Season Series: Detroit 3-1
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Some people wouldn't have even expected the San Jose Sharks to get out of the first round due to their previous collapses in their recent history but here they are, in the Western Conference semi-finals playing against the Detroit Red Wings.
It seemed early on in round one that Colorado was going to give the Sharks a scare taking early leads in the series by winning games one and three but if you're looking only at the outcome of the series, it seems much closer than it truly was. The reason I say this is because of the following... in games one and three, Nabokov was able to stop 34 of the 37 shots fired his way, which is pretty good.
The problem was Colorado's Craig Anderson saved 76 of 77 (and 51 of 51 in a game three shutout). The Av's also won game three on a flukey goal early in overtime, which after 60 minutes of scoreless hockey, was no way to see it end.
Alright, who am I kidding, as much as statistically the Sharks dominated by getting more shots and controlling the puck, the first four games we way to close for comfort as each game was tied going into the final minute of the third period. Both the Sharks and the Avalanche were able to win a game in the final minute as well as notching an overtime victory but in game five, it was the Sharks who decided to wake up and play they way they have all season, only to crush Colorado 5-0.
San Jose was able to ride the momentum from game five into Colorado for 5-2 victory in game six (two empty net goals). For a team who won the Western Conference though, they certainly didn't start the playoffs the way everyone expected them too. Or maybe they did, after all, they do historically crap themselves come playoff time.
The Sharks big three, Heatley, Marleau and Thornton combined for 254 points in 243 combined regular season games this year and through out round one of the playoffs (17 combined games) only mustered an abysmal 10 points together against the Av's (included one goal) and Heatley and Thornton never even scored a goal themselves. One goal and nine assists WON'T cut it.
The Sharks certainly didn't win the series by the play of their superstars but it was the steady and consistent play of their entire team. The team has been lead by players like Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Ryan Clowe and I am not saying those players aren't good but if Heatley, Thornton and Marleau don't step it up and get back to producing a point a game (as they did turning the regular season), you'll see them exit from the playoffs disappointing fans.
Evgeni Nabokov has been San Jose's top performer in all games but two (which one of them, the Sharks won 6-5), as he has down a fabulous job of keeping the puck out of the net and giving his team the best chance to win. The way the Sharks played in the first series won't be enough as the playoffs move along but if San Jose can knuckle down and play the hockey that got them to where they, they should prevail.
Problem is, if they don't, I don't have enough confidence in the Sharks other players and the pressure Nabokov will start to feel knowing the three main players on his team have for one reason or another decided to shut it down, will leave San Jose's Stanley Cup chances laying solely in his lands.
This situation couldn't be more perfect for the Detroit Red Wings as they are matched up against the San Jose Sharks, who year after year collapse in the playoffs and put a team in a position no one thought they'd be in. Detroit though, isn't even that team who "no one expects" to be there. After all, we are talking about the two-time defending Western Conference Champions.
Not only were the Red Wings dominant in the season series against San Jose (they won 3-1) but their only loss came in the hands of a shoot-out and they outscored San Jose 12-7. The last time they played against each other was back in February but remember the amount of injuries the Red Wings were playing with back at that point of the season was insane, and still, they we able to knock off the Sharks in almost every game.
The success doesn't stop there for Detroit either as Vancouver dropped three of the four games to Detroit and the Blackhawks and Wings split the season series at three games a piece (teams remaining in the West).
Detroit through-out the whole year was looking like they wouldn't make the playoffs and when they got healthy again, were able to make a push for the post-season and not only made it but moved up into the fifth seed and knocked off the Phoenix Coyotes (as I predicted),and allowed other teams such as Nashville, Colorado and Los Angeles deal with the best in the west.
The Red Wings didn't have an easy time with Coyotes but its prepared them for San Jose and if they win, the winner of Vancouver-Chicago. Detroit knows they can beat any remaining team in the West... they just have to do it.
One thing that's certain is that this Detroit squad can not be taken lightly by any team in the NHL, or fan, or predictor, or better. No one can take the Red Wings lightly. Regardless of team records, player stats, playoff experience, injuries, team history or anything else anyone wants to argue in any way, the Detroit Red Wings are the team to beat in the Western Conference and this is something the Sharks know. They also know they are going to have a hard time moving onto the Western Conference Finals.
Before the Phoenix-Detroit series I had stated that the inexperience of Jimmy Howard would be big in the playoffs, and I also said 'Who?' afterwards and drew quite a bit of flack from Red Wings fans. Well, it certainly was to stir some controversy but to the fans of Detroit, I do apologize as Howard played extremely well in the first round and exceeded my expectations. His goals against average may have been higher than one would like but to counter, his save percentage was great and making a long story short, if San Jose's big three don' t get their act together, you are going to see Jimmy Howard leading the Red Wings to their third-consecutive conference final.
It won't be all Jimmy Howard though because now that Detroit is healthy, they're putting up the steady point totals everyone has come to expect year after year. Zetterberg leads the way but the names you hear night-in-night-out such as Datsyuk, Franzen, Holmstrom, Filppula, Kronwall, Lidstrom etc. have all put the Red Wings back in contention.
Even the addition of Bertuzzi has been more pivotal than I expected it would have been and if Eaves, Williams, Lilja, Draper and some of those guys start putting the puck in the net themselves... you are looking at the best team in the Western Conference. No question, especially with how they looked in game seven.
TheCoach's Pick: RED WINGS in SIX