The San Jose Sharks are out.
The Sharks did their best to load up this year in order to get over the hump and capture that elusive Stanley Cup, but yet another Sharks playoff run has fallen short. This time, San Jose was dispatched by the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final, going down in six games.
Let's take a look at where things went awry for the Sharks.
This is as good a place as any to start for the Sharks, who were forced to finish their playoff run without Erik Karlsson, Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski in the lineup. All three of those guys were too banged up to play in Game 6, which is certainly not ideal considering all three are pivotal pieces.
It was clear that the Blues put an emphasis on bringing physicality to this series right from the jump, and it seemed like they were specifically targeting some of the Sharks' better players in order to wear them down. That strategy proved to be pretty effective, as St. Louis' heavy game really took a toll in this war of attrition.
Karlsson had been dealing with a lingering groin issue for months but had been playing well in these playoffs until the Blues continuously punished him with the body. By Game 4, it was obvious that Karlsson wasn't himself and looked uncomfortable out there. The Sharks are a much worse team when Karlsson isn't out there helping to facilitate the offense, and it showed over the final three games of the series. Losing a pair of two-way spark plugs in Hertl and Pavelski on top of Karlsson was salt in the wound.
A total team effort
The Sharks might be a bit sexier than the Blues up front in terms of star forwards, but the Blues had a more complete effort from their guys on the front end. They rolled four lines in this series and did so quite effectively, getting contributions from everywhere. And that's not just a figure of speech, either; The Blues literally got at least one point from every forward in the lineup during this series.
In fact, the Blues' fourth line of Oskar Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev and Alex Steen may have been their best one. Those guys accounted for five goals and consistently made positive things happen on the ice. They brought tremendous pressure on the puck and commanded possession as they forced turnovers and created chances the other way.
St. Louis got some big-time contributions from the guys at the front too (specifically Vladimir Tarasenko, who had a point in every game this series and is getting hot at the perfect time) but the work of their bottom-six to not take take the proverbial foot off the gas did wonders in shifting the balance in the Blues' favor.
As this series shifted back and forth through the first four games, the goaltending was pretty up-and-down on both sides. Both Martin Jones and Jordan Binnington looked really solid at points, and rather leaky at others.
But the difference lies here: Binnington had a nearly flawless finish to the series while Jones... well, he did not.
The final numbers paint a more drastic gap than you'd probably expect, but Jones ended the series with a save percentage of .869. That's probably not going to win you too many playoff series. Binnington, meanwhile, finished with a .912 mark, but he stopped 75 of 77 shots (.974) that came his way over the final three games of the series -- all wins for the Blues.
Of course, you have to give credit to the Blues' defense in front of Binnington as well. St. Louis was really, really good in their own end over the final three games and limited the opportunities in front of their keeper, forcing the Sharks' to the outside and limiting the pressure that the young goalie had to endure.
A revitalized Blues power play
The Blues' power play has been really hot and cold through these playoffs. They had a productive opening round against the Winnipeg Jets but then struggled against the Dallas Stars in round two. They opened up this series 0-for-6 through their first two games, stretching their drought to 0-for-18.
But St. Louis' man-advantage unit after got hot at the right time. The Blues scored at least one power play goal in the final four games of the series, going 5-for-15 during that stretch.
In Game 4, the eventual game-winner came off the stick of Tyler Bozak on the PP. In Game 6, the Blues squashed the Sharks' momentum with a Brayden Schenn power play goal. That was a massive score for the Blues, who never looked back and cruised to a closeout victory on home ice.
After, it seemed inevitable that things would go one of two ways: It would serve as the Blues' undoing and we'd be listing it as a reason the Sharks were heading to the SCF, or it would serve as a rallying point for Blues and light a fire under the team for the rest of the series.
Well, the Blues came out of the gate firing in Game 4, scoring just 35 seconds into the game to wash the taste of injustice out of their mouth. From that point it seemed like they might be okay, and they ultimately went 3-0 to close out the series after the hand pass incident.
Maybe it's just a coincidence that they became the much better team over those final three games, but maybe it wasn't. Maybe it provided the Blues with the anger and the chip on their shoulder that they needed to find another level. It's hard to argue with results.