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.

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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.

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Under The Microscope: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (Part I: Neutral Zone Play)

The Pittsburgh Penguins surge towards the Stanley Cup Final was impressive to watch. They were one of the best teams in the NHL during the regular season (and arguably the best since the calendar turned 2016) and they didn’t slow down once they hit the playoffs either. They made quick work of the New York Rangers in the first round and made it past the Washington Capitals in a tight, six-game series which looked like their biggest hurdle at the time. Washington was the top-seeded team in the East and a favorite to win the Cup, so the rest of the Conference looked like a favorable matchup for Pittsburgh.

In come the Tampa Bay Lightning, last year’s Eastern Conference Champs and the team that gave Pittsburgh their biggest scare of the playoffs. Pittsburgh eventually took this series in seven games but it took rallying back from a 3-2 deficit, winning two games while facing elimination. Tampa Bay was sort of the “forgotten” team in the East after how intense the Washington-Pittsburgh series was but they were going to be a tough out regardless. After all, they breezed through the first two rounds with an injury-plagued roster in a total of ten games and were getting healthier as they got deeper in the playoffs, getting defenseman Anton Stralman back this round. They were also not too far off from Pittsburgh in terms of controlling territorial play at even strength, so this was a very intriguing matchup on paper.

Things took a few turns as expected. Tampa Bay lost their starting goaltender Ben Bishop in Game 1 and Andrei Vasilevskiy had to carry them through most of the series. The young goaltender played well, stealing a couple of wins for the Bolts in Pittsburgh and nearly leading his team to another Cup Final appearance. The Penguins ended up taking it with a 2-1 win on home ice in Game 7 and you could hear the city of Pittsburgh let out a huge sigh of relief from around the world.

Out of all of the obstacles the Pens faced this post-season, Tampa Bay seemed to give them the most trouble. It was the only time all playoffs they faced elimination and the Lightning were the only team that took advantage of Pittsburgh’s high-risk playing style, scoring a few goals on the counter-attack and getting strong goaltending from Vasilevskiy. They came short of pulling it off, but this was as close as any team came to knocking off Pittsburgh.

Let’s take a closer look at how exactly this series got to seven games and how close Tampa Bay was from pulling off the upset.

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Under The Microscope: New York Islanders vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The second round has brought us some of the most entertaining games of the playoffs. Every series has featured two teams that were pretty evenly matched on paper and whoever got the most bounces usually had the edge. You expect this as you get further into the playoffs, as the field starts to even out as the better teams advance and the weaker ones go home. The Eastern Conference matchup between the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning, however, differs from this trend.

This was a quick, five-game series and didn’t differ from most people’s predictions as the Lightning made short work of the Islanders. Tampa Bay went into this series as heavy favorites, having just beaten the Detroit Red Wings in five-games and being the stronger possession team at even strength all season. The Islanders pulled off a bit of an upset over the Florida Panthers in six games, largely thanks to goaltender Thomas Greiss having an unreal performance, but most didn’t give them a chance in this series. Even with Tampa Bay’s injury problems, most had them getting through this series.

The Islanders proved some critics wrong in Game 1, defeating Tampa Bay 5-3 on the road and outplaying them for the most part. Tampa responded by winning the next four, two of them coming in overtime, and looking like the even strength powerhouse they were all year. If you remember, Ben Bishop played a big role in them beating the Red Wings, so this series was a bit of a return to form for them and after the jump, we’ll look at what they did to get past the Islanders.

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Under The Microscope: San Jose Sharks vs. Nashville Predators

Next up in our look back at the playoffs is the second round series between the Nashville Predators and the San Jose Sharks. Out of all the matchups, this is the one I was looking forward to tracking the most.  Both teams are among my favorites in the league to watch and their seven-game playoff series didn’t disappoint one bit. This series went back-and-forth and home ice seemed to dictate who had the advantage, with San Jose ultimately coming out on top in a 5-0 blowout in Game 7.

Going into the series, I thought both teams were good enough to win their conference. San Jose had a great season and just made quick work of the Los Angeles Kings while Nashville just knocked off the top-seeded Anaheim Duck in seven games. Nashville might have been a Wild Card team, but they quietly had a very good season and were a top-three team in controlling territorial play. A sub-par season from Pekka Rinne was a big reason why they ended up lower in the standings than they should have been and they matched up pretty well with San Jose from a stats point of view, ranking two spots above them in Score Adjusted Fenwick.

On the surface, this series was pretty uneven in the sense that it kept going back-and-forth and the advantage seemed to shift to whoever had home ice. San Jose appeared to have the upper-hand the entire way, though. After all, they never fell behind in this series, led the Preds in every game and it took Nashville a couple of overtime wins to tie the series and force a Game 7. Still, Nashville gave them quite a scare and they were one game away from pulling off another huge upset. What made this a tight series and what led to the Sharks coming out on top?

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Under the Microscope: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

We kick off the second round of our look back at the playoffs by diving into the exciting six-game series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. This matchup had the hype to be a Conference Final, with both teams being popular picks to win it all and the quality of play didn’t disappoint, at least from an entertainment perspective. All but one game was decided by one goal with Pittsburgh winning two games in overtime, including the series-clincher in Game 6.

It’s hard to say how this series went relative to expectations because opinions on it were pretty split. Washington ran away with the Presidents Trophy during the regular season, but the Penguins were the hottest team in the NHL heading into the playoffs and made quick work of the New York Rangers in the first round. Pittsburgh also posted better territorial numbers than Washington during the regular season, ranking fourth in the NHL in Score Adjusted Fenwick, so it’s easy to see why some people leaned towards Pittsburgh this series. Those people ended up making the right choice, as the Penguins took this series in six games and appeared to have control of this series, at least just going by the results.

Yes, the Pens had a 3-1 series lead but it didn’t come easy, as one of the wins came in overtime and another one came on the back of a 47-save performance by goaltender Matt Murray. It’s not too surprising because in a matchup like this, you’re going to need a couple of games like that to go your way and the Penguins are no different. After the jump, we’ll take a closer look at all the factors that went into their series win over the Caps.

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