|G1||Thu April 29th
||@ San Jose||6:00||None
|G2||Sun May 2nd
||@ San Jose||5:00||None||TSN, Versus|
|G3||Tue May 4th
||@ Detroit||4:30||CSN-CA||TSN, Versus|
|G4||Thu May 6th
||@ Detroit||4:30||CSN-CA||TSN, Versus|
|G5||Sat May 8th
||@ San Jose||7:00||CSN-CA||TSN, Versus|
|G6||Mon May 10th
||@ Detroit||4:30||CSN-CA||TSN, Versus|
|G7||Wed May 12th
||@ San Jose||TBA||CSN-CA||TSN, Versus|
Honest to god, it is series like these that make me proud to be a hockey fan.
You have immense talent up and down both rosters. The underrated aesthetic appeal of teal clashing with red, poetry in motion. The history of the 1994 upset. The lack of success that followed that win. The universal disdain for the Red Wings organization. The universal ridicule that floods San Jose every May. The team that has done it all versus the team that never quite got there, The Dynasty versus The Dynasty That Hasn't Happened Just Yet.
The promise of a new postseason ripe with opportunity. The chance to put all of those critics to rest.
It's going to be hard as hell to stay at an even keel throughout these next two weeks. Emotions will vary by the minute. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll curse, you'll cheer, and then they'll finally drop the puck at 6:07 PM tomorrow night.
And then it hits you.
This is what postseason hockey is all about.
It's about going up against a team that has punched you in the mouth and saying "I can take one more, because this time I'm not going down." It's about facing your demons head on. It's about entering into a battlefield that will define the organization for years to come. The biggest test this team has faced. Never have the stakes been so high, the Last Crusade, the final proving grounds. It is the last shot San Jose's core will have before the organization decides to go in another direction. The Patrick Marleau's, the Evgeni Nabokov's, the Joe Thornton's. This is their time.
No matter where this ends up, no matter what side of the ledger the Gods decide to cast their final tallies, soak it in. Let every single second synchronize with your soul.
Because honest to god, it is series like these that make me proud to be a hockey fan.
Pavel Datsyuk is one of those players that is just a treat to watch. He led the league in takeaways by an astronomical margin this season, and will likely be squared off against Thornton's line for every single shift. Detroit head coach Mike Babcock loves to play the matchup game, and between Datsyuk and Zetterberg, he has two very capable forwards he can throw out against San Jose's top line. My guess is that he splits them up and sends Zetterberg out against Pavelski night in and night out-- Datsyuk has fared well against Thornton throughout his career, and that's a hard match I think Babcock tries to exploit.
No matter who gets tasked where, the key for San Jose is to avoid the turnovers at the blueline that occasionally rear their ugly head. This means Joe Thornton needs to make a deliberate effort to fight his near constant urge to pull up above the circles off the rush and look for the cross ice feed. Datsyuk will murder him if he tries to play that game. Thornton has the size to drive down low against the Red Wings, and having him carry the puck much more effectively than we have seen in this situation will do a lot to nullify Detroit's ability to generate odd man rushes.
The Red Wings aren't blessed with a lot of individual player speed-- what they are blessed with however is a wonderful transition game. The speed of the team's puck movement is phenomenal. Crisp breakout passes, move the puck up the ice extremely well. Managing the rubbber and getting it deep into the zone is how the Sharks can win this series. They will never be able to out finesse Detroit. They aren't built for that type of game. But they sure as hell can attempt to outmuscle them below the end line, and use their size to work the low cycle as they did against Colorado. This is obviously a whole different ballgame than the first round, but straying away from that gameplan just opens up too much space for the Red Wings to work with in the center of the ice. Finish your checks and wear down a team that has played a lot of hockey over the last three seasons.
Dany Heatley is the wildcard here. Under the assumption that Thornton and Marleau remain on the top line together, perform up to expectations, and continue to skate with Torrey Mitchell, it's a favorable matchup. With Heatley on the third line with Logan Couture and Manny Malhotra it opens up an opportunity for the Sharks to steal some goals when Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Niklas Lidstrom aren't on the ice. Heatley's health is still an unknown variable going into the series, but by most accounts he is nearly full strength again.
The hope here is that the top two lines of San Jose can play their Detroit counterparts to a wash, and the third line can pot the difference makers. That obviously requires a big performance from Thornton, over a point a game would do the trick nicely, but I doubt he can severely outplay Datsyuk over the course of seven games. Same goes for Pavelski's line-- it's good if they break even.
If Thornton and Marleau continue to be kept off the scoreboard however, the Sharks have a tough time pulling through. In other words, it starts with them, but it doesn't necessarily have to end with them.
Third line is the difference maker if all goes according to plan.
Edge: Wash, push goes to San Jose
This is the one that has me concerned. San Jose's forward group matches up just fine against Detroit, but the blueline is another matter. Nabokov will be seeing a whole lot more rubber than he did against Colorado, and will likely need to steal a game in Joe Louis where the bounces never seem to go our way.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be fine this series, and will carry the heavy load by going up against one of Datsyuk of Zetterberg. Blake has really turned it around since the Olympic Break but Detroit's puck control in the defensive zone could bring out the infamous Captain Hook. His increased penchant for the physical game could also nullify that. At this point, I'm not sure what to expect.
Douglas Murray was a sore spot against Colorado and will need to improve greatly if his pairing can expect to be an effective one against the Red Wings. Easing back physically is probably not in the DNA of the big Swede, but reducing the chances he takes when trying to land a big hit in the neutral zone will go a long way towards limiting the trend of being out of position down the line. It's a fine line to walk, and one he will need to walk rather carefully.
Dan Boyle will be Dan Boyle. Big time player, big time minute eater, no concerns here.
Huskins and Demers will be an interesting combination. As we mentioned before, Huskins had a great series against Colorado and has proved to be a reliable bottom pairing defenseman during the season. Jason Demers is really the question mark here-- Detroit will apply much more pressure than Colorado did, and with his tendency to give up some fairly egregious turnovers in his own zone could be the death knell. With Babcock's love of creating mismatches in Joe Louis Arena, Demers is a question mark that I don't have the answer for quite yet.
Niklas Lidstrom is still, at the age of forty, one of the best defenseman in the league today. Extraordinary player, one who will be raising hell on the ice for about half the night. He'll go against Thornton exclusively. Brian Rafalski is a quality partner with some offensive pop. The ex-Shark Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall serve as the second pairing, and like to play with a physical edge. They're not nearly in the same class as Lidstrom and Rafalski, but taken as a whole, the top four matches up favorably against San Jose's. The key here will be to attempt to exploit the bottom pairing of Jonathan Ericsson and Andreas Lilja, two guys who Babcock doesn't have a whole lot of confidence in.
Again, if the third line can see some quality shifts against the bottom pair, the opportunity is ripe to pot a few goals. Keeping Heatley on that third line could be the key to overcoming Detroit's advantage on the blueline.
The one thing San Jose can't do is sleep on Jimmy Howard. He carried Detroit for the first half of the year when they were shelled with injuries at nearly every conceivable position, and proved that he is able to win games when the Red Wings defense is off. That being said, he has had issues with rebound control during the course of this season, and as we saw against Phoenix, is prone to giving up some softies. HP Pavilion is probably the loudest building in the NHL when the Sharks get rolling, and an early goal could rattle the cage.
For San Jose, Nabokov will be heavily relied on to win hockey games. This is where his playoff mettle will be tested, the proverbial line in the sand drawn. The book on Nabokov the last few seasons has been to go five-hole, but after being exposed in a playoff series against Anaheim, Evgeni did a very good job of working on that aspect of his game during the summer and improving those issues. He aggressively challenges shooters and loves to play the puck behind the net, waiting until the last minute to chip the puck over an incoming forechecker's stick-- and while both of these attributes are largely positive, they can get him into trouble sometimes.
See Detroit in 2007.
Acrobatic saves and a nasty glove hand are obviously his bread and butter.
I think San Jose holds serve in this matchup in terms of SV%-- Nabokov has been lights out this season when the Sharks have needed him most, and he was the Team MVP for the entire year. The question is whether or not San Jose's defense can limit good scoring opportunities in front of him.
Nabokov will have to steal at least one game in order for San Jose to win this series. If he pulls that off in Joe Louis Arena, where his career numbers ring to the tune of a .903 SV%, it's nothing but sunshine.
Edge: San Jose
The Brand. Detroit has been the class of the Western for fifteen years now, and nothing has changed. Their reputation is phenomenal in the postseason-- San Jose's is not.
Market Position. Regular season record against playoff teams concerns me, but that is becoming irrelevant in the second round. San Jose has the home-ice contract for this series, and that is going to be huge. Joe Louis Arena has been the devil's lair for years now, and if things go as I expect, the Sharks will need just one win away from HP Pavilion. Despite the history, I like those odds.
Business System. Two different types of ways each team will approach this series. The Sharks will try and work the low cycle and limit turnovers while the Wings will try and run their transition game. Special teams success are going to be an absolute must for both teams and could be the tipping point in the series-- if the Sharks are able to capitalize on penalties, they will be fine. But if the man advantage hits a rut as it tends to do in the postseason, it presents a situation where the kill needs to be near perfect. Against Detroit that's a pipe dream.
Knowledge. I like Todd McLellan. He's a good coach who learned from his mistakes last season. But honestly, there's no one better than Mike Babcock.
Edge: Wash, push goes to Detroit
The blueline concerns me but I like the goaltending matchup. Datsyuk is a magician but I have a feeling Thornton finally asserts himself. Henrik Zetterberg has a ridiculously beautiful wife but Patrick Marleau is the best looking man in the world.
Todd Bertuzzi should be in prison.
Tomas Holmstrom's behind gets more press coverage than Jennifer Lopez but Ryane Clowe is giving him a run for his money. Niklas Lidstrom is bulletproof but Dany Heatley has a sniper rifle. Brian Rafalski is a patriot but Joe Pavelski is the new American hero.
I keep flipping this coin. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.
And it always comes up heads.
San Jose in seven. Book it.