NHL Playoffs 2011: 5 Bold Predictions for the Sharks' Opening Series
The San Jose Sharks entered Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Los Angeles Kings, and for the first time in a long while, nobody's giving them a chance. San Jose has been superb in the regular season for the better part of a decade now, but still no Stanley Cup.
Against the Los Angeles Kings team with an excellent defense and a large physical group of wingers, San Jose must prove that they have what it takes this year.
And prove it again they must, because despite the remarkable performance in the postseason last year, the naysayers are as prevalent as ever. The doubters and critics crone on about how woefully deficient the San Jose squad is and how they lack the intangibles to win it all.
The team that couldn’t get a save when it counted most against the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Fact is though, last year’s run to the Western Finals showed the Sharks are for real, and this year, they look to take the next steps.
Here are five bold predictions for the opening round of the 2010-11 Western Conference Playoffs for the San Jose Sharks.
Antti Niemi Will Steal the Show
Okay, so this prediction isn’t too bold unless you are another “expert” that thinks Niemi is not for real.
Unlike the previous years where the San Jose Sharks goaltending just could not come through in the crucial moments, Niemi will steal this series against the Kings. You won't see many blowouts, but you'll see a ton of close hard-fought games, and that suits the Sharks just fine.
Coming into the series, the defending Stanley Cup champion goaltender surpassed his win total from last year's rookie campaign. As he has been since the All-Star break, Niemi will again and make the spectacular save look routine when the stakes are highest.
Despite the struggling Kopitar-less Kings offense, they still have a talented group of big forwards who can play well along the boards and in front of the net. With an aggressive defense, the Kings will get their chances in the attacking zone but will be hard-pressed to solve Niemi.
Antti has won five out of his last six games, giving up two goals or less in each appearance and also sports a 9-1-1 record in his last 11.
The Sharks penalty kill may prove to be their Achilles' heel, but it won't be against a Kings power play that was pretty bad, even with their leading scorer. As he’s done time and time this year, Niemi will save the day and clean up any mistakes the Sharks commit in their own zone.
Ryane Clowe Will Lead the Way
Ryane Clowe has enjoyed one of his finest seasons ever and is leading both on and off the ice wearing the “A” for San Jose. Setting career highs with 24 goals and 62 points, Clowe’s finest hour as a Shark may have come after a bitter 4-3 loss against the Vancouver Canucks.
His tireless work ethic, leadership and willingness to stand up for his teammates has San Jose's locker room as tightknit as ever.
Clowe has become the face of San Jose’s defensive renaissance, and he’s one of only three players in the NHL to have 60-plus points and logged 100-plus penalty minutes.
Standing up for several of his teammates late in the season, Clowe has given the locker room a foundation of camaraderie and togetherness. His presence alongside Logan Couture has given the youngster more room to operate with and a steady veteran ear should things go badly.
With size, hands and the heart of a champion, Ryane Clowe will lead the way in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings.
Dustin Penner Won’t Show Up
Dustin Penner may be a lot of things, but he doesn’t exactly have a track record of consistency. He enters the playoffs ice cold, riding a 12-game scoreless streak and has a total of six points in 19 games as a member of the Kings.
Kings GM Dean Lombardi gambled that Penner could be the difference, but if he flops against the Sharks, it may get Dean fired.
Although the Kings have stated that their second leading scorer Justin Williams (22 goals, 35 assists) is supposedly healthy and ready to participate in Game 1, he'll be wearing a harness which could limit his impact.
His style of play isn't exactly conducive to playing with an injury, and his separated shoulder could render him ineffective.
For a team that struggled to score coming down the stretch and having just 12 goals over their last seven games, Penner needs to show up. While he’s still plenty big, plenty strong and has a set of very good hands around the net, he’s also very inconsistent.
With just two tallies and 20 games with the Los Angeles Kings, Dustin Penner just doesn't look interested in playing some serious hockey. Without him, the Kings don’t have much of a shot to sneak past San Jose in the first.
Sharks Will Win a Game 1 for Once
Yes, I said it, the San Jose Sharks will win Game 1 on home ice, setting up the chance to head back to LA up 2-0. With a 1-6 record in its last seven playoff series openers, the Sharks will reverse a trend against the Kings and get off on the right foot.
With a 25-11-5 record at home, the Sharks were dominant to close the regular season, outscoring their opponents to the tune of 25-7 over their last five home contests.
From a statistical perspective, the Los Angeles Kings are better in almost every facet of their game when at home versus away. Penalty kill, power play, even strength defense are just a few areas where you can see that the Kings clearly enjoy home ice advantage.
LA will be looking for the split but will be denied as the Sharks will win both games at home.
San Jose isn't going to be taking this Kings team lightly and will look to put the clamps down on this series early by starting the right way.
Heatley Will Break Out
Dany Heatley was easily one of the better Shark forwards to kick off the 2010-11 NHL season, generating chances away from Thornton and playing an aggressive brand of hockey.
Since the new year however, he’s struggled through a scoring funk that has Heater playing tentatively on some nights. While he’s provided a few glimpses, they have been flashes in the pan as his consistent and clutch scoring has not rematerialized for San Jose.
While some have questioned his dedication or lack thereof to the new system, that's been the culprit behind his hampered production. With no decrease of power-play minutes or ice time, one can see that it's been a confidence issue through Heatley's play.
While he’s definitely had his share of struggles, he’s played with a slight edge late in the season and will break out against the Kings.
He’s the Sharks' most dangerous skater in the playoffs, with 17 goals and 48 points in 48 postseason games. Heatley is as clutch as they come and will prove his worth to the Sharks fanbase in the opening round. He led the team in game winners a year ago and leads the NHL with 49 game winners since the 2002-03 NHL season.
The San Jose Sharks are on a mission of redemption in the playoffs this year, and the Los Angeles Kings are about to find that out the hard way.