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Marc-Edouard Vlasic's defense puts Blues' offense in a pickle

ST. LOUIS – On a team full of flashy stars San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic is as simple as they come.

He doesn’t skate like Brent Burns. He can’t tip the puck like Joe Pavelski. He’s not an elite passer like Joe Thornton. The man’s nickname is "Pickles," which probably doesn’t strike fear into the opposition.

But all Vlasic has done this postseason is play elite-level defense matched up against every team’s high-end forward and shutting them down with savvy two-way positioning.

Over the course of the playoffs, Vlasic has allowed a combined one goal and one assist and a minus-18 to Los Angeles Kings leading goal scorer Tyler Toffoli, Nashville Predators leading goal scorer Filip Forsberg and St. Louis Blues leading goal scorer Vladimir Tarasenko over 17 games played.

Vlasic, who was picked in the second-round by the Sharks in the 2005 NHL Draft, isn’t quite seen in the same light as fellow core guys like Burns, Thornton, Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture. But he’s every bit as important as anyone who’s played for the organization in recent years.

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“It's not easy playing against their top players. My job is to try to shut down the best players on the other team. It's something I pride myself on,” Vlasic said. “Every night that's what I'm relied on to do. Most of the time other guys will get credit for scoring the big goals or making a big play. But that's the way I am, is to be steady and shut down the top players.”

Playing for the Quebec Remparts under Patrick Roy in the QMJHL Vlasic turned into a high scoring blue liner in his last year when he had 73 points in 66 games playing on a team that featured Alexander Radulov at his offensive best.

But in the NHL that wasn’t the way he needed to play in order to stay in the league. He needed to use his body positioning and hockey sense to make a name for himself at this level on the defensive side of the puck. And once he figured it out hockey people took notice.

He was Team Canada’s shutdown defender on the 2014 Sochi Olympic squad and was one of the first 16 players named to Canada’s World Cup team this year – beating the likes of Burns and 2013 Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. People who know Vlasic get his game and know he plays the type of hockey that wins. This past season he set a career-high in points with 39, but scoring is just a bonus for him.

“Efficient player, knows his duty, can play matchup, and is an Olympian. This playoff run has shown his value,” a veteran NHL executive told Puck Daddy. “You need guys who can play big minutes while making few mistakes on defense.”

And he’s played this style of hockey at the relatively cheap salary cap hit of $4.25 million through the 2017-18 season.

“Pickles, he doesn't get a lot of credit. Sometimes when you don't say a lot about a guy, it just means he's doing his job very well,” Sharks defenseman Paul Martin said. “That's kind of what I notice about him.  He always seems to be in the right position and have the stick on puck. He's so good at coming out of his own end.

In San Jose’s Game 5 win over the Blues Vlasic played 24:49 to Burns’ 24:07 and Vlasic was arguably the team’s top defenseman, scoring a goal and adding an assist while limiting Tarasenko to one shot on goal.

Vlasic has seemed more determined to stop Tarasenko than Tarasenko has looked to score a goal. This is a fact the Blues have found troubling.

“The guy he’s playing against (Vlasic), did the same thing to (Los Angeles King Tyler) Toffoli and did the same thing to (Nashville Predator Filip) Forsberg. You can’t look for home runs. They’re not there. You’ve just got to stay in program, stay with a little bit longer, and trust your work,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “They feel that anxiety to try and score and help the team. He’s looking to try to catch fast breaks, he’s looking to try catch the other team napping. But when you play against guys like Vlasic, you’re not going to catch them napping.”

All the Sharks need is one more shutdown game by Vlasic on Tarasenko and they’ll have a good chance to make it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in team history. The narrative has been so heavily shifted towards Tarasenko’s troubles that there’s a belief he’ll finally bust loose in Game 6. Or Vlasic will again do his job and do it well.

“You know what, these guys are experienced guys,” said Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. “They've had all kinds of experiences over the years here, despite not getting to a Stanley Cup. They know. They know to stay in the moment. They're a battle-hardened group. They understand that.”

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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