St. Louis Blues (US Presswire)
By Kevin Allen, USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports' Kevin Allen sizes up the first round of the NHL Western Conference playoffs.
No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 7 San Jose Sharks
Story line:Ken Hitchcock deserves strong consideration for coach of the year for the job he did in transforming the Blues into a contender. They are facing an old Stanley Cup contender that has yet to complete its championship quest.
Season series: The Blues swept the Sharks, shutting them out twice.
Goalie matchup: St. Louis' Jaroslav Halak (26-12-7, 1.97, .926) or Brian Elliott (23-10-4, 1.56, .940) vs. San Jose's Antti Niemi (34-22-9, 2.42, .915). The Blues are comfortable with a goalie rotation, but Elliott is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Halak had an impressive playoff run with the Montreal Canadiens in 2010. Niemi helped Chicago win a Stanley Cup that year.
X factor: St. Louis defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk combined for 380 shots on goal. They are major contributors to the team's offense.
Why the Blues should be favored
1. They are relentless, especially at home, where they are 30-6-5.
2. The Blues' two top scorers had 54 points, and yet they get scoring up and down their lineup.
3. David Backes is a bull and a strong defensive forward. You always feel his presence.
What the Sharks need to do to upset the Blues
Coax the Blues into penalties and hope to beat them on the power play. The Blues are a big, physical team, and they will wear you down. But the Sharks' Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, etc., have done a few laps in the postseason. They should be savvy enough to play their game despite the lack of room on the ice.
Prediction: The Blues will get their first playoff series win in a decade when they down the Sharks in six.