Special Teams may determine success against Chicago
In a series that is expected to be very tight at even strength, the special teams battle becomes all the more important to achieving success. This element was prevalent in San Jose's second round victory over the Detroit Red Wings-- three out of the Sharks four wins came due to their power play achievements, and San Jose eventually ended up +4 in this category when they were on the winning side of the ledger.
In game one San Jose was outscored by a goal at even strength but managed to put two past Jimmy Howard on the man advantage; games two and five were equal at evens, with a +1 in the special teams department tipping the scales San Jose's way.
With the even strength play essentially a wash against Detroit, expecting a similar type of series against Chicago is probably not too far out of the question. San Jose and Chicago are extremely talented on both ends of the ice, bring immense skill sets to the table, and can score goals at will. The even strength chances and opportunities don't stand to be too far apart on most nights, at least not if everything shakes out as it is expected.
In essence, this series could very well be Detroit-San Jose on steroids.
Both penalty kill units have been spectacular from the beginning of the regular season and through the playoffs, possessing considerable options to choose when going shorthanded. The key to this success is a commitment to tirelessly working from end to end to deliver results, namely by constantly pressuring the puck carrier. The initial breakout will see a forechecker force the pass to one side of the ice in the opposing team's zone, where another forward will come hard at the puck carrier in center ice; this forces him to either carry the puck into the zone and risk running into a defenseman holding the blueline, or dump the puck in and give up possession. From then on it is all a matter of winning loose puck battles in the corners and shutting down shooting lanes.
Skating, hockey sense, pressure, and winning those aforementioned loose puck battles are essential to a successful penalty kill. Both teams exhibit these traits superbly.
Manny Malhotra leads the way for San Jose with 2:11 of ice time during the playoffs, shadowed closely by Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Scott Nichol, and Torrey Mitchell. These five players will carry the lions share of minutes for the Sharks amongst their forward group. Although the correlation of penalty kill success with faceoff winning percentage is fairly low, due to the fact that there are much important factors in having a great shorthanded unit, a compressed set of highly magnified games can make draws loom large. No one in San Jose is better in this area than Manny Malhotra, who brings a 61.7% clip into the Western Conference Finals.
Defensively, San Jose will turn to Rob Blake and Marc-Edouard Vlasic in order to shut down Chicago's dangerous stable of forwards. Both have been phenomenal during the postseason, allowing only one goal while on the ice despite averaging well above two minutes per game. Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray round out the ice time leaders, with Niclas Wallin and Kent Huskins occasionally chipping in.
Chicago's unit is equally imposing, with recently acquired John Madden spearheading the main thrust of the unit. Madden replaced Sammi Pahlsson, an excellent defensive forward who was acquired from Anaheim during the 2009 trade deadline, and will be a thorn in the Sharks side every time their power play steps on the ice. When a resume includes a nine-year stint on the New Jersey Devils, as Madden's does, it is readily apparent that an attention to the defensive zone is of high priority.
Rounding out the cast of notable forwards will be Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Dave Bolland. The defensive cast includes four blueliners that see the vast majority of minutes, with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook coming in as one of the best pairings in the NHL.
There is little doubt San Jose will pay great attention to managing the puck at the blueline-- Chicago leads the league in shorthanded goals this postseason with three, and took top honors during the regular season as well (13). The three shorties that scorched the Sharks in November of 2009 exemplify how dangerous Chicago can be in transition, even when playing a man down. The Sharks, like the majority of NHL teams, tend to gravitate towards the umbrella formation and rely on point shots to generate opportunities. It is of the utmost importance they are careful to move their feet to find shooting lanes, because a blocked shot or misplayed puck high in the zone could signal a huge momentum change.
Chicago's man advantage contains many of the same faces hockey fans are familiar with-- Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Dustin Byfuglien are all proficient offensive players. Brian Campbell, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook log the minutes on the blueline, with Campbell serving a role as the primary quarterback for the power play. Byfuglien is an interesting case in that Chicago will sometimes put him at the point, much like Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski for San Jose. He played a good chunk of the year on the backend, but when he's not asked to fill this role, the 6'4 260 pound behemoth will be lodged directly in front of Nabokov. As we've mentioned, San Jose chose to allow Tomas Holmstrom free reign in this area of the ice, choosing to rely on Nabokov to make the initial save while defenseman tie up sticks and clear rebounds.
However, the Sharks power play remains an area in this matchup where they may have an advantage over the Blackhawks. San Jose functioned at a 21.0% clip during the regular season compared to Chicago's 17.7%, and possess a varied number of weapons from which to choose from during their attack. Jason Demers and Dan Boyle are the two most productive members on the blueline, possessing the ability to move the puck to their talented forwards with crisp passes as well as get shots through traffic. Joe Thornton's series against the Red Wings was a coming out party for him this postseason, and when one of the best passers in the game has snipers such as Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau available to him, there is a lot of potential for success. Joe Pavelski, Rob Blake, Ryane Clowe, and Devin Setoguchi round out the main cogs in the Sharks power play machine.
San Jose has also been extremely proficient in drawing penalties (5.18 PP/G) and staying out of the box (3.16 PK/G) during the postseason, seeing a nearly 2:1 margin in this area against Detroit. Chicago hasn't been nearly as efficient in this category (4.25 PP/G vs. 4.4 SH/G).
Whether or not the Sharks will see such a huge discrepancy during the Western Conference Finals is unlikely, but ultimately an unknown. They have been moving their feet in the offensive zone and cycling the puck down low to draw these calls, and one can hope that this continues against a very quick Chicago squad.
All of this being said, San Jose's power play numbers against Detroit might be a bit of a mirage-- 3 of their 5 goals were scored with the two-man advantage, and they struggled with zone entries as they have throughout the year. It's a fairly streaky group despite the high totals, but one that should theoretically have enough weapons to elevate their rate of success.
The special teams battle will likely be one that determines a fair amount of games this series, and should be an excellent addition to an already exciting matchup. Both teams are strong at even strength, and bring a lot of firepower to the table with various artillerymen. During the playoffs, where each matchup is scrutinized to the point of exhaustion, every advantage counts.
And sometimes, the man advantage is the one that counts the most.