Fewer things in sports are less-intimidating than the teal-clad uniforms of the San Jose Sharks, or the cheesy, in-arena prop shark with cartoonish fangs, or the forced second syllable in the team name when the fans chant: “Let’s go Sha-arks.”
That being said . . . fewer things in sports are more intimidating than the actual San Jose Sharks.
Many folks would’ve been excited for St. Louis to surpass Colorado to reach the Blues’ first Stanley Cup finals since 1970. They’d get to knock off a Stan Kroenke-owned team. But the accomplishment of possibly defeating the Sharks would, or should, be more rewarding because the way San Jose plays is more apt of a comparison to an avalanche.
The Blues can do it, but the grind of this series that opens Saturday night will demand ascension on the power play, in neutral-zone play and, simply, overall play from the Blues’ biggest names. It’s not enough for Ryan O’Reilly to only make contributions with defensive play and not score. Vladimir Tarasenko must become a factor when the Sharks have five skaters on the ice. Brayden Schenn? Even Oskar Sundqvist? You get the point.
We’ll need to see peak relentlessness.
“We’re halfway there,” O’Reilly said, “and it’s not going to get any easier. . . . They’re going to come out hard and physical, and we need to match that — and go above and beyond that to make a statement.”
The Sharks are a fascinating group of grinders and goal scorers. They have three defensemen who could be many teams’ best defenseman. But the factor that is most worrisome for foes — and will require the Blues to bruise and neutralize — is the existence of Joseph James Pavelski of Plover, Wisc.
“He’s a great leader, he’s an unbelievable goal scorer and he works hard every night — he scores goals in the dirty areas,” said the Blues’ Patrick Maroon, himself a proud occupant of on-ice dirty areas. “He’s probably one of the best players in the league with tips, high tips, second and third opportunities. It’s going to be hard — we have to limit his time and space.”
In the summer of 2003, the same year the Blues drafted longtime captain David Backes, 204 young men were drafted before Pavelski. A seventh-round pick by San Jose, Pavelski ultimately became the captain. This season, at 34, he scored 38 goals, most on his team and second-most in his career. We talk a lot about the Blues playing fearless hockey — that’s the modus operandi of Pavelski.
“A heart-and-soul guy,” O’Reilly said. “We know he’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to have to be hard on him. . . . He’s one of those guys who does everything well. From the faceoff to scoring goals to being hard to play against, he’s a guy who brings all those elements. He’s one of the core guys. And you see the way he plays and guys kind of follow.”
O’Reilly surely will have shifts against Pavelski. O’Reilly is one of those players who’s so good offensively, it’s conspicuous when he’s not scoring— but he’s also one of those players who’s so good defensively, sometimes his impact goes unappreciated . . . or at least under-appreciated, in the nonstop action of a playoff game.
At his locker on Thursday, before the team flew to California, O’Reilly opened up a bit. He admitted what many of us had seen — a lack of offensive oomph in the first part of the Dallas series. He finished the seven games with five assists but no goals.
He says he feels “great,” though in the postseason a guy could lose a tooth and finger and say he’s impervious to pain. And O’Reilly knows that he needs to make things as difficult for the Sharks on the offensive end as he does for opponents on the defensive end. It’s a tall task against the Sharks. And a task he’s never had before — playing in the conference finals.
“It’s a really tough challenge that I think we have the group that can do it,” O’Reilly said. “And we have to prove it.”
The fun aspect of this series is that one city without a Cup will get a chance to have its boys play for one.
While the Sharks didn’t join the National Hockey League until the early 1990s, it’s been enough decades for parents to pass down the passion. It’s a hungry fan base. And a Cup-deserving fan base. And, frankly, the Sharks are worthy of winning a Cup, on paper anyway. On-ice, they will first have to gobble up the Blues. And just like St. Louis, the Sharks have four lines of depth, standout defensemen and a hot goaltender. The series should go six or seven games.
But the thing St. Louis has going for it is this: the team hasn’t seen its best from all its best players. Unsung heroes have helped get the Blues to where they are. To think, if that can be supplemented by expected brilliance from Tarasenko, Schenn or O’Reilly?
The Sharks are intimidating.
But the Blues, after all they’ve been through, find intimidation as motivation.