NHL Playoffs 2011: Five Reasons the Detroit Red Wings Will Beat the Sharks
And here we are again.
And, just like last year, they're headed to San Jose to begin Round 2 against the Sharks.
Unlike last year, the Wings beat the 'Yotes in Game 4, not Game 7 and, unlike last year, they've had a full nine days of rest as opposed to the 36 hours they had before flying directly from Phoenix to San Jose for Round 2.
However, what makes this rematch between two of the top teams in the Western Conference different than last year goes far deeper than time lines.
Last season, the Sharks were the top team in the West, posting 113 points and 51 wins during a season that saw them start and finish as perhaps the best team in the NHL.
This year, the Sharks saw much hotter competition in the Pacific Division and were, at one point, as low as 12th in the conference.
A second-half push saw the Sharks re-emerge as one of the most dangerous teams in hockey as they soared to a second place finish with 105 points.
Last season, the Red Wings were out of the playoff picture for much of the year as fatigue and a multitude of injuries limited their effectiveness.
It was only a near miraculous turn-around in mid-February that saw earned them a fifth place finish extending their playoff appearances to 19 straight years.
This year, the Red Wings jumped out to a red-hot start through their first 20 games before cooling off the rest of the season as they struggled with defensive consistency and injury woes yet again.
The paths that got these teams to where they are differ greatly from those they took last year, yet, the destination for both is the same.
Last year, the Sharks beat the Red Wings soundly the first three games of the series before collapsing in Game 4 in Detroit.
Once back in the comfort of HP Pavilion however, the Sharks dispatched the Red Wings for good, and punched their ticket to the Western Conference Finals.
This scenario won't repeat itself this season.
Sure, the Sharks are a very dangerous team. Handicapping this series is nearly impossible, if not foolish to attempt.
Nevertheless, there are five reasons to believe that, this year, the Red Wings won't only provide a much tougher test for the Sharks, but will actually emerge the victor this time around.
My prediction is that the Wings will win this series in six, very hard-fought games—here's why.
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It's Rest, Not Rust, That Will Show in Game 1
Alright, so the Red Wings are an old team, no one's debating that.
And, entering the playoffs, they were also a little banged up.
Henrik Zetterberg sat out the entire first round and Johan Franzen missed the final game due to an ankle injury.
The fact that this squad has had over a week off has lead some to speculate that such inaction will inevitably lead to some visible rust in Round 2.
Though such a long layoff is unusual, the experience and professionalism of the Detroit Red Wings will make sure that it's not squandered.
Head coach Mike Babcock will not allow his team to lose focus and has run them through rigorous practices the past several days.
What's more, the time off has allowed Zetterberg and Franzen to heal sufficiently to get them back in the lineup for Game 1 on Friday night.
All of this ads up to a rested, more dangerous version of the team that dispatched the Phoenix Coyotes in four games.
While the Sharks are a vastly more dangerous team than the Phoenix Coyotes, the rest the Wings have had should help them win this series too.
The Sharks Are Deep, but the Wings Are Deeper
If you're a Red Wings fan and don't get a little terrified when looking at the Sharks' roster of forwards, you'd better check for a pulse.
Not only do they sport three of the most offensively gifted guys in the game in Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Danny Heatley; their "secondary scorers" in Devin Setoguchi, Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture rival most other team's top offensive talent.
The Sharks are deep, there's no doubt about that, but they're not so deep as to need to sit a perfectly healthy, Stanley Cup-winning, Hall of Fame-bound forward like Mike Modano.
Now, before you start talking about how Modano is a shadow of himself and isn't worth playing anyway, let me clarify that I'd be inclined to agree with you.
The point is not that Modano is somehow a better forward option than say Pavelski or Couture, he's not.
The point is that Detroit's forward corps is so deep that not even a sure-fire Hall of Famer and living legend can crack the line-up without coming in as an injury substitution.
Up front, the Wings are as dangerous as the Sharks, but the danger runs just a bit deeper in Detroit.
Goaltending...That's Right, I Said It
The lazy pundits among us will almost surely give the edge in goaltending in this series to San Jose.
"Antti Niemi won a Stanley Cup just last year," they'll say. "He's got way more playoff experience than Jimmy Howard," they'll argue.
Those things are true, but the argument their meant to support is a little less valid than some would think.
The fact that Antti Niemi won a Stanley Cup with Chicago last year can't be dismissed entirely, but, in all honesty, there are few goalies in the NHL that would not have won playing behind the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks.
Niemi was in net when the 'Hawks won the Cup, but he did not win the Cup for them.
As evidenced by his shaky play against an offensively challenged LA Kings team in Round 1, Niemi isn't nearly as solid, or solid looking this year as he was 12 months ago.
Conversely, Jimmy Howard looks much more confident and focused in Detroit's net now than he did last season as a rookie facing playoff pressure for the very first time.
The past notwithstanding, as of now, the Detroit Red Wings have the more solid of the two starters in net.
So, for the sake of argument, let's say these teams are totally equal.
Equal forward fire-power, equal blue-line talent, equal goal-tending ability.
Given that equality, what you're left with is coaching and, in that case, the advantage would be Detroit's.
It's not that Todd McLellan is a bad coach, far from it.
But, he learned his trade under the very same guy he's now going to try to beat in seven games or less, and he's not likely to out-think or out-coach the man from which he learned how to think and coach.
While McLellan can be confident that he was the winning coach in the handshake line last season, he can't have thought that his team beating Detroit was due to his ability to out-coach Mike Babcock.
With the Wings having the rest and depth they didn't have last year, they'll provide a much tougher opponent in terms of talent and ability alone.
Add to that a coach that has the ability to think a few moves ahead of his opponent and what we'll see is a master chess-match that will eventually have Babcock setting up the checkmate.
The Sharks Know Where They'd Like to Go, but the Red Wings Have Been There
As Mike Babcock has said, when you don't have it, you don't think it's important, when you do have it, you realize how important it is.
Those who examine the talent on the Sharks' roster may be quick to claim that that alone will trump the experience of the Red Wings.
However, talent alone cannot replace the knowledge of what exactly it takes to win a series en route to a championship.
Nearly to a man (OK, 16 men to be exact), the Red Wings know just what it takes to win big in the playoffs.
Conversely, the Sharks have just five players with Stanley Cup rings at home.
Call it the "intangibles," call it "swagger," call it whatever you want—experience in hockey, as in life, is monumentally important when it comes to winning.
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