Shark-Infested Blogger

April 29, 2010 1:52 AM

Sharks-Red Wings Preview

For the second time in the last four seasons, the San Jose Sharks match up against the Detroit Red Wings in the second round. Last time, it was the Sharks who were the fifth seed and the Red Wings who were the top team in the West; now the roles are reversed.

In that series, the Sharks were up two games to one, and under a minute away from taking a 3-1 lead when Patrick Marleau let down his guard early and allowed Robert Lang to skate in alone for a tying breakaway goal. The Sharks never won another game.

Since then, San Jose has taken over the Western Conference in the regular season, finishing with the best record in this and last season, while falling just three points short of the Red Wings the year before. But come playoff time, it is still Detroit that shows up, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in each of the last two years.

Obviously, Detroit has the edge in the past. But is this Sharks team different enough to overcome this edge this season?

The two teams both came in 8-1-1 in their last ten games before the playoffs, and San Jose emerged from their series against a surprising upstart in six rather than seven games. But the Sharks strong finish only raised their post-Olympic record to 11-8-2, whereas the Wings stretched theirs to 16-3-2.

One reason for Detroit's lower seeding is they had struggled with injuries early in the season. A main reason they turned it around was they got healthy, and in effect had rested players.

Detroit's playoff performance was also better than the Sharks. They faced a team that did not have as many injuries and had finished 12 points higher in the standings than the Sharks' opponent. They also had to play four road games to San Jose's three. San Jose continued to show a reluctance to do the tough things, like screen the goalie, get to rebounds, and block shots prior to falling behind two games to one.

That is especially true with the Sharks top line, which combined for just one goal in six games after averaging more than seven times that ratio in the regular season. All three of those players finished in the minus for the series.

The good news is they were the only forwards to finish below sea level, and the second line produced at a higher rate than the first was expected to, scoring nine of the Sharks' 19 goals. With four goals from three defencemen, three from the third line, and two from the fourth line, the Sharks were actually getting adequate scoring, just not from where it was expected.

2555819664_3faa3519d7.jpgBoth teams had 11 goal scorers in the first round. However, the Wings biggest stars, as always, shined: Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk combined for 11 goals, Valtteri Filppula and Niklas Lidstrom had three a piece, and Tomas Holmstrom and Brad Stuart each added a pair--meaning six Red Wings scored more goals than all 20 skaters who played for San Jose, albeit in one more game.

Okay, so Detroit has more reliable scoring, but what about defence?

I know everyone is still in love with Lidstrom, and for good reason--he has been the best defencemen in the decade, and even though he just turned 40, he still plays at an elite level. But Dan Boyle is better--he skates better, he passes better, and he shoots better, and has the stats to prove it.

Unfortunately for the Sharks, Lidstrom is still the second best defenceman in this series, Brian Rafalski is third, and Niklas Kronwall is fourth. The Sharks Marc-Edouard Vlasic is probably the fifth best, but a strong case could be made for former Shark Brad Stuart--any edge for either is negligible.

Now that he has improved his offensive game, Douglas Murray is right there with them and easily the best hitter on the blueline in the series, and Kent Huskins and Rob Blake probably bring as much to the table as Brett Lebda and more than Jonathan Erickson. But Jason Demers or Niclas Wallin are no better than Erickson or Derek Meech, so even at the bottom the Sharks have little advantage.

In other words, aside from playoff experience and mental edge, the Red Wings have the better blueline. While some of this edge comes from the offensive side, the Sharks are not better shot-blockers, and outside of Murray, not better hitters, so clearly the Wings have better skaters overall, especially come the playoffs.

One area the Sharks do hold the edge in is goaltending. Following very similar regular seasons, Evgeni Nabokov has more playoff experience and had a better first round (1.76 GAA, .926 save pct.) than rookie Jimmy Howard (2.59, .919) despite playing a better offensive team. And while I have harped upon the overuse of Nabokov as something that will catch up to him, this should not rear its head in this series with the additional rest after the first round.

This gives the Sharks three advantages--more rest, one more home game, and better netminding. The Wings have three advantages--better skaters, more experience, and greater mental toughness. The order of importance of the advantages is netminding, mental toughness, skaters, rest, experience, and home ice.

A simple equation shows the Sharks to have the first, fourth, and sixth most important advantage and the Wings to have the second, third, and fifth: 1+4+6 > 2+3+5, and with rankings, you want the lowest number as your average...because Game Seven is hard to win on the road and the Wings have already done that, and because the rest may lead to rust in Game One, I am calling this as Wings in six, marking the fifth consecutive season the Sharks fail to win more than six playoff games.

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