Dispatching Detroit in a stunning five games, San Jose broke into the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2004. It was the biggest series win in franchise history considering the offseason ramifications that would have surrounded a loss, and effectively shed the choker label that has plagued the organization since the NHL lockout.
All the while against a team that has historically held the Sharks number. Oh how sweet indeed.
Series MVP-- Joe Thornton
Three goals and five assists, none bigger than his performance in game three. A goal in the third period started the Sharks comeback, and his assist on Patrick Marleau's game winning goal was a thing of beauty. These two events essentially put the series on lockdown; coupled with his vicious performance in game five, it would be a travesty not to give him the MVP honors.
Thornton has been criticized for years over his postseason play. Today, he looks right at home.
Going into a series with Detroit we realized that Joe Pavelski, as good as he had been throughout the playoffs, couldn't carry the team on his own. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau would have to step up and deliver in order for the Sharks to advance past the second round.
And step up they did.
Whether it was a game winning goal during overtime of game three to give the Sharks a commanding 3-0 lead in the series, or a resounding performance in game five that sealed the first Western Conference Finals appearance since 2004, San Jose's top guns elevated their game when it mattered most, dispelling the previous notions of choke-artistry for the time being. Without Marleau and Thornton the Sharks would likely be gearing up for a game six tonight.
Throughout the series Todd McLellan would routinely skate three lines a night, which put all the more pressure on San Jose's top forwards to produce. The second and third lines were brilliant at times and ineffective in others, routinely trading chances with Pavel Datysuk and Henrik Zetterberg throughout the course of five games. It was the story of the series really-- while both clubs played each other straight up at evens, the Sharks were able to capitalize on their power play chances while the Red Wings could not.
Role players such as Logan Couture, Manny Malhotra, and Torrey Mitchell all provided immense value, and have seemed to elevate their game from what they exhibited during the regular season. Couture scored the game tying goal in game three, Malhotra led a brilliant shorthanded unit to success against a dangerous Detroit power play, and Mitchell has flashed that speed that was missing from 2008. These players have provided the Sharks with offensive depth that has been lacking in previous postseasons, and taken some of the weight off of the big guns to constantly produce.
Head coach Todd McLellan largely ignored the fourth line, giving scant minutes to the likes of Scott Nichol, Jamie McGinn, Jed Ortmeyer, and Dwight Helminen. These players had little impact on the success of San Jose despite being a major factor against Colorado, and against another highly skilled group next round, will probably take on a similar role.
The biggest question mark for San Jose coming into the playoffs was their defense. Prone to some egregious turnovers and an inability to keep opposing forwards to the outside, the Sharks bled shots all season long and relied on Evgeni Nabokov to bail them out.
In the first eleven games of the 2010 postseason however, the blueline has managed to prove to their detractors, a group that includes both Plank and TCY, that they may have managed to turn it around.
As a whole the team did an excellent job of limiting the amount of chances Detroit had in tight, pushing the talented wingers to the outside of the zone where they would be forced to work the puck into the corners. It was this area, both in the offensive and defensive zone, where San Jose outplayed Detroit throughout the series.
Douglas Murray rebounded from a poor performance against Colorado to bring back his blend of physical and conservative play, making few errors in the neutral zone and punishing the Red Wings with his body. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Rob Blake handled their assignments fairly well-- although they did get bottled into their own zone more than we would have liked to see in the first four games, their performance in game five was nothing short of superb. Dan Boyle continued to quarterback the power play and be defensively reliable in his own zone. Demers and Huskins both flourished in their limited minutes by playing within their skill sets-- Huskins proving to be reliable defensively, while Demers garnishing the attacking zone with a threat from the point.
All in all it was a good series from the San Jose defense, and one that brings even more confidence to the city as the Western Conference Finals draw near.
If the win-loss record is the only thing that matters for a goaltender, than Evgeni Nabokov's 4-1 record against the Red Wings was nothing less than stellar. However, that record masks some performances by Nabokov that, while obviously good enough to get the job done, could be improved going forward.
The last game of the series was anything but an average performance, mind you, as Nabokov turned in one of the greatest games of his playoff career. After seeing relatively little action in the first period, Nabokov made some brilliant saves to keep the Sharks in the game. Although he allowed a goal in the period, he stopped 13 other Red WIng opportunities when the Sharks were outshot by nearly a 5-1 margin. If Nabokov doesn't make those key saves, the Sharks likely don't win that game. Howard, with the exception of game three's meltdown, backstopped a solid series across from Nabokov.Goals are always at a premium in the playoffs, and this series was no exception.
Game four, on the other hand, was one of the worst of Nabokov's playoff career. The goals weren't all his fault, but five goals in one period is unacceptable. Throwing out that one terrible performance (and credit Nabokov for doing the same, bouncing back masterfully), the netminder had an up and down series. He made career defining stops on Datsyuk in game two and Zetterberg's penalty shot in game three, but continued to struggle with traffic in front of him by letting the Red Wings forwards camp in front without paying a price. His .886 save percentage is going to raise some red flags, especially because that number was below .900 s% before the nightmarish game four.
That being said, it wasn't a horrible series by Nabokov. The majority of his goals were ones that can be rationalized away as being difficult shots to stop. But without the penalty differential that San Jose was blessed with from games one through five, Nabokov is going to be better than he has been in order to guide the Sharks past their upcoming opponent.
San Jose was blessed with calls, Detroit was not. The incredible penalty differential heavily favored the Sharks who, including last night's match drew, 26 penalties to just 15 for Detroit.
With the tin foil hat brigade still in full force, claiming that the differential was purely due to an NHL conspiracy against the Wings, the officiating story is one that will be read for months to come. And although it may not be a popular assertion amongst Sharks fans, it is true that the Wings fell victim to some pretty questionable calls in the series. Whether or not that was balanced out by dinging the Sharks for minor transgressions is up for debate.
However, the Sharks drew penalties because they outplayed the Red Wings in the corners for the majority of the time spent at even strength. They outskated, outhustled, and outworked a Detroit team that fell victim to taking penalties against the Phoenix Coyotes in round one. It is unlikely the Sharks will be beneficiaries of such a large opportunity margin during the Western Conference Finals, but as long as they continue to bring the jam in the corners as they did against Detroit, there should be little concern of whether or not they will win the differential battle again.
A worry however should the execution on the power play. Although the zone entry has been much better, the Sharks have struggled in the zone with their passing and puck handling. That gets back to the execution that McLellan has stressed all post season, and it's troubling considering who the Sharks could be facing the next round. A team such as Chicago would eat up those mistakes.
The lack of execution showed up directly on the scoreboard. When Joe Thornton scored about seven seconds into the Sharks' third man advantage, it marked just the fifth power play goal for the Sharks in the series, good for a 19% conversion rate with the extra attacker. Somewhat acceptable at a distance until you consider the circumstances.
What's even more troubling is the fact that three of the five power play goals were scored 5 on 3. Credit to the Sharks for parlaying their two man advantages into goals (they only scored one of that variety in the regular season), but expecting them to get that many chances in the Western Conference Finals is unrealistic. The Sharks have to be better with the man advantage, because they likely won't have as many opportunities next round to make an under 20% success rate seem satisfactory.
One area the Sharks need little to no improvement, though, is the penalty kill. Down a man the Sharks have been nothing short of fantastic, boasting a 93% kill rate and allowing just one goal when down a man in the series. Detroit has one of the better free-wheeling power plays in the league, but the Sharks quick forwards were able to combat that ability. If the Sharks continue their dominance on the kill, it will help their chances going forward immensely.
Written by Plank and TCY