The San Jose Sharks face a familiar foe in the second round of the playoffs, as they draw the rested Detroit Red Wings. Although the Sharks put the Red Wings down a year ago in the postseason, this is a new year and a new team.
Having swept the Phoenix Coyotes, Detroit figures to be well rested and welcoming back Henrik Zetterberg returning from a leg injury. How much rest-versus-rust factor there will be to this series remains to be seen, but the Red Wings are far healthier than a year ago.
In this fifth postseason showdown between the two clubs, the Sharks will need to answer many of their lingering questions in order to advance past the Red Wings.
The Red Wings are undoubtedly very familiar to the Sharks and their coaching staff, but make no mistake, it’s a far different team than a year ago.
They are welcoming back their leading scorer in Henrik Zetterberg, and they are well-rested, allowing key members to recover from any lingering injuries.
Johan Franzen stands to gain the most from the time off. He missed Game 4 against the Coyotes after sustaining an upper-body injury. He single-handedly dominated Game 4 a year ago, staving off elimination before the Sharks sent Detroit home in five.
Pavel Datsyuk is as good as ever, coming off a terrific performance against Phoenix, with six points (two goals, four assists) in the sweep. Ryane Clowe has enjoyed a breakout playoffs so far, leading all Sharks skaters with seven points (four goals, three assists) in six games.
San Jose went 3-1 against Detroit in the regular-season series this year, including a convincing 4-3 victory at the Joe in the final matchup. This record means little to nothing when it comes to this series, however, as the Wings won the series 3-0-1 last season before being ousted in five.
Much like their first-round opponent, the Sharks must get off to a fast start against the Detroit Red Wings. Not only must San Jose get off to the fast start, they must also maintain play and eliminate dumb penalties and turnovers to expect any success.
The Red Wings have outscored their opponents 8-3 in the first period, while the Sharks have been outscored 8-1 in the same frame.
Any “rust” factor that may weigh into the series for Detroit isn’t likely to last past the first game, where San Jose has historically struggled in Game 1.
A fast start is crucial against the Red Wings, and the Sharks’ struggles at home only compound the importance of a Game 1 win.
More importantly than that, however, the Sharks must eliminate the self-inflicted wounds that plagued them against LA. Neutral zone turnovers and unforced errors left the door cracked open for a Kings team lacking in offensive firepower.
The Red Wings are in no short supply of that kind of talent, and San Jose must take care of the puck and play defense first to win. Committing the same errors and mental mistakes against the Red Wings will lead to an early exit, and San Jose has got to address the inconsistencies in this area.
Staying out of the box is crucial against the Wings, who average 4.5 goals per game this postseason and have one of the better power play units in the league.
Carrying a fifth-ranked power play unit (22.3 percent) into the playoffs, the Red Wings scorched the Coyotes, scoring eight goals in 25 chances for a whopping 32 percent efficiency.
San Jose’s penalty killing unit has been suspect all year, but rebounded strong against the Kings before allowing two power play tallies in Game 6. Killing off 18 straight man advantages, the Sharks were aggressive and unrelenting against the Kings' power-play unit.
The penalty killers rose to the challenge and killed off 20 of 24 Kings' power plays in the series.
The true test lies ahead against a superb Detroit power play. San Jose must stay aggressive and limit the Wings’ chances to win this series.
They've also got to find a way to get their second ranked power play unit untracked, after being stifled against Los Angeles. San Jose has gone just 2-23 with the man advantage, and took just three shots in three man advantages in Game 6 against the Kings.
The Sharks are operating at just a 8.7% rate with the man advantage, but face a Red Wings penalty kill that is struggling to find their way a bit at 66.7 percent.
This factor cannot be understated against a very deep and talented Detroit Red Wing team, but the Sharks are no slouches themselves.
Detroit’s depth proved too much for the Coyotes to overcome, as 16 of 19 players scored a point in the series sweep. San Jose had 15 of 20 skaters scoring a point, but head into this series with some questions marks on their fourth line.
While much of the attention will be focused on the headliner names, this series will come down to the third and fourth lines making the differences for their teams.
The fourth line of Jamal Mayers-Scott Nichol-Ben Eager struggled mightily in some stretches against the Kings. Ben Eager seems to have already lost his job to Jamie McGinn, and Mayers may sit should McLellan want to go with the young Ferriero.
The Sharks shortened their bench against the Kings in Game 3, and stormed back to win the game in overtime in thrilling fashion. Could Todd McLellan shorten his bench again vs the Red Wings?
The Red Wings' fourth line of Kris Draper-Justin Abdelkader-Patrick Eaves has been very effective in the playoffs so far, and the Sharks have to find an answer.
Darren Helm vs. Joe Pavelski
Both players have been a jack of all trades for their teams and stepping up in a big way for the postseason.
Helm enjoyed a terrific series (1 G, 2 A) against the Coyotes, and has seen spot duty alongside Datsyuk and Holmstrom on the top line.
Pavelski has been as clutch as ever, with three goals and one assist in six games and has anchored the potent third line for San Jose. Mitchell-Pavelski-Wellwood could be the difference-maker in this series, and they’ve been hot since early February.
Logan Couture vs. Jimmy Howard
Jimmy Howard hasn’t exactly enjoyed a strong year this year, after saving the Detroit Red Wings through some difficult injuries a year ago. Posting a mediocre .909 save percentage and 2.78 goals-against, Howard came up big against Phoenix—including a 33 save performance in Game 1.
Couture has enjoyed playing against Howard, with some signature goals at key moments—including the poor angle goal last year in Game 3 at the Joe. Down 3-1 in the game, Couture’s tally brought the Sharks back and pushed Detroit to the brink.
The Sharks will need Couture’s contributions, but these two have a history that only figures to get juicier as the series moves along.
Tomas Holmstrom vs. Douglas Murray
This matchup will be a flat out war, adding yet another page to the long chapter of battles between these two players. Murray had a rough series against the big, physical Kings, and will need to rebound to keep Holmstrom from getting into Niemi’s eyes.
Nicklas Lidstrom vs. Dan Boyle
Lidstrom struggled through the regular season a bit, and may be showing some wrinkles in his game, but is still one of the best defenseman in the league. He’s taking on less minutes because of Niklas Kronwall’s emergence on the Detroit blueline, and figures to be fresh for San Jose.
Dan Boyle has been ridden hard all year and may be breaking down from playing nearly 30 minutes a night during the regular season. He had a terrible series against Los Angeles, committing several turnovers and looking unsteady at times. Ian White’s addition to the Sharks' team has been a huge success, but has it come too late for the Sharks?
Boyle needs to rebound in a big way, and hopefully the few days of break will pay off for Boiler as the Sharks prepare to take on Detroit.
White’s been a godsend for the San Jose Sharks, with his puck-moving ability and dangerous point presence on the power play. More importantly, he has shown the ability to eat top four minutes—an important factor considering how much workload Boyle has taken on this season.
White is a catalyst on the blueline for the Sharks, and look for him to make a huge impact in this series.
The longtime Shark-killer, Modano hasn’t exactly panned out as the Red Wings had hoped when bringing him aboard. He has contributed in a limited way when he’s been healthy enough to play, so the rest figures to help him as well.
He could be ready to breakout, and he's still got the wheels to make a difference, so San Jose must be ready.
Much as he did a year ago, Antti Niemi struggled through the quarterfinals and specifically in Games 3 and 5 against the Kings. With much of the hockey world focusing on the Schneider-Luongo fiasco in Vancouver, or the Boucher-Bobrovsky issue in Philadelphia, Niemi’s struggles have flown under the radar.
Like the Vancouver series a year ago, Niemi responded by coming up with several key saves against the Kings to close out their season.
Finishing with a 3.99 goals-against and a .863 save percentage, Antti has quite a few question marks heading into the second round.
He needs to put the early struggles behind him, but more importantly, the Sharks must get involved early and play hockey from their zone outward.
The Sharks' best players must show up to validate their 4-1 semifinal win from a year ago, where they dispatched the Red Wings with relative ease.
Following an offseason of turnover and key decisions in keeping the team basically intact, San Jose faces their nemesis once more.
Redemption and validation will be the prize for this Sharks squad, who have long suffered the unkind label of choking in the playoffs. Even after advancing to the Western Conference Finals a year ago, the Sharks may still need to validate their status as contender in the eyes of many.
Validation after bouncing back from last year’s unfortunate bounce against Colorado, or the 7-1 embarrassment in Game 4 against the Red Wings. Validation after dropping Game 2 at home in ugly fashion this year, or the unmerciful five minute major at the end of Game 6 against the Kings.
Could Joe Thornton be putting his unfair label of playoff underachiever to rest? After scoring the overtime game-winning goal against the Kings in Game 6, he may just be the Sharks hero again vs. Detroit.
The Sharks' top stars shone in the series clincher against Detroit last year, responding after being dominated in Game 4.
Joe Thornton enjoyed an awesome series against the Red Wings a year ago, and in Game 5, the "Big Three" delivered in convincing fashion.
Thornton won the faceoff and tied the game after Detroit had taken the second period lead. In the pivotal third period, Dany Heatley stole the puck, leading to Patrick Marleau’s goal setup by Thornton. All three played a huge role in ushering the Detroit Red Wings out of the playoffs, and San Jose needs a repeat performance from the trio this year.
Could we be witnessing Joe Thornton’s postseason coming out party this year? It would be poetic justice against the Red Wings given the similarities between Joe Thornton and another captain who wore No. 19 for Detroit.
An offensive dynamo who struggled through years of disappointment before transforming into a total two-way player before finally winning the Cup?
We’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we? Sharks fans sure hope so.