The Sharks would take a 3-1 lead into the 3rd period and clinched the series after some episodes in the final 20:00.
San Jose has been up against the wall throughout the playoffs, but timely man-advantage opportunities and increased productivity off the bench have provided lift. 4 goals on a 5-minute major penalty in game-7 against Vegas sparked an electric comeback victory.
Injuries and Worries
NHL players are never hurt in the playoffs, but a lot of them get “the flu.” Meanwhile a trailing team is always confident until you hear the dreaded word “pride” in postgame interviews.
Let’s cut through some of the blather and try to see what’s really ailing both clubs.
Each team is reasonably healthy, though San Jose defender Radim Simek is out for the remainder of the year with a knee injury. The Sharks have a few match-up issues with their active roster, however.
Coach Peter DeBoer’s challenge will be to find space for his wonder-line of Timo Meier, Logan Couture, and Gustav Nyquist. Nyquist is a passing wizard with a terrific postseason +/- of +5, and his line is the highest-rated on the team.
But it’s hard to work out the perfect line-changes when you’ve got a key defenseman in a slump. Brenden Dillon’s effectiveness has nose-dived in the playoffs, and St. Louis wingers like Tarasenko will be lurking. If the Blues are able to control the puck and keep San Jose pinned in deep with forechecking, then the Sharks’ playmaking centers will be hamstrung, limping to the bench for changes, and the goalies will be faced with high-anxiety 3rd periods and overtime sessions.
At this point, Jones is the goaltender with a better chance of stealing a game or 2.
Game 1 Odds and Series Price at MyBookie
MyBookie is giving San Jose the tiniest of series-price advantages, with a (-120) mark on the Sharks to prevail in 7 games or less.
I like the Sharks in 6 or 7 games in this series. Bennington has held up exceptionally well under bright lights, but the question continues to be whether the developing youngster can win a Stanley Cup if a Stanley Cup team is clicking on all cylinders around him.
Meanwhile, the question about Martin Jones is “is this guy finally getting it?” The same goaltender who has been pulled twice in the postseason came through with poise and stamina when the club needed it most against a swift, buzzing Avalanche team. Time and experience have taught me that it doesn’t always matter who your goalie is so long as he is playing well.
Let’s peek at the other lines. The NHL betting site’s Exact Series Result prop board is interesting, with a (+450) mark on the Sharks winning in 5 games.
That’s tempting. San Jose is more “sweep-proof” in this series than St. Louis – if the Blues’ stamina ever runs out on the blue line and between the pipes, then all of the accurate shooting from Tarasenko, O’Reilly and Jason Schwartz won’t carry them over the top against a 4-deep lineups of stud centermen and defensemen. Game 5 will be at SAP Center, and the Sharks would win that one to clinch 4-1 as easy as they could withstand a hornet’s nest in the Gateway City just 48 hours later.
But the book is also giving (+400) on Sharks-in-7. That’s probably the more-solid pick at 4-to-1.
Finally, a look at the game lines. The Sharks are (+205) to cover a (-1 ½) spread, and (-120) favorites on the moneyline. The Over/Under is 5 and ½ goals with a tasty (+110) payoff on the high side.
Series and Game 1 Bet Recommendations
I’m not liking the moneyline on the Sharks in Game 1. The visiting Blues are likely to score first, and could conceivably dominate in stretches. It will take time for San Jose to adjust to a different style of transition game, banging and slamming the puck off the boards and out of the zone more often than when following Colorado’s all-or-nothing forward shifts.
However, I think the Blues will begin to slip in effectiveness and puck-movement after finding space and favorable match-ups in Game 1. The Sharks’ home-ice advantage will allow them to win 1 out of 2 to begin the series no matter what. By the 5th game I expect San Jose to be the better unit in front of a better goaltender, or at least a goalie who happens to be playing real well right now.
Look for the Over in Game 1 as a loose batch of forwards from St. Louis will look to make a statement, and the home team will rally in response…with the referee accommodating a few power plays just to set the tone for the rest of the series. (He’ll swallow his whistle later on.)