Strong San Jose Sharks' effort trumped by St. Louis Blues' scoring depth in Game 1

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Monday, May 16, 2016

ST. LOUIS -- It is a matchup the St. Louis Blues will take over seven games, and this thing sure has the look of seven: Jori Lehtera's winner Sunday night coming with the San Jose Sharks' third line on the ice.

No offense to Chris Tierney's unit for the Sharks, which played well the previous round against the Nashville Predators, but if the Blues can get Lehtera's unit -- with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz out there, or any of their top three lines -- matched up against San Jose's third line, this is an area St. Louis can exploit throughout the Western Conference finals.

This is a series pitting two evenly matched teams. Games will be won by a hair, the way it was Sunday with the Blues prevailing 2-1 in Game 1 and the Sharks perhaps unlucky after outshooting the hosts 32-23 and owning the larger share of Grade A looks.

So the smallest of edges might make the difference from night to night in this series. And Sunday night revealed this: San Jose's top line of Joe Thornton between Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski was dominant and, for my money, the best line on either team. Their puck-possession numbers were overwhelming. That line was just awesome, again.

But overall, the Blues' top-nine forward group had the slight advantage from top to bottom.

To the point, while San Jose's third line is clearly defined in the pecking order behind Thornton's top unit and Logan Couture's second line, just who exactly are the Blues' third line?

No such thing on this team.

"It's been the strength of our team," Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said after Sunday's win. "It was born from adversity and it's allowed role players to get scaled up and it's helped us a lot. So we don't really have a third line. I would say right now we're not sure who even our first line is. We've got what I think are three second lines, and they can play in various stages and various positions."

Hitchcock decides whom to put out often based on where the faceoffs are.

"It's strictly zone matchups," the veteran Blues coach said. "You saw Lehtera's line go out for a lot of O-zone faceoffs, which is a good thing. And that's the way we do things. And [Paul] Stastny can do the same thing. You know what, in a game like today's, the [Alexander] Steen line had to take a run in a lot of D-zone situations. It just flat works for us."

The evidence in Game 1 lies in the even-strength ice time (which means discounting special teams) from the Blues' three top centers: Lehtera was at 15 minutes, 55 seconds at five-on-five, Steen at 15:35 and Stastny at 14:39.

"We're built like that," Steen said. "We roll our lines and everybody does their job."

Star Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo gave a puzzled look when asked to point out which unit exactly was his team's third line.

"When you're having a problem saying who is your first, second or third line, it's a good problem to have. Especially as defensemen, it makes life easy," he said.

The way the top Blues defenseman sees it, it puts less onus on the St. Louis blue-line corps to take chances and try to create offense.

"As much as we want to contribute offensively from the back end, I think when you have the firepower that we have up front, it allows us to be a little more steady on the back end, maybe take care of our end a little bit more than we're used to," Pietrangelo said. "You look at Dallas in Game 7, all we did is get the puck in the forwards' hands and they did all the work."

For the Sharks, however, head coach Peter DeBoer and his staff will have something to chew on ahead of Game 2 here Tuesday night.

On the one hand, his team carried a good portion of the game based on merit of play, so maybe you don't want to change too much.

On the flip side, the top-nine forward matchup issue can't be ignored. Which could lead to the following internal debate: Do the Sharks take veteran Patrick Marleau off Couture's wing on the second line and put him back at center on the third line? It's where Marleau has played most of the season and in the opening round. But during the second-round series, DeBoer elevated Marleau to Couture's wing and replaced him with Tierney. It certainly worked, Couture's line was dynamite in the Nashville series, and Tierney himself had a two-goal effort in Game 6.

But the Predators don't have the potent, top-nine setup the Blues do.

"You know what, we'll look at the tape tomorrow," DeBoer said Sunday night, after being asked about potential Game 2 adjustments. "We'll take a look. I don't have anything off the top of my head.

"We've got to score. Got to score more than one goal. Got to find a way. Whether bury the chances we had, find a way to create a couple more. Obviously get a power-play goal.

"This time of year, you're not going to win games with one goal. I think the goals were there tonight, and we just didn't stick them in."

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