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

Continuing with our look at the Western Conference Finals, we’re now going to dive into the offensive zone play of both teams by diving into the passing data we introduced in the Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh series. If you remember from the last post, San Jose owned the Blues in most of the shot categories this series and most of it stemmed from their play in the neutral zone, especially on the defensive side. St. Louis wasn’t moving the puck up the ice efficiently, had to dump the puck in on most of their entries and ended up getting hammered on the shot counter as a result. This was the root of their problem when it came to manufacturing offense it seemed to get worse when you go beyond that as the Sharks drastically outshot them on entries.

The Blues inability to create shots played a major role in this series but the Sharks own play in the offensive zone is also worth talking about. One thing that’s stayed consistent throughout the playoffs is the Sharks massively outshooting their opponents off carry-ins. They haven’t been the strongest team in the neutral zone when it comes to the ability to generate carry-ins, but when they get the chance to do so, they typically generate a massive number of shots. It was a big reason why they advanced past Nashville in the Divisional Round and they continued their strong play against the Blues.

There are a lot of questions regarding the repeatability of offensive zone play, but it’s something that has always been a big factor for the Sharks. When they were coached by Todd McLellan, San Jose was always one of the best teams in the league at generating shots and owning the possession battle and they’ve done this while playing a heavy dump-and-chase game in the neutral zone. Going off what wev’e seen in the playoffs, this continued under Pete DeBoer and they’ve found some success with it, especially in this series.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at what makes San Jose such a dangerous team and what they did to have success against the Blues. We’ll also look at a few things that went wrong for St. Louis and what the Sharks did to frustrate them.

First off, let’s revisit the shot stats since that’s the base of our analysis.

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Again, the Sharks had the advantage in just about every shot category. The Blues might have limited them to fewer opportunities than they were used to, but they were still far behind the Sharks in every shot generation statistic except for rebounds, which were a minor factor. St. Louis also had some modest success with moving the puck around in the offensive zone to get shots off one-timers, but San Jose made up for that by creating tip-chances and still pummeled the Blues overall.

The passing category is pretty interesting because, like the last series, over 70% of the team’s shots came after at least one pass and the Blues actually had a small percentage of their shots come from these plays. They also had a very slight edge in one-timers, which is kind of surprising given the Sharks had way more shots that came off multiple passes. This is where looking at the types of passes can be helpful. The Blues might have been moving the puck around and getting one-timers, but if they were all from the point or blocked it doesn’t make much of a difference. Same goes for the shots off passes, if they’re all going back to the point, they’re going to have a smaller chance of turning into goals.

Using Ryan Stimson’s method of tracking shots & passing plays, we can take a closer look at how both teams were creating their offense. More info on that is available here and Ryan did a great job of applying these stats to game-situations here. I also used them to break down the Pittsburgh-Tampa Bay series and found that Pittsburgh created more of their shots from plays behind the net and of faceoffs while Tampa Bay crated their chances from the boards or the point. What do they say about the Sharks and the Blues?

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Surprisingly, the Blues had a higher percentage of their passes come from the home plate area than the Sharks. San Jose still outshot them here from their strong neutral zone play and sustaining more offensive zone time, but the Blues had some chances when they could move the puck around. Most of this came in the last three games, as the Sharks were in lockdown mode at even strength early in the series. Their offense was still lacking in terms of shot volume, though and their attack was a little predictable when you look at where their passes came from.
A majority of their primary shot assists came from the right side of the ice, which makes sense with the roster makeup. Their most creative defensemen (Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko & Kevin Shattenkirk) all play on that side of the ice and play a big role both in setting up plays and finishing them off. Vladimir Tarasenko also played on the right wing for most of the series and seeing how he was their leading shooter, it’s not surprising to see the Blues lean towards this side of the ice more. St. Louis also tried to use the stretch pass to boost their offense, using their strong defense corps to their advantage.
The Sharks offense was a little more balanced in terms of which side of the ice they were attacking and they had certain plays they always seemed to go back to. As Ryan pointed out in the post I linked to earlier, the Sharks attack from behind the net more often than most teams and that stayed consistent with what happened this series. They nearly doubled up the Blues in passing plays that started from this area and were very effective in at shutting these types of plays down in the defensive zone. This had a huge impact on the number of chances the Sharks were giving up, as 12 of the Blues 17 passes from behind the net went into the slot compared to only 9 of the Sharks’ 32 passes. The Sharks got burned by these types of plays, but they weren’t allowing them to happen that often.
The “low-to-high” play was also popular for the Sharks and this isn’t too much of a shocker. With how often they operate from behind the net, they’re often forced to work the puck back to the point when the slot isn’t open. Ryan talked about this in his article and I also looked at it in my review of their series against the Predators. The Sharks have a strong group of defensemen who love to shoot the puck (Brent Burns especially) and more times than not, they have a forward in the high slot looking for a deflection. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s a big part of their game and a tough thing for goaltenders to deal with when it works.
Both teams utilized their points, as the “low-to-high” play was used more often than any other passing sequence I tracked and it was where most of both team’s one-timers came from.

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The spread of one-timer types was relatively even for both teams, but the Sharks had an advantage in generating them from the slot compared to the Blues. They also had a higher percentage of their one-timers make it on goal, which is probably fluky, but it had an impact in this series regardless.

Blues Offensive Zone Play

Forwards

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Passes

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Defense

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Passes

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Very uneven series for the Blues as some of their big minute layers did well in Berglund, Lehtera and Tarasenko while Backes, Steen and Brouwer struggled to create much of anything. Stastny & Fabbri were also very effective as passers, creating most of the Blues offense in the dangerous areas of the ice. What’s interesting about their numbers is that while they were the ones getting the puck to the slot, they probably could have done a lot more and most of it was due to their linemates. Stastny was great as a play-maker but most of his passes went to defenseman Colton Parayko while Fabbri didn’t start to take off until he was reunited with Lehtera and Tarasenko in Game 4. Berglund also has to carry whichever line he was on, spending most of his time with Steen and Brouwer, all of whom struggled to create much of anything when they had the puck.

The play of Tarasenko was also frustrating to watch, as he was able to create a lot of shots but was a little one-dimensional because he was on an island whenever he had the puck. The Sharks made it a point in shutting him down and they did it by defending in layers and forcing Tarasenko to beat them by himself. Something he’s probably capable of doing against weaker defense’s, but the Sharks took away most of his passing options and made it difficult for him to find much space at all. I showed an example of this in the neutral zone in my last post, and here’s a look at what they did against him in the offensive zone.

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The Blues are working a cycle along the boards in hopes of creating an opening in the Sharks defense. Right now, San Jose has a pretty good hold on them and there isn’t much space to work with. Jaden Schwartz currently has the puck and Tarasenko is right behind him, currently covered by Joe Pavelski.

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Schwartz goes down the boards, exchanging the puck to Tarasenko and forcing the Sharks defenseman, Roman Polak, to follow him. This is San Jose’s third defense pairing against the Blues most skilled line, so they should be able to wear them down if they keep them in their own zone long enough. There’s a potential opening here with Pavelski going to the point while Dillon & Polak work out who should cover Tarasenko.

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Tarasenko gets the puck, but is pinned along the boards by Brenden Dillon. The play isn’t quite over yet because although the Sharks have number, Tarasenko is a better skater than either Sharks defenseman and might be able to create something out of a nothing play.

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Tarasenko continues to work the cycle, going back out the point in hopes of losing Dillon and confusing the Sharks defense. They don’t bite, as Dillon stays with him and Tomas Hertl covers Shattenkirk on the boards. Tarasenko still has to get through a layer of Sharks defensemen to make anything happen because the point option is gone and the only pass available is to Steen, on his backhand.

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The play gets drawn out even more as Tarasenko goes for a skate but he still can’t lose Dillon, who stays disciplined and doesn’t lose his man through all of this. Tarasenko have a whole lot of options except to create something on his own.

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This is what he does, as the Blues forward finally makes a move to get by Dillon and possible get a shot on goal from the high slot. Except there is one problem: Polak backed up Dillon the entire time and is right in Tarasenko’s shooting lane, so this opportunity ends up being pretty harmless.

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Polak gets a stick on the shot and it goes out of play. This is what Tarasenko had to deal with for basically all series. The Sharks defended in layers and had a back-up plan just in-case things went awry. Here, they forced Tarasenko to the outside and made him get through as many players as possible to get as shot off. Anyone he passed to would have likely had the same fate, as they all followed him to the point and Schwartz opted to screen the goalie, making things even easier for Sharks to contain the guy with the puck. Nearly all of the Blues top shooters ran into this problem, not being able to make much of anything happen unless they were being setup with a pass. Steen & Brouwer seemed to especially struggle here as they both were quiet this series. Backes had some modest success thanks to Berglund having a good series but as a whole, the Blues offense seemed frustrated and disjointed.

Take the play of their defensemen, everyone but Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk had issues with making plays. They created shots, but they weren’t as effective as passers as they usually are, especially compared to the Dallas series. Pietrangelo in particular seemed to lack some of the creativity he usually has, even if he was one of their defense’s more effective playmakers. This was apparent when they had chances to make something happen off the rush.

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The Blues have a clean entry into the zone with Berglund making a short pass to Tarasenko. It’s a two-on-two rush with the Sharks having numbers in their favor going the other way and the Blues having a forward driving the left wing.

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Because of the strong gap by the Sharks defenseman (Martin), Pietrangelo tries to make a cross-ice pass to the forward on the left wing. Not a bad idea.

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..Except that the pass is a grenade and completely misses the left winger and the ricochet goes right to the back-checking San Jose forward and they have a chance to clear the puck out of the zone.

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The play isn’t completely dead, as Tarasenko gets to the clearing attempt and quickly fires a shot at the goal with a screen in front.

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It misses the target and goes all the way around the net to Pietrangelo, who tries to make another quick pass, this time to Patrick Berglund in front of the net. It’s not a bad idea, but a low-percentage play from that angle with a San Jose defender right in front of him.

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The pass ends up missing Berglund completely and a few seconds later, the Sharks eventually win the puck and start a breakout the other way. They had another defenseman pinch to keep the play alive, but it was all for naught as this rush by the Blues ended up not resulting in much of anything. Most of them ended up looking similar to this and it’s not hard to see why they had so much trouble manufacting offense.

San Jose Sharks Offensive Zone Play

Forwards

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Passes

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Defense

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Passes

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First, let’s just marvel at how Brent Burns is on another planet when it comes to shot generation. If you want to know why the Sharks use the “low-to-high” play so much, just look at where he stands on the defensemen graph. The rest of their defense also shot the puck a decent amount (especially the Braun & Vlasic pair), Burns was just ridiculous.

Secondly, Joe Thornton is on a similar level when it comes to passing and he was pretty balanced with who and where he passed to, not favoring one side of the ice or one linemate in particular. You can see that both Hertl & Pavelski benefitted from Thornton’s setups and that his shot assists came from all over the offensive zone. Also of note here is that his linemates did their job in returning the favor, as both Hertl & Pavelski posted very good shot assists numbers and the former was very effective at setting up plays in the slot.

In the zone entry post, I mentioned Hertl’s value as a puck-handler in the neutral zone and it’s easy to see here, too as the young forward was one of the Sharks best players at setting up plays behind the net. This is a base of the Sharks attack and the Blues seemed a little shell-shocked by some of the plays he was able to make. Hertl is no Joe Thornton, but he’s versatile and adds a little of everything to the Sharks top line.

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Here we see Hertl screening the goalie while Justin Braun attempts a shot from the boards after entering the zone. Pretty simple play with a low-chance of scoring, but it’s more of a “dump-in” for the Sharks, as Hertl gets an easy retrieval and can set something up without having to contest for the puck in the corner.

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Braun eventually gets the puck to Hertl and he goes to his spot behind the net while Pavelski works for position in the slot. The Blues seem to react to this well and Hertl doesn’t have much of a pass to make.

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Everything changes as Hertl makes a move to his right, drawing Bouwmeester behind the net and two Blues players to their left. It makes the pass slightly more difficult if he hesitates, but Pavelski is basically wide open in the slot now and has a golden opportunity to score if the play connects.

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This is exactly what happens and while Brian Elliott managed to stop this, it was a pretty great scoring chance for the Sharks and not something you want to happen if you’re St. Louis. The quick deception play by Hertl was pretty creative and the pass he made is something not many players can do, so the Blues kind of got burned by something not many teams can pull off. Still, have to give credit to the Sharks for taking advantage of a team trying to play aggressive against them.

The first line of the Sharks excelling at these plays isn’t a surprise. After all, they have arguably the best passer in the league centering it, one of the best goal-scorers in the league on one wing and a very talented young forward on the other wing. What is a little more surprising is that no one on this line led the team in shot assists that crossed the home-plate area. That was actually Logan Couture, who posted strong numbers in both shooting and passing categories for the third series in a row.  In fact, when you compare his numbers to Donskoi & Marleau, he pretty much carried this line when it came to creating offense.

Not to take anything away from those two, as they both did some bullwork in the neutral zone and Donskoi has some excellent chemistry with Couture. However, Marleau played more of a role away from the puck in this series and half of Donskoi’s shot assists went to Couture, so it’s easy to tell who was driving the bus here. I mentioned in the last post that part of what makes Donskoi & Couture a great duo is how well they read off each other and how Donskoi is skilled enough to take advantage of the opportunities Couture creates. The Blues found this out the hard way late in the series and the two were nearly impossible to contain in Game 6.

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The Sharks are currently working a cycle with Couture & Pavelski playing a game of catch in the corner. The Blues are trying to sort these out as one defenseman, Edmundson, is occupied by Marleau in front of the net while his partner, Shattenkirk, chases the two San Jose forwards around with help from center Jori Lehtera. The two wingers are doing their jobs in covering the points, as they’re likely respecting the Sharks defense’s tendency to shoot the puck.

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Donskoi takes an exchange from Couture and draws Shattenkirk all the way to the slot before making a pass to Couture in the corner. Basically doing what he can to hopefully draw the Blues defenseman out of position as the Sharks have some surprises for them later in the sequence. It also gives Couture somewhat of a favorable situation, guarding the puck against a forward down low.

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Couture starts to skate to his left, possibly creating the impression that he’s attempting to create a play on the other side or try a wrap-around. Notice how Shattenkirk started to follow until remembering that he’s supposed to be covering Donskoi. He’s now scrambling to get back in position, as the Sharks have attacked from behind the net enough for the Blues to know what is coming and Couture is capable of making this pass on his back-hand.

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This is exactly what happens and Donskoi gets a great chance from close range with Marleau creating a screen in front and Edmundson also impeding the goaltender’s vision. Having top-end talent can allow you to run a different system than most teams and the Sharks being gifted with some incredibly talented passers allows them to create plays that are tough to defend like this. It was a little too much for the Blues to handle.

The one argument you can make against the Sharks is that they were a bit top-heavy, as there’s a drop off outside of the four standouts. It’s partially because they moved the puck back to their defense and had them take a shot if nothing else was available. Otherwise, they mostly just let their best players do the work. The third line had some minor standouts, though with Chris Tierney being a solid passer and Joel Ward having decent shot numbers.

The Final Word

The Sharks best players led the way for them while the Blues looked overwhelmed and had underwhelming performances from most of their top players. The Blues did their best to limit the Sharks and build on the advantage they had at special teams, but they struggled to create offense at evens and that put them in a huge hole, both on the shot counter and on the scoreboard. It’s what happens when you run into a team playing a strong system backed up with game-breaking talent. St. Louis shouldn’t feel too bad about the loss, as they ran into a strong Sharks team that was in top form and it was going to take a lot to get by them regardless.

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