Don’t be surprised if the Western Conference finals turns into a chess match as the Sharks-Blues series moves to St. Louis for Game 3.
Matchups could go a long way in determining who grabs the upper hand Wednesday after the Blues cleaned up the recklessly physical play on display in the Game 1 loss to beat San Jose in Game 2 with a more structured, smothering style.
Having surrendered home ice with a third straight Game 2 loss following three-goal wins in each series opener, the Sharks are hoping that the coincidental nature of their postseason leads to another series win and a trip to their second Stanley Cup Finals in four seasons.
“This isn’t going to be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said. “We’re feeling each other out through two games. We’ve got to go into St. Louis, win a game and get back to home ice.”
San Jose’s second line — center Tomas Hertl with wingers Evander Kane and Joe Pavelski — has been neutralized by St. Louis’ two-way center Ryan O’Reilly and linemates Sammy Blais and David Perron.
“They’re big, they’re strong on the puck and they skate,” said Hertl, who has been held scoreless in three of his past four playoff games. “We have to chip it in and be a little bit stronger.”
That assumes St. Louis head coach Craig Berube opts to favor that matchup. However, he might decide with the last change advantage at home to pit O’Reilly’s line against San Jose’s top group of Logan Couture, Timo Meier and Gus Nyquist, which was effective in the first two games of the series. Hertl’s group might see more of St. Louis’ top offensive threats — Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, centered by Brayden Schenn.
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Couture collected his fourth multigoal game Monday — the ninth of his career — to pull one shy of Pavelski’s franchise record of 14 goals for a postseason. Meier has two goals and six points and Nyquist — despite not having a goal in his past eight games — has 10 points, one of five Sharks with double-digit points in the playoffs.
“Going home, and we haven’t seen our best game yet, it’s an opportunity to establish that and really take momentum in this series,” O’Reilly said.
And, because coaches favor what has worked in the most recent past, Berube might stick with the defensive pairings that finished after he jumbled personnel midway through Game 2. His two shutdown tandems now are Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn-Colton Parayko with a third pair of Joel Edmondson-Robert Bortuzzo.
What this means for the Sharks is the need to get production from a third line. There’s added pressure on linemates Joe Thornton, Marcus Sorensen and Kevin Labanc to produce at even strength.
“We’re fine. We’ve got a good group in here,” said Thornton, who has no goals and just one assist in his past eight games. “We’ve been resilient all year, so this isn’t going to deter us by any means.”
Sorensen, replaced on the line late in Game 2 by Joonas Donskoi, has just 14 shots on goal, is without a goal and has five assists in San Jose’s 16 playoff games. Labanc’s only point in his past eight is a Game 1 goal against the Blues.
“The video doesn’t lie, the guys know,” DeBoer said. “One thing about our group is they’re smart. Their self-analysis is very good. They know when they’ve played well.”
The Sharks could use a boost from their power play, assuming they work hard enough to earn a couple. San Jose is 1-for-6 in the series and 3-for-26 since converting four times late in Game 7 during that pivotal Vegas major penalty.
“We’ve got to get more shots to the net, get more traffic around the goalie and take away his eyes,” Labanc said. “A big thing is face-offs. We need to win it right away. If you’re losing it and they’re icing it, that’s like 20-30 seconds already gone from the clock, so it’s nice to start with the puck.”
The defense, which combined to produce eight goals and 42 points in the first 14 games, has no goals and three assists in the first two games against the Blues.
“I take comfort in … our character, our ability to bounce back and our ability to recognize what we’ve got to fix,” DeBoer said. “We’ve done that the entire playoffs.”
Ross McKeon is a freelance writer. Twitter: @rossmckeon