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It's (blue) crunch time
Let the playoffs begin
4/7/04 - by Ken Smyth

You could say I'm crazy, and there are credentialed professionals who'd back you up on that statement, but I love reading quotes from some of the St. Louis Blues saying that the Sharks are the team they wanted to face in the first round. This means that the Sharks still have the NHL in the dark in spite of finishing second overall in the Western Conference. Can't anybody east of Denver except Don Cherry program a VCR to catch late games?

Credit the Blues (and the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche, for that matter) for being the worst kind of opponent in the playoffs: an underachiever. They scrambled into the playoffs after coach Joel Quenville was replaced with Mike Kitchen in February and you've got to wonder whether this was just a good team that fell on hard times, or a team really on the way down.

The Sharks are a young team and that usually means inexperienced. Traditional wisdom says that inexperienced teams usually get sent home after the first or second round. St. Louis fans are big on traditional wisdom. But of the top three lines/six defensemen on the Sharks there are only three players (Jonathan Cheechoo, Tom Preissing and Nils Ekman) who've never been to the playoffs before. Alyn McCauley was a surprise star for Toronto in the 2002 playoffs. Curtis Brown and Wayne Primeau both went all the way to the finals with Buffalo in 1999, and Primeau was with Pittsburgh in 2001 when the Penguins surprised their way to the Eastern Conference final series. Even late season pick-up Jason Marshall was in the playoff lineup for Minnesota last year and Anaheim before that.

Of the Sharks' young guns: Alex Korolyuk, Brad Stuart, Scott Hannan and Patrick Marleau are all back from the Sharks' team that lost to the Blues in a six game series of the first round in 2001. Now they're leaders instead of fill-ins and question marks. Also, unlike 2001, the Sharks are going in with everyone healthy except Marco Sturm.

The Blues seem to be still patting themselves on the back for that 2001 series win, but times are different. Gone from the Sharks are the three guys Blues' fans hated most: Owen Nolan. Bryan Marchment and coach Darryl Sutter, and gone from the blues are Pierre Turgeon and Roman Turek. Still there is the face Sharks fans just love to see squashed against the glass, it's on Chris Pronger. Scott Mellanby is also still with St. Louis, and any Sharks' defenseman on the left side had better check out that tape of him knocking Gary Suter out (literally) of game one and the series, because the Blues obviously intend to play rough.

Expect Blues defensemen and wingers to give a demonstration on the seventeen ways things you can do with a hockey stick without touching a puck or appearing in an adult film whenever the Ekman-McCauley-Korolyuk line is on the ice; not that the Sharks' aren't used to that stuff by now. Expect Chris Osgood to be an upgrade for them in goal over Turek in 2001. Also, expect Murray Baron and Eric Weinrich to be not quite an Al MacInnis, and expect Doug Weight to be what his name says.

That's the way they figure to win, and the Sharks will need to counter that with some physical play of their own. Obviously, the advantage of home ice and last change before a face-off is a big plus, but the Sharks will need to put their big defensemen (Mike Rathje and Kyle McLaren) in the face, preferably in the nose of Keith Tkachuk. It wouldn't be surprising to see Scott Parker back out on a fourth line if his knuckles have healed from pounding Garret Burnette. Parker, not your top scorer, is the guy you want baiting Chris Pronger; and getting Pronger out of the game mentally is always a good strategy.

Overall, I see it as a Sharks win in six games. For the Sharks it will be good series against a team that they respect but not one they're afraid of. For the Blues, it's their 25th consecutive trip to the playoffs, and it will be their 25th consecutive time they don't make it to the finals. If this was baseball, they'd call that a curse.

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