Under The Microscope: San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues (Part I: Neutral Zone Play)

There was no shortage of great storylines in this year’s Western Conference Finals. You had a couple of teams who had a reputation of putting together great regular seasons but not managing to much in the playoffs. The Sharks had never been to a Stanley Cup Final in their franchise’s existence before this year and the Blues were making their first Conference Final appearance since 2000. Getting over the “hump” was a big deal for these teams and it was exciting to see which one would take the next step.

For both teams, it seemed like this was their best shot at the Cup. San Jose rebounded after a tough season and quietly put together one of their strongest teams in years. They had also gotten by their division rivals, the Los Angeles Kings, in the first round and they were seen as one of their biggest threats in the conference. The Blues, on the other hand, had just gotten by two the best teams in the Western Conference in the Chicago Blackhawks & Dallas Stars. They had a tougher road than anyone else in the playoffs, so if they could get through that then they had to like their chances of advancing.

Of course, the Blues road wasn’t getting any easier with San Jose next in their path and to the naked eye, it looked like that had an effect. St. Louis had just played two seven-game series against two of the best teams in the league and ended up falling to the Sharks in six games, most of which they looked outmatched in. San Jose was going to be a tough out, but most seemed to think they found another gear this post-season and reached their peak in this series against the Blues.

What went into their six-game series win and what went wrong for the Blues?

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San Jose pounded St. Louis in the shot quantity department, outperforming them in almost every category, especially in ones that translate to more quality opportunities (chances, deflections, oddman rushes). It also translated to goals, as the Blues were outscored 14-6 at even strength and a strong showing on the power play was really the only thing that kept them afloat the entire series. Seeing the Blues get crushed at evens like this was a little unusual, as they’re normally a pretty good team possession-wise and they’re certainly better than what they showed this series. However, their biggest strength all year was shot suppression rather than shot generation. They ranked 8th in the NHL in preventing shot attempts and were one of the best teams in the league at preventing goals (largely thanks to being backed by solid goaltending).

In this series, that part stayed true. Every game was pretty low-event and neither team was giving each other much space. The Sharks also typically average more than 43 shot attempts, 20 shots on goal and 11 scoring chances per game, so St. Louis did a decent job at limiting their opportunities. The problem was they couldn’t generate any offense. The Blues spent pretty much all of the first three games trapped in their own end and trying to figure out a way to break through the Sharks defense. They eventually got to them in Game 4 but that was really the only success they had offensively.

You can argue that they were worn down from a long playoff run or just outmatched by the Sharks, but the Blues simply couldn’t create enough offense and that is the root of the problem.

5v5 Zone Entries     

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Speaking of the root of the problem, when it comes to shot generation, zone entries are usually the root of this and the Blues had some issues here. The Sharks forced them to dump the puck in on 58% of their entries and it had a direct impact on the number of shots they were creating. Like every team, the Blues were more successful at creating shots off carry-ins than dump-ins, so how they entered the zone had a big role in their struggle to create offense. Some might say that this fits into the Blues game, as they’re known for being a “dump-and-chase” team, but if you go back to the Chicago & Dallas series, they carried the puck in on the majority of their entries and were way more successful offensively. This was the opposite.

The Sharks, meanwhile, carried over what they did right in the Nashville series and built on it. San Jose isn’t as strong in the neutral zone as some other teams, but when they do get a chance to carry the puck in, they are lethal. They create more shots per carry-in than the average team and can really burn you when they get a chance off the rush or the counter attack. You can see it reflected in the goal total here, as San Jose took advantage of their great play in the neutral zone while St. Louis struggled to get much of anything going.

St. Louis Blues Entries

Forwards

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Defense                                 

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If you want to look at why the Blues had a hard time in the neutral zone, look at the performance of their forwards and the roles they were given.  The most troubling is the performance of Alex Steen, Troy Brouwer, Jori Lehtera & David Backes. All three of them were given top-six/nine minutes (minus the one game Backes got hurt) and none of them did well in the neutral zone. All of them were forced to dump the puck in on most of their entries or didn’t have many entries at all. Meanwhile, the players who were more effective at entering the zone like Stastny had a hard time getting the puck on their stick so it didn’t matter. You had some guys who did well here like Vladimir Tarasenko & Patrick Berglund but overall, it was a pretty underwhelming performance. When Kyle Brodziak has the third highest carry-in percentage on the team, something went wrong.

Something especially went wrong for Alex Steen, as every line he centered had trouble finding any space at all in the middle of the ice. This is because the Sharks played them so tightly and they weren’t sure how to respond to it for the first three games. The Sharks were all over them starting in the defensive zone and the Blues couldn’t get up the ice cleanly at all.

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Here we see the Blues starting one of their breakouts after winning a draw in the defensive zone. They are big proponents of moving the puck laterally or diagonally to get up the ice and this breakout is one of their favorites. You can tell pretty easily with what they’re trying to do here. Pietrangelo gets it to the right winger, who then sends it to Steen on the left wing, who should be able to skate the puck through center with support up the ice.

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Things are going as planned so far, as the Blues have moved the puck up the ice and Steen is ready to receive the pass. However, you can see that the Sharks defense hasn’t backed off and saw this play coming from a mile away.

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The defenseman, Braun, doesn’t give Steen any space and the Blues forward is left with no choice but to dump the puck in while the center, Steve Ott, goes for a change. San Jose stayed aggressive on the Blues all series long and Braun in particular was a huge nuisance for them. The Blues tried to enter the zone on his side of the ice 47 times and they only carried the puck in on 48.9% of those entries. More times than not, they had to settle for an entry like the one illustrated above when going up against him. This playing style spoiled some of the Blues break-outs, as well. The Sharks game plan was to basically not give the Blues any room up the ice and they weren’t too concerned with giving up odd-man rushes from being too aggressive. It worked because the Blues didn’t have much of a response until Game 4.

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The Blues are attempting another breakout and you can see the Sharks defense playing aggressive on them right from the start. Braun again, is right in the face of Jaden Schwartz and he is forced to make a decision with the puck quicker. He probably wants to get it to the weak-side forward for an easier breakout, but with three Sharks surrounding him, the job is going to be tough.

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Schwartz isn’t left with much choice and has to clear the puck to center while Braun and two other Sharks are still around him.

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The play is broken up and the Blues have to completely regroup now and it all started with a strong pinch by Braun, forcing St. Louis to keep the play on the wall and ruining their breakout. They faced a similar problem all series long, as the Sharks forecheck was too much for the Blues to handle.

Even when the Sharks were playing a more passive forecheck, the Blues had trouble getting into the zone because they had to get through a layer of defenders at the blue-line. Some of the Blues better players in the neutral zone ran into this surprise early on in the series and their original plan to get through it backfired.

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As you can see here, the Blues have some more room to work with on the breakout here. They’ve already gotten by one San Jose defender and have numbers in their favor going up the ice, for now at least. They also have one of their better puck-handlers doing the honors in Jaden Schwartz, so he should be able to create something out of this.

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As you probably guessed, The Blues have a wall of Sharks defenders to get through, as San Jose had Tomas Hertl step up in the neutral zone to create a road-block. The Blues try to get around this with pick play, as Schwartz is about to cross lanes with Vladimir Tarasenko, hopefully throwing off the Sharks defense enough to get in the zone cleanly.

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Hertl didn’t bite on the fake at all and Schwartz runs into a pool of defenders, turning the puck over and allowing the Sharks to setup a breakout the other way. San Jose was so prepared for just about everything the Blues were trying to do and had an answer for most of the adjustments they made. The players that Ken Hitchcock normally leans on (Steen, Brouwer & Backes) were ineffective and even the Blues more skilled players had a hard time getting through the Sharks defense because they knew what was coming. We just saw what Schwartz had to deal with and the Blues best forward, Tarasenko, had similar problems even when he could enter the zone.

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Tarasenko currently has the puck. The Sharks are sitting on a 3-0 lead in the third period and are making a line change, so this is a good chance for him to make something happen. He has space in the neutral zone and a teammate coming up the ice with him, which should help matters.

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This quickly dissolves, as the supporting forward tried to drive the middle land and the Sharks quickly converged on Tarasenko, creating a Bermuda Triangle around him.

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Being the skilled player he is, Tarasenko gets around this and enters the zone cleanly, but it’s a complete solo mission and he has nowhere to go with the puck. You can see Fabbri driving the center lane but Tarasenko isn’t going to get him the puck from there on his back-hand, so the only thing he can do is just drive down the right lane and hope something opens up. That didn’t happen and the play died here. If you go back to the chart, Tarasenko was the Blues best player at carrying the puck in and he did it at an elite rate. He was doing his best to get something going, but the Sharks did a great job of defending in layers and making his job as difficult as possible.

The defense also could have been more involved. The Bouwmeester/Pietrangelo pairing joined the rush when they were called upon but the rest of the defense simply slammed the puck into the zone for their entries. The Gunnarsson/Parayko pairing was especially guilty of this and Edmundson seemed to have more of a burden on his pairing than Shattenkirk, which is odd.

San Jose Sharks Zone Entries

Forwards

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Defense

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As was the case in the first two rounds, San Jose let their forward do most of the puck-handling in the neutral zone and they were pretty good at letting their best players do most of the work. The only exception here is Joel Ward, who dumped the puck in a lot on their third line. The top-six, however, carried the puck in at all and it’s a little interesting to see which players had the biggest workloads here.

Couture doing most of the work on the second line isn’t a surprise at all, but Hertl having most of the entries on the first line is pretty interesting. The system does work for them, though because Hertl carrying the puck in opens up some more space for Thornton & Pavelski, allowing the former to get the second touch of the puck after entering the zone and the latter to go to the slot or a shooting area. They all read off each other well and very few teams have figured out how to slow them down.

The same can be said for the second line of Couture, Donskoi & Marleau, who had another great series and took their play to another level in Games 5 & 6. Couture was easily the one driving the bus on this line but all three posted great numbers in the neutral zone, carrying the puck in at a high rate on most of their entries and turning those into offense once they got the puck in, something the Blues struggled with. What makes this line so great is that they are all quick, highly skilled players who can make certain plays that others can’t and they’ve been together long enough to know each other’s tendencies and how to support each other in all three zones.  This rush in Game 5 is a great example.

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Here you can see Donskoi movingthe puck up the ice with Couture trailing the play. The Blues have numbers back, so Donskoi having support will probably determine whether this turns into a successful entry or a turnover.

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Donskoi skates right into Patrick Berglund and it looks like this play is dead in the water right here. However, Couture stayed with the play on the strong side and is ready to scoop up the loose puck to keep things going.

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Couture doesn’t get the puck, but Donskoi is able to keep the play alive just a little bit. Berglund forces him to his back-hand, so him keeping the play going will require him to make a pretty tough pass. Thankfully for him, Couture is right there so it’s a lot easier than it would have been otherwise.

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Donskoi makes the pass to Couture and he is able to get an easy entry. The Blues defensemen had already backed off because the forwards were being so aggressive in the neutral zone that they needed a safety valve back just in case things broke down. This is what happened and Couture got a free pass into the zone with Donskoi trailing the play and Marleau driving the center lane.

Couture carries the puck all the way down to the boards and finds Donskoi open in the high slot to setup the chance. This happened because the Blues defense backed off and Donskoi had a step on Berglund in the neutral zone, allowing a seam to open up. You also notice that Marleau drove two players (Backes & Parayko) to the net which only created more space for Couture & Donskoi to work with.

Donskoi kind of came out of nowhere this year for the Sharks, but his chemistry with Couture made him invaluable this post-season.  Donskoi is skilled enough to take advantage of the opportunities Couture makes happen and return the favor the other way like he did earlier in this play. It makes the Sharks top-six incredibly hard to matchup against for any team.

The only downside to the Sharks neutral zone play was that their third & fourth lines didn’t do much. There were a couple of players like Chris Tierney who were better than average, but for the most part, the bottom-six played a dump-and-chase game which is probably what they’re instructed to do. The defense, however, was more active here and helped make up for it in a way. Dillon, Vlasic & Burns were all very aggressive and provided a passing option for some of their less-skilled forwards in the neutral zone.

So, overall the Sharks had a pretty big advantage from the get-go with their play in the neutral zone. Next we’re going to take a look at both team’s offensive zone play & who their best passers were.

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One thought on “Under The Microscope: San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues (Part I: Neutral Zone Play)

  1. Pingback: Under The Microscope: San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues (Part II: Offensive Zone Play) | The Energy Line

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