For the San Jose Sharks, beating the Colorado Avalanche was one step towards removing themselves from the “crumble under pressure” reputation that has dogged them since the lockout. Beating the Detroit Red Wings would be a huge step in erasing that reputation altogether, as they host the two-time defending Western Conference Champs in Game 1 tonight. I don’t think a loss to the Wings would qualify as a “bad” series loss though, since the Wings’ boast one of the most experienced playoff rosters in the league, and have shown they now how to win when it counts. Their 6-1 trouncing of the Coyotes in Game 7 is a perfect example of that. Their big players showed up when they needed them most, and they got the goaltending they needed from Jimmy Howard. This will be a very different series from either of these teams’ first round matchups, as both teams are full of noted scorers, All-Star defensemen and strong veteran leadership.
Offense: The Big Three for San Jose were noticeably quiet against Colorado, as Thornton, Heatley and Marleau combined for just 1 goal and 10 points. The best offensive player for the Sharks so far has been Joe Pavelski, who led the team with 5 goals. His entire line was a big reason the Sharks were able to advance, as Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi both played huge roles in the Sharks’ wins. To beat Detroit, though, they’re gonna need more than 1 goal from Heatley-Thornton-Marleau. Henrik Zetterberg is tied for 2nd among playoff scorers so far with 11 points, and Pavel Datsyuk is catching fire with 4 goals and 6 points in his last 4 games. Franzen and Holmstrom are doing what they do best, banging bodies and wreaking havoc in front of the net, and Nabokov will certainly be seeing a lot more action than he did in Denver.
Defense: Dan Boyle more than made up for his Game 2 gaffe with some big goals down the stretch, and Rob Blake was solid against his former team. Douglas Murray had a good series, as well, recording a +4 and led all San Jose defensemen with 18 hits. The Wings have one of the best playoff bluelines in the business, though, with 40 year old Nick Lidstrom leading the way. The captain had 3 goals and 6 points in the series with Phoenix, while Brad Stuart led the Wings with a +6 rating. Stuart and Kronwall add a great touch of physicality to the Wings’ blueline, and Brian Rafalski is still one of the best puck-movers in the game.
Goaltending: Jimmy Howard continued to add to his impressive rookie resume with his first career playoff series victory. Howard faced 70+ more shots than Nabokov did in the first series, and he had a couple of rough games, but he battled back, recorded his first career playoff shutout and finished the series with a very respectable 2.59 GAA. Evgeni Nabokov was under the microscope in his first round matchup with Colorado, especially after his meltdown in the Olympics, but he had a great series. He allowed 2 goals or less in every game except Game 2, which San Jose won 6-5 anyway. He had a shutout in Game 5 that put the Sharks ahead in the series for good, and he ranks behind only Brian Boucher in GAA and save percentage after the first round. He’ll definitely be tested much more against Detroit, but if his first 6 games are any indication, he’ll be up to the task.
Advantage: San Jose
Special Teams: Detroit’s success on the powerplay was crucial to their first round win, as they converted 8 of 34 opportunities. They’ll be facing a San Jose team that gave up just 2 powerplay goals in their first series, though. Lidstrom scored all 3 of his goals on the powerplay, and Rafalski and Kronwall both had 3 powerplay assists. Detroit’s PK was a bit suspect against one of the weaker powerplays in Phoenix, and they’ll definitely have to kick it up a notch against the Sharks. The Sharks had just 5 goals with the man advantage against Colorado, but alot of that had to do with the stellar goaltending of Craig Anderson. The Sharks struggled to get bodies in front of Anderson, but if they need any advice in that area, they won’t have to look far as the Wings are one of the best teams at creating traffic in front.
This is a tough one to call, because I don’t think we’ve seen the best that Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley have to offer just yet. The pressure will continue to mount on Jimmy Howard’s shoulders, especially facing a roster with more potent scorers than Phoenix had to offer, but the same could be said of Nabokov. Both teams have veterans that have years of valuable playoff experience, and I think this series has a very good chance of going seven games. I just don’t see a team with Lidstrom, Holmstrom, Datsyuk and Zetterberg losing a Game 7, and I think the Wings’ performance in Glendale on Monday speaks for itself. This team knows how to take it to that next level when it matters most, something the Sharks haven’t shown they know how to do consistently.
My Pick: Wings in 7