The Vancouver Canucks exorcised just about every demon you could ever imagine tonight, bouncing the Chicago Blackhawks for the first time in three years. With Vancouver advancing, the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings are set for a re-match from last season's playoff series that saw the Sharks defeat their old nemesis in five games.
We'll have more leading up to the series, but for tonight let's touch upon some of the bigger storylines that will take us all the way into game one:
- Detroit swept Phoenix in the first round, giving them plenty of time to rest and recuperate heading into this series. It brings up the eternal question of rest vs. rust (something we'll analyze tomorrow), but at the end of the day, whatever sort of advantage or disadvantage this factor brings into play is a narrative that is written following the conclusion of the first game. For two experienced and veteran teams such as these it's unlikely it's going to be a major factor and one that probably extends only one game if it is even a factor at all.
- After watching Cory Crawford perform his magic tonight you have to think San Jose has dodged a bullet in the opposing goaltending department, especially considering their success against Jimmy Howard this season. The Sharks lit up Howard for 12 goals in three games this year as he ended with a 4.03 GAA and .887 SV% against San Jose. With the defensive cast in front of him there's no doubt that Howard will be in good hands, but if the Sharks can continue to put up the type of chances they had in the series against Los Angeles, goaltending could become an issue for the Red Wings.
- That being said, Antti Niemi's performance in the first round was hardly an awe-inspiring effort. He was pulled twice against the Kings and struggled all series long with an .863 SV%. The Red Wings are an entirely different offensive machine than Los Angeles, and while San Jose was able to control the play in LA's defensive zone for large portions of the series, it's safe to say Detroit will be looking at more opportunities on a per game basis than Los Angeles. Niemi is a goaltender who rode some fairly massive performance swings already this season (first three months vs. last three months), and the Sharks will hope that his performance in game six is more of what they're going to get from their big Finn between the pipes.
- Johan Franzen is dealing with a sore ankle and Henrik Zetterberg did not play a game in Detroit's series against Phoenix (but expects to play in game one). Those are two essential tools for the Red Wings, and if San Jose can come out and exploit either an a) depleted Wings team or b) a team that is icing two players at less than 100% at the start of the series, heading back to Joe Louis Arena with a 2-0 series lead would be a good goal to shoot for.
- Speaking of The Joe, San Jose has managed to exorcise their own demons when it comes to a barn that has given them a lot of trouble throughout the years. San Jose took two out of two matchups in Detroit this season and won a mammoth game three in overtime last year, setting up a situation where the "Joe Louis Arena" doesn't necessarily have the ghosts in the rafters that it once did. Coupled with San Jose's good road record, that's a positive.
- Make no mistake, last year's series against the Red Wings could have gone either way. History shows that it took San Jose a mere five games to dispatch their old nemesis, but one-goal games were the story of that series. The difference essentially came down to the penalty differential-- San Jose capitalized on their 5v3's and ran Detroit around in the offensive zone, playing strong along the boards and forcing the Wings to take penalties due to a vicious cycle. With the Sharks built the same way this year, physically imposing themselves on the Wings is going to be a huge recipe for success.
- San Jose and Detroit, two of the best teams in the Western Conference going toe to toe for the second straight year in a row. There's nothing like the Stanley Cup playoffs, and there's nothing like a matchup between these two clubs. Sit back and enjoy it.