There's a hockey buzz in Northern California unlike anything the Bay Area has felt in quite a while. After years of playoff exits, potential unfulfilled, and continual postseason failure the Sharks have reached the Western Conference Finals for just the second time in team history.
Before we preview the Blackhawks, let's flash back to Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinal between the San Jose Sharks and the Colorado Avalanche. The game in which needs no review for Sharks fans, and the now famous goal-heard-round the world by Dan Boyle in OT.
The outcome of that game and the manner in which we lost the game was about as low as it gets in the history Shark playoff hockey. This would have been a death knell to the San Jose Sharks, a singular reminder of how we just keep coming up short.
From a fan's perspective, you would have to think that game was either the doorman opening the door to another postseason failure, or the forging moment for our Sharks.
Luckily, it turned out to be the latter.
Instead of folding like lawn chairs as San Jose history would almost dictate, we circled the wagons, "overcame" and went on to put the nemesis Red Wings to sleep in five games.
On the horizon, and no sooner than Sunday loom the Chicago Blackhawks, a team with many similarities yet so many differences as our Sharks.
The Blackhawks are as talented and as versatile as they come in the NHL. But as high as their marks are for talent, speed and versatility, they are also known for one other department the Sharks are well acquainted with.
These Blackhawks simply cannot be explained and as soon as you accept that fact the better off you are. They bounced a depleted Vancouver Canuck team 5-1 to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row. And while it their ride has had quite a few ups and downs, one thing you cannot deny about this Hawk team is that it is damn fun to watch.
The matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 seed in the West on paper looks interesting to say the least. The two teams seem quite similar as far as goals scored and allowed and regular season point totals. Chicago holds the edge in the regular season, winning three of the four matchups including a 7-2 rout.
Nabokov absolutely stole the game on Dec 22, in which the Sharks were dominated and outshot 47-14.
Why do all these regular season numbers matter? Well, fact is they don't. Not in the least. When it comes to the playoffs none of these regular season numbers, matchups or records mean a damn thing and that's the beauty of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Just ask the Red Wings what their regular season record and stats meant against the Sharks.
I eluded earlier to these teams being quite similar in many aspects. On defense Chicago's Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook both played for Team Canada. They were joined by San Jose's Dan Boyle while partner, Douglas Murray skated for Team Sweden.
Team Canada also sported the services of Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks captain and leader who is having a superb 2010 postseason. He was especially deadly against Vancouver with four goals and eight assists.
Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, and Joe Thornton also starred for Team Canada and seemingly got into gear against the Red Wings. Joe Thornton has put together his best playoff series so far against the Red Wings, showing a desire, hunger, and a streak of nastiness I have never seen from the big man.
Joe Pavelski spent a good amount of time with Patrick Kane on the ice for the silver medal US team. One cannot talk about our postseason play thus far without mentioning "Little Joe" and the exemplary efforts of our second line.
The Blackhawks present a great deal of skill and speed, and its up to Mclellan and our defensemen to answer the call and play smart playoff hockey. One only needs to look at Vancouver's almost flippant attitude in taking care of the puck in the playoffs to see how the Hawks hurt them.
Both teams are four lines deep, although Chicago holds the slight edge in that department. What will pose the real problem is that Chicago is built unlike any team the Sharks have faced in the playoffs.
The Blackhawks pair talent, speed and skill with big men who aren't afraid to go to the net or mix it up in the corners on almost every line. This unique blend allows them to play to their opponent's style and lends a difficult challenge when trying to gameplan for them.
Many arguments, discussions and spitting contests can be put forth when talking about the Sharks vs the Blackhawks. I feel there is only one difference when it comes to the two teams, and that's goaltending.
Yes, that would be our Evgeni Nabokov who has quietly and calmly put together an effort to be proud of. While the goaltending advantage goes to the Sharks, Nabby will have to put his best game forward and MUST steal a game in Chicago.
On the surface, questions about Antti Niemi after outplaying Roberto Loungo and advancing to the conference finals should be put to rest. While the offensive prowess of the Vancouver Canucks cannot be denied, a closer look into that series tells a different story on both counts. Niemi has been inconsistent and although been sharp when he's on, it's the times when he's not on that should worry Blackhawk fans.
Niemi will be tested early and often against the Sharks and I believe we will once again break up the big line to make matchups difficult.
Look for Heatley to be moved all over the place once again, and his continued strong play will make a difference in this series.
The Sharks come off a long rest after putting the Red Wings away, and must come out sharp focused and hungry. Rest or Rust being the continual question, one that Todd Mclellan addressed during the Monday skate
"It's a fine line that we're walking, but we're going to err on the rest side," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said
Game One has been the continual question mark in regards to the Sharks and the playoffs, and this series will be no different. The Sharks cannot afford to lose a game at home, especially Game One.
"They're a very good team," McLellan said. "They can strike very fast and often and obviously they're playing at the top of their game.
Matchups to watch:
Douglas Murray against Dustin Bylfigen
Vancouver had no answers for the big man, and Murray must keep Buff's stick and body out of reach of any rebounds or deflections. Murray must do this all while keeping his cool, which is something the Canucks just couldn't do.
Murray is one hell of a hitter and defenseman, but at times loses his discipline either by trying to line up the big hit or trying to jump into the play. We need to keep our play simple and straightforward to defeat the Hawks.
Sharks power play against Blackhawk penalty kill
"We'll have a sense or awareness that they're prepared to attack on the penalty kill," McLellan said. "It comes down to managing shift length a little bit and certainly the puck."
In layman's terms, if one of our defensemen get cute with cross ice passes on the power play the puck is as good as in the net. Our communication errors, breakdown in coverages and at times concentration issues cannot surface against the Blackhawks. They are too good, too fast and too skilled and will take those mistakes and run with them.
Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi who have arguably been the best line for the Sharks will continue to play huge. Chicago counters with Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Troy Brouwer, no slouches themselves. The Sharks second line has been a terror and actually should have scored quite a bit more than they have.
The Blackhawks have a great speedy skilled team, and will be a tough test. This is Evgeni Nabokov's series to win and he knows it. He must steal a game or two in Chicago and must keep the Sharks in it when momentum swings to the Hawks.
I wrote in my Game Five preview against the Red Wings that our moment of true definition had arrived, and that I was glad for it. This team has shown its true character and it's one we can continue to live off of in this year's playoffs.
Sharks in six.