Shark-Infested Blogger

April 14, 2010 6:42 PM

Sharks-Avalanche Playoff Preview

Wednesday night, the San Jose Sharks open the 2010 playoffs by hosting the eighth-seeded Colorado Avalanche. The Sharks and Avs split the regular season series with two wins a piece: Colorado outscored San Jose by one, but one of San Jose's losses came in overtime.

Judging by the standings, this is a mismatch. The Avs went cold (3-7-3) down the stretch en route to a 95-point season. They are the only playoff team in the West short of 100 points this season, although they finished higher than four of the Eastern Conference teams. Meanwhile, the Sharks responded to a six-game losing streak with an 8-1-1 record down the stretch, locking up the top seed in the West and finishing with one of the top two records in the league for the third consecutive season.

In fact, the Sharks have the advantage in all three units. The NHL goalie is the single most important position in all of sports, so any examination should start there.

3201378632_bfbcd5d116.jpgThe Sharks Evgeni Nabokov was second in the league in wins this season (43), had a .922 save percentage and a 2.43 GAA. He has a winning record in the playoffs with a .915 save percentage and 2.23 GAA. Thomas Greiss played well in a backup role, with a .912 save percentage and 2.69 GAA.

Colorado's Craig Anderson has never played a playoff game in his career. After a brilliant start to the season, he struggled down the stretch to finish with 38 wins, a .917 save percentage, and a 2.64 GAA. Peter Budaj faced 65 playoff shots in mop-up roles, so he's not much better prepared; he also had a .917 save percentage and 2.64 GAA.

Both goalies played over 70 games, not a formula for post-season success in the past two decades. Anderson is younger and did not get the extra three games during the Olympics, but after having three days off, Nabokov is unlikely to wear down until the calendar flips to May. With superior experience, a save percentage five points higher, and a goals against average that indicates three fewer goals in a seven-game series, the clear advantage in net goes to San Jose unless there is an injury.

On the blueline, the Sharks have all their Stanley Cup Champion experience with Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, Kent Huskins, and Niklas Wallin all having won a Cup. Boyle is one of the five to ten best defencemen in the world, and is paired with Swedish Olympian Douglas Murray, one of the best hitters in the league. Blake is still productive offensively and can still play position, and his lack of speed is covered by Marc-Edouard Vlasic, a great skating, solid two-way player. Wallin and Huskins pair up for a rather fundamentally sound but unremarkable third pair.

Colorado is led by Adam Foote, but at this point he is nothing but a stay-at-home defenceman--he can still play position and hit, but lacks speed or offensive ability (no goals, nine assists all season). Former Shark Scott Hannan is also good in his own end but a liability in the offensive zone, while John-Michael Liles is quite the opposite--one of the best skilled defencemen in the league, his lack of responsibility in his own end has gotten him benched this season. Kyle Cumiskey, Kyle Quincey, and Ryan Wilson round out the starting six and are solid players on both ends. Only Quincey and Foote have their names etched on the Cup.

In all, the Sharks defence has accounted for 202 more shots, nine more goals, 15 more assists, and has a plus-minus 25 points higher than Colorado's. The best player on the blueline wears Teal, and players like Foote and Liles would not be active every game in San Jose--Liles is very much like the Sharks seventh defenceman, Jason Demers. The Sharks' advantage in this unit is immense.

At forward, the teams are a little closer. The Sharks have two players that have 30 or more goals (Dany Heatley--39--and Patrick Marleau--43), and those two join Joe Thornton in producing at least a point a game. They possess three of the top five face-off artists in the league, and have four players that finished plus-14 or better while only one projected to play finished below even (Jamie McGinn, -3).

Meanwhile, the Avs are led by Peter Stastny with 79 points in 81 games. While they have good depth, they are going to need it: Colorado will be without Peter Mueller, their most effective player in the two matchups against the Sharks late in the season, and are still missing both David Jones and Marek Svatos.

In all, Sharks forwards have registered 379 more shots, 48 more points, 20 more goals, and collectively finished 93 points higher in plus-minus. The only reason this position is not a rout is that even though the Avs are fielding more rookies than the Sharks, they do have Milan Hejduk and Stephane Yelle who have won a Stanley Cup. They are also expecting Mueller and maybe even Jones back before the end of the series.

Still, the Sharks top players--Nabokov, Thornton, Marleau, Heatley, and Boyle--are all better than anyone on the Avalanche. The Avs are a solid young team whose speed will hurt the Sharks if they are overlooked, but with all the talk of playoff failures, that will not happen for more than one game; if it happens once, add another game to what should otherwise be a six-game series.

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