With one round down, the Western Conference provided its fair share of thrills and chills en route to proving who truly is the best. Cinderella dreams were shattered as the league’s most consistent and best franchises stepped their games up to the next level. Now, familiar foes meet in an attempt to vanquish one another, continuing the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
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Storyline: After shaking off the cobwebs in round one, the Sharks look as primed as ever to finally break through their own personal glass ceiling. But with every dawn comes a dark night, and this nightfall begins and ends with Hockeytown.
Offense: Head coach Todd McLellan boldly shuffled his lines when the Sharks were stifled on offense during the first round. Initially breaking up the Marleau-Thornton-Heatley connection was a major risk, but it paid off when San Jose’s offense kicked into a higher gear.
Benefiting most from the top line sputter was Joe Pavelski, who scored five goals throughout his first six games in the playoffs. On-again, off-again linemates Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi were just as integral down the stretch.
And while Joe Thornton still hasn’t broken out of his career-long playoff funk, one has to believe that he’s due to escape that stigma sooner rather than later. Of course, skepticism on one end is a sure thing on the other.
Johan Franzen had a point in each of the seven games played against the upstart Coyotes, a feat only achieved twice before in Red Wings playoff history. And the stats don’t lie for Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk, as the Wings stand a much better chance of winning when those two are putting pucks in the back of the net. Both teams boast stellar premiere players as well as key depth starters.
It may indeed be those depth and role players that give one team the edge over the other. Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader has been described as a “heat-seeking missile” with his booming body checks, and San Jose’s Logan Couture has made his fair share of clutch plays despite seeing the ice less than his star teammates.
Top to bottom, both teams are compiled to win, but Detroit appears to be dialed-in on all fronts while certain Sharks have yet to hit their stride, a pivotal point that could determine a few games. Advantage: Detroit.
Defense: One thing is for sure: Dan Boyle’s pity party has ended. Boyle recovered from one of the most awkward and embarrassing endings to a playoff game with a big series both offensively and defensively. Boyle clocked nearly 27 minutes of ice time in the first round, most amongst players on either team. Boyle wasn’t the only Sharks defender pulling his weight in a series defined by tight, close-to-the-vest competition.
Douglas Murray is turning into a latter-day Hal Gill, and Rob Blake is officially the kind of player Darius Kasparitis was once, one who has a better game when he isn’t listed on the score sheet. Though they aren’t primarily known for putting the puck in the net, San Jose’s defense is solid as a rock and may be the most defensively inclined corps remaining in the playoffs.
The Red Wings, however, are the complete opposite. Each and every one of Detroit’s defensemen is willing to jump into the rush at any moment, as proven during Game Seven when Brad Stuart put the nail in the coffin of the Phoenix Coyotes. Nicklas Lidstrom may be rounding out the age of 40, but that doesn’t stop him from being the best in the business during crunch time.
If anything, Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall is becoming the weak link in the chain. Kronwall was once known for a powerhouse style that made him impassable, but now he’s a less visible presence in the lineup. With the kind of skaters San Jose will be sending into the offensive zone, Kronwall needs to redevelop his independence and become a game changer. Advantage: Push.
Goaltending: Coming into this year’s playoffs, goaltending for nearly all of the 16 playoff teams was far behind the NHL’s overall learning curve. Unproven athletes and shaky career performers found a platform to surprise more now than ever, and for Evgeni Nabokov and Jimmy Howard, they excelled to the best of their abilities.
Nabokov all but erased his Olympic woes in round one with strong performances against the Colorado Avalanche. But Nabokov skeptics remain numerous, as Evgeni made less saves than any other Western goalie in the first round and wasn’t exactly tested by a league of extraordinary scorers.
With a 1.76 goals against average and a .926 save percentage, everything reads well on paper for the Sharks’ keeper. That said, he’ll still have something to prove when bigger and better competition comes to the HP Pavilion.
Detroit’s Jimmy Howard is a Calder Trophy candidate, and likely winner for the regular season. In the playoffs, Howard made the saves he had to make when Phoenix peppered him with over 200 shots in seven games. Throughout the first round, Howard had as many flashes of brilliance as he did lapses in judgment, leading several pundits to believe that the Wings could stand to put in Chris Osgood instead.
With the Osgood factor still looming large over Howard, the rookie has as much to prove as Nabokov does in the long run. The 37 regular season wins and a clutch Game Seven performance are a great start, but Howard’s yet to face some of the trials and tribulations Nabokov has. Advantage: San Jose.
Key Players: Joe Thornton scored only 20 goals this season, his lowest total in over a decade. He also continued his trend of taking fewer shots this year than he had in past seasons, yet he put on his best scoring face after nailing three goals and one assist to the Detroit wall over four games in the regular season.
A legion of players underwhelmed for Detroit when they hooked up with San Jose in the regular season, yet Jimmy Howard’s two wins and 1.62 goals against average makes him the focal point of the series.
History: This is the fourth meeting in the playoffs between Detroit and San Jose. The Sharks have lost two of three. The Wings won three of four regular season outings between the two teams as well.
Outcome: Is it too much to ask for one prosperous year out of San Jose? Detroit is the hottest team in the NHL since the Olympics while San Jose boasts a roster full of Olympic stars competing for their franchise futures. In the end, San Jose finally pulls through. Sharks in seven.
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