The next stop on the longest road trip of the 2013 San Jose Sharks season is at 5:00 p.m. PST Tuesday, February 19 against their biggest Western Conference nemesis. The St. Louis Blues are getting healthy, not only winning three straight but seeing Jaroslav Halak return and expected to start no later than Wednesday.
Last season the Sharks lost eight of nine to Ken Hitchcock's bunch—including a 4-1 first-round loss in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs—while scoring a total of 11 goals. That is not exactly what a team wants to see when they have scored just eight goals (two on the power play) while losing all seven games in February.
But then these are not last year's Blues, ranking in the bottom third of the NHL with a 3.13 goals-against average (GAA). Thus far, their defense has only been in the middle of the pack in hitting and blocked shots. They are allowing an NHL-low 23.2 shots per game, but they have struggled in their own end, especially on the penalty kill (75.4 percent is tied for 23rd).
Most of the problem has been in net. A strength of the 2011-12 Blues, Halak started out giving up a goal for every nine shots faced but winning because of the suffocating Hitchcock defense in front of him. But he suffered a groin injury February 1, and Brian Elliott (the starter for almost the entire 2012 playoffs) has managed to go just 3-5-1 thanks to a 3.57 GAA and .849 save percentage.
Either way, the Sharks are not facing a goalie that has been playing well this month. The same cannot be said for the Blues, who will almost certainly be facing Antti Niemi.
Outside of the two games in which his defense hung him out to dry against his former team, the NHL-leading Chicago Blackhawks, he has allowed three or fewer goals with a save percentage of at least .897 in his other nine starts. In five starts, he has allowed fewer than two goals while turning away more than 95 percent of shots faced.
He is the main reason San Jose ranks in the top 20 percent of the NHL with both a 2.21 GAA and 86.4 percent penalty kill. But the team in front of him is also in the top 10 in both total blocks (214) and blocks per game (15.3).
That defense will be tested by a team that has ridden the top power play in the NHL (a whopping 33.6 percent) to a 3.33 goals scored average (GSA) that ranks behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have the deep attack the Sharks lack with just five forwards scoring more than one goal through 14 games.
Neither team has been doing well in puck possession. San Jose has garnered 58 extra possessions because they are second-ranked (53.5 percent) on the draw, but have 61 more giveaways than takeaways. St. Louis is around the bottom third of the league in the circle in both margin (16 more lost than won) and percentage (49.1), but has 10 more takeaways than giveaways.
Thanks to a three-game St. Louis winning streak, only San Jose needs this game to stay in the Stanley Cup playoff picture in the Western Conference. The Sharks have struggled enough on both this trip and in recent battles between these teams to know how hard it will be.
Given the special teams numbers, their best chance is to get more power play chances than their hosts. The way the San Jose power play is working and the likelihood St. Louis will start getting better play in net indicates that still may not be enough.