RealClearSports
Advertisement

Shark-Infested Blogger


May 16, 2010 3:07 AM

Western Conference Finals Preview

The San Jose Sharks finally host the Western Conference finals opener Sunday at noon, PDT. With all the wait, there has been much to contemplate in the series, but the team with the advantage has become no clearer.

There are two things one can do in this situation: go with the gut/original position, or analyze it even more.

My original pick for the Stanley Cup Finals in October and again in March was Penguins over Blackhawks in seven--I had the Sharks falling in five or six to the Blackhawks. At the beginning of the playoffs, it was Blackhawks over Devils in seven, with the Sharks bowing to the Red Wings in six before that.

Hence, I think more analysis is in order...

Intangibles

Chicago holds a significant advantage here. The Sharks do have home ice, and are 5-1 at home in the playoffs. But the Boston Bruins were 5-0 before dropping two of their four in a row in the friendly confines, and Chicago won all three road games in their series against Vancouver.

The Blackhawks also won both games in San Jose during the regular season, including a 7-2 rout in November. The only game the Sharks won they were outshot 47-14. This only adds to the severe pressure the Sharks are under as the higher seed with a more intense recent history of playoff failures, although there is no choke involved in losing to either of these teams.

Chicago also struggled with more injuries going into the playoffs, so some of their guys have just gotten in rhythm and are that much more rested. Furthermore, the Blackhawks are rested with four days off between games, while the Sharks have certainly rusted with seven days off--even head coach Todd McLellan uncharacteristically being honest about concerns with that--and the momentum of the big series victory over Detroit is gone. The intensity of playoff hockey was something this team used to struggle to adjust to from the regular season to the playoffs, so how much more of a change will it be from practice to games?

There are two things that will weigh on the Blackhawks, however. They have been away from home for a long time and that will catch up to them: By Game Two, they will have been away for an entire week. In addition, having played one more game in the second round and having started the series later will become problematic the longer the series goes.

Blueline

Once again, the edge has to go to Chicago. Despite the disappointing performance against Detroit, Dan Boyle has to be considered the best defenceman for either team--even granted Brent Seabrook's stats are slightly better so far and Duncan Keith is a Norris Trophy finalist, Boyle is right there with them and his Stanley Cup ring means he has won deeper in the playoffs than anyone Chicago has.

However, the next three great defencemen are going to be wearing the Indian Head, with the third player being Brian Campbell. And while Rob Blake and Douglas Murray have performed better than expected in the playoffs and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a good two-way defenceman, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Sopel are solid on both ends of the ice, as well. The Sharks do not get the advantage until the very bottom: Kent Huskins, Jason Demers, and Niclas Wallin are all greatly superior to Jordan Hendry, but none have been on the ice for even 15 minutes in any second round game, even the blowout loss or overtime games.

3206932612_8b4f137d0d.jpgForwards

The Sharks have had each of their top two lines take turns carrying the team in each series, but while the checking lines do a good job defensively and providing energy, they have done very little scoring. Only six goals thus far have come from third and fourth line players, while Chicago has gotten scoring from three lines. Even at the top, Chicago has three forwards with 14 or more points while the Sharks have just one...again, this edge goes narrowly to Chicago.

Goaltending

Antto Niemi may e a rookie, but he is not playing like one. He has a respectable .909 save percentage and a solid 2.57 GAA. He has also registered two shutouts, but this is a misleading stat: if two goalies both have a 2.50 GAA, the one with more shutouts is actually less consistent.

Here is the advantage for the Sharks. Statistically, Evgeni Nabokov has had two bad games: Game Two of the opening round and Game Four of the second round. In every other game, he has given up three goals or fewer. Chicago has given up four or more goals in six games.

Not only does Nabby have more playoff experience and has been in net this deep before, but he is playing better right now (.907 save pct., 2.43 GAA). And while I have been harping on the overwork he has gotten all season (Sunday will be his 90th game including preseason and the Olympics), having a week off all but negates this.

Other considerations

Chicago's power play has been better than San Jose's, but to be fair, playing the Vancouver Canucks this post-season has done that for both teams. Some of it is the matching skill of the blueline of both Chicago and Los Angeles, but Vancouver did not play well on the kill, either. San Jose's penalty kill is slightly better than Chicago's, but the Hawks have the better goal differential. Even in San Jose's specialty--faceoffs--Chicago is good enough to minimize the advantage.

Much has been made of Chicago's speed, but the Sharks are fast, too. Boyle, Vlasic, Marleau, Heatley, Mitchell, Setoguchi, and Nichol are all among the best skaters in the league. Likewise, San Jose has a size advantage, but the Hawks are not without big bodies like Dustin Byfuglien, Seabrook, Ben Eager, and Troy Brower are all over 6'2" and 210 lbs.

That being said, the Sharks will have to play the Hawks like they did the Wings, who also had players with size but could not withstand the constant physical punishment and were worn down by the third period. The Hawks will need to keep out of the box and push the play to use their greater top-to-bottom speed to tire the Sharks much like Colorado tried to do in the first round.

That preparation will help San Jose, but ultimately I see the sharper Hawks stealing Game One and winning as many from there in San Jose as they lose in Chicago. They have the edge in intangibles, forwards, and defence, and that outweighs the Sharks edge in net...Blackhawks in six.

A Member Of