Preview: One team is a newly energized juggernaut, made up of superb goaltending, fantastic defensive play, and strong forward depth. The other is a perennial playoff team who can’t seem to ever win the Cup, and has thus earned a reputation for choking in the playoffs. There’s a lot to get excited for in the Blues vs. Sharks series.

Team MVP:

Blues: Alex Pietrangelo – Both Blues goalies, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot, put up absolutely exceptional numbers, combining to win the NHL’s Jennings Trophy for lowest combined Goals Against Average, but fans can’t decide which is better so neither of them really deserves the MVP. Instead I’ll give it to Pietrangelo, who doesn’t have the Norris hype that other guys do, but is the player most responsible for turning the Blues into a powerhouse. Part of the reason both goalies have such great numbers is the great defense playing in front of them, and Pietrangelo’s defensive game is fantastic, especially considering he’s considered an offensive specialist. If it wasn’t for Erik Karlsson’s ridiculous season, Pietrangelo could be a serious contender for top defenseman.

Sharks: Joe Thornton – Jumbo Joe, at the ripe old age of 32, still feels like he’s been around the NHL forever. He’s won an MVP trophy back in 2006, and hasn’t had a bad statistical year. One thing has eluded him: the Stanley Cup, and being the face of the Sharks franchise has given him a “choker” label as well. Every year it seems the Sharks are a threat to go all the way, and every year they come up short. This is the first year in a while they come in as underdogs, a 7th seed, and Thornton will hope to lead his team far. If not now, when?

Most Wonderful Surprise:

Blues: Brian Elliott – Who is Brian Elliott? If you don’t follow hockey, you’ve likely never heard the name. Drafted by the Senators, he put up disappointing numbers (including a 3.19 GAA), before he was traded to the Avalache, who declined to pick up his option as a restricted free agent. Thought by many as a joke, a young kid who got his chance to start and did terribly, he signed with the Blues to backup Jaroslav Halak. And ended up posting a lead-leading .940 SV% and 1.56 GAA in 38 starts. If he kept those numbers up for more starts, there’s no doubt he’d be crowned best goaltender, but the Blues still consider Halak the starter. Still, it can’t be bad when your backup is putting up better numbers than everyone else’s starters.

Sharks: Logan Couture – Despite being the last player picked in the All-Star draft this year, Couture stepped up his game and is now an important cog in the Sharks offense. Even though fellow players Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski are also natural centers, Couture’s development forced both of them to take spots on the wing, to allow Couture to play his natural position behind Thornton. Once Thornton and Marleau do get too old to contribute, Couture will be there to inherit the offensive responsibilities of this franchise.

Biggest disappointment:

Blues: Chris Stewart – When St. Louis traded former 1st overall pick Erik Johnson to the Avalanche, many figured Chris Stewart, a young power forward, would be the most important piece coming back. Instead, it’s looking like defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was the bigger get, as Stewart hasn’t really clicked in St. Louis. Stewart managed the same number of points – 30 – in 79 games with the Blues this year that he did while playing 36 games for the Avalanche last season. I’d expect the Blues to look to move Stewart in the offseason, while his value is still high.

Sharks: Antti Niemi – He wasn’t that bad, but if you have to find a reason why the Sharks finished lower than they usually do, it’d be Niemi’s goaltending. Some nights he was on- fire, but other times he would put up stretches of bad games, as other teams jumped them in the rankings. Although Niemi won a Stanley Cup as the starting goaltender for the Blackhawks two years ago, Sharks fans still have to be uneasy that Niemi can do it again.

Wildcard:

Blues: David Backes – He hits hard and plays fantastic defensively. He’s tied for the point lead among Blues players. In the weeks leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, the American-born Backes targeted guys on the other team who were set to play for Team Canada. His game is perfectly suited for playoff hockey, and I expect Backes to be the all-around best forward for the Blues in this series.

Sharks: Brent Burns – Burns, for many years the #1 defenseman in Minnesota, had a good but not great season in his first year as a Shark. Both times he made the playoffs as a member of the Wild, they were eliminated in the first round. Now he’s hoping to go further with a much more talented group of forwards in front of him. Burns is getting paid to be a top defenseman, and he’ll need to step his game up and contribute on both sides of the ice for the Sharks to beat the Blues.

Injury Concerns:

Blues: Andy McDonald – When McDonald does play, he’s a near point-per-game center who makes the players around him better. But after returning from a concussion, a hit from Hurricanes forward Tuomo Ruutu knocked him out yet again, limiting him to 25 games on the entire season. There are some tough players on the Sharks, and McDonald will need to stay healthy as they’re aware of his injury history.

Sharks: Martin Havlat – In the offseason, the Sharks traded superstar winger Dany Heatley to the Wild (in a separate deal from the one that landed them Brent Burns) for Martin Havlat. Havlat looked alright… when he played. Unfortunately he spent the majority of
the season on injured reserve, but should be healthy come playoffs. At least Heatley also had a down year in Minnesota, so the Sharks aren’t kicking themselves over letting him go.

Prediction:

Blues in 6, the Sharks choke yet again and the Blues advantage in goal is the key factor.  Niemi is too inconsistent and the Blues goaltenders are anything but.