It will have been more than a week since the Red Wings eliminated the Phoenix Coyotes when they lace ’em up for Game 1 against the Sharks on Friday night. The Wings 6-3 victory over the Coyotes in Game 4 made them the first team to advance on to Round 2, and now 7 days later, there are still four teams unsure of their future beyond tonight. What we do know is that the Wings will open their series up in San Jose on Friday night (time TBA), continuing on Sunday at 3pm, before moving back to Detroit for Games 3 & 4 on Wednesday and Friday.
The Wings faced the Coyotes for the second time in a row in the first round, and this time bettered the outcome by three games. It took them 7 games to knock off Phoenix last year, but they were able to get it done in the minimum of four this time around.
Just like last year, they move on to face the San Jose Sharks, and this time they will need a three game turnaround from last year just to advance. They were never really in the series against the Sharks in 2010 after dropping the first three games. They smoked the Sharks in Game 4 on the back of Johan Franzen’s historic night, but they eventually dropped the series in 5 games.
I’ve already offered my thoughts on that series numerous times, and I refuse to blame Jimmy Howard for that series loss. The Wings were shorthanded for the vast majority of the series thanks to some questionable penalty calls and the diving tactics of Devin Setoguchi and Evgeni Nabokov.
This year, in the regular season, the Wings took the first of four games by a score of 5-3, but then dropped the final three games by a total of 12-6. Altogether, the Sharks have a 7-2 record against the Wings since last April. Not good. The one positive the Wings can draw on is that they are not the same team that lost 4 out of 5 to the Sharks last April/May, nor are they the team that lost to them in December, February and March when they were decimated by injuries.
Let’s take a look and see who has the edge in some important categories, shall we?
The Wings boast two of the league’s best centers in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, one of the league’s most prolific playoff scorers in recent years in Johan Franzen, and the league’s best net front presence in Tomas Holmstrom. The Wings were the second highest scoring team in the regular season, and averaged 4.5 goals a game in the first round.
The Sharks are no slouches offensively either, ending the season in 6th in goals for. They are led by their top two centers, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, each of whom were in the top 25 in league scoring. Thornton also led the NHL in takeaways by a wide margin over the nearest competitor, Jonathan Toews. They also feature two-time 50 goal scorer Dany Heatley and youngster Joe Pavelski, who had a coming out party last year in the playoffs against the Wings and parlayed that into a 66 point campaign this year.
Result: Draw. Both teams are loaded with offensive superstars
The Wings get offense from up and down their lineup, so their secondary scoring numbers aren’t particularly stand-outish. Danny Cleary was a revelation this year, coming back with 26 goals, good for second best on the team, a year after a season ruined by injuries. Valtteri Filppula’s offensive numbers still aren’t where you’d like them to be, but he was hampered by a groin injury. Todd Bertuzzi provided great bang for his buck, putting up 45 points for less than $2M, while Jiri Hudler’s production dipped in his first year back from Russia.
The Sharks boast a bevy of talented secondary scorers, including Ryane Clowe, who led the team with 7 points in the post-season. Calder trophy candidate Logan Couture had 5 points in the playoffs to go along with 32 goals in the regular season, trailing only Marleau. Devin Setoguchi is an irritant who can put up some offense, racking up 41 points this year.
Result: Sharks have the edge here.
The Red Wings possess the NHL’s best checking line(s), in my opinion. They can cause nightmares for the other teams defenders with their tenacious forecheck, and they can also contribute offense. Darren Helm leads this group, which also includes Justin Abdelkader, Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller, and Kris Draper.
The Sharks lean heavily on their top two lines for offense, as their bottom 6 forwards do not contribute much in that regard. Torrey Mitchell is their only played I’d classify as a “grinder” who pulled his weight offensively.
Result: Wings have this one in a landslide.
Top four defenders:
On paper, the Wings top 4 looks like it could be the best in the league. Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski can put up offense like almost no one else, Brad Stuart is a monster defensively, and Niklas Kronwall can do a little of both. Of course, it didn’t work out quite that way this season as the Wings surrendered more goals than they typically do. The salary cap is really creating an even playing field in that sense.
Dan Boyle is annually among the league’s top offensive producers from the blue line, Douglas Murray is the Swedish version of Brad Stuart, and Mar-Edouard Vlasic is very solid as well. Ian White is proving to be quite capable in his first ever playoff run, in a career that has included stops in Carolina, Toronto and Calgary.
Result: Wings with the edge here.
The Wings have a lot of experience here, with Ruslan Salei and Jonathan Ericsson each having played in the Stanley Cup Finals before. Salei has been solid in a limited role, specifically as a penalty killer and playing tough in the Wings own end, but he doesn’t contribute much in the way of offense. Ericsson was one of the Wings top players this year in +/-, which is surprising for a player who gives fans headaches with his turnovers. He has the ability to put up more offense than he currently does, as he possesses a lethal slap shot and is a very good passer. They also have rookie Jakub Kindl and NHL veterans Doug Janik and Derek Meech waiting in the Wings.
The Sharks have a similar situation with youngster Jason Demers and veteran Niclas Wallin. Wallin gives the Sharks two Cup Final trips, a loss in 2002 to Detroit and a win in 2006, both with the Carolina Hurricanes. He is similar to Salei in that he offers limited offense, with 13 points being his career high. Demers plays on the Sharks power play, and put up 24 points and was +19 this year.
Result: Draw. This one is very, very close. Too close to call I’d say.
Jimmy Howard had his ups and downs a year after his runner-up finish for the Calder trophy, but he led the Wings to a 3rd place finish in the Western Conference with very little help in front of him at times. His numbers early in the season, before all of the injuries set in, were outstanding. He was very good in the opening round against the Coyotes.
Antti Niemi bettered Howard in save percentage, goals against average and shut outs in the regular season, in his first season as a Shark. Last year, he won the Stanley Cup after assuming the starting role from the fumbling Cristobal Huet. This year’s playoffs were another story, though. He was yanked in Games 3 and 5, and had a 4.00 GAA for the series, with an ugly SV% of .863. It could easily be said that the Sharks won their matchup with the Kings in spit of Niemi, rather than because of him. In fact, they had contemplated going with backup Antero Niittymaki for Game 6 before ultimately staying with Niemi.
Result: Howard has an edge over Niemi right now from a confidence standpoint. The Kings weren’t supposed to offer the Sharks any resistance and the shoddy play of Niemi made it a much closer series than it should have been.
Mike Babcock is among the best in the business. He is the only man on earth to hold an Olympic Gold medal, a Stanley Cup championship, a World Junior Gold medal, and a World Championship Gold medal. His Red Wings teams have been among the league’s best since he came here, and he also took the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003.
Todd McLellan was a member of Babcock’s coaching staff from 2005-2008, where he was in charge of the team’s forwards and power play, which was among the league’s best in his time here. He won the Stanley Cup with the Wings in 2008. He became the Sharks head coach following the Cup win, losing in the first round the next year and the Conference Finals the next year.
Result: I’d take Babcock over McLellan here, although I wish McLellan was still on our coaching staff.
Final Tally: Wings win the preview by a 4-1-2 margin. As for my prediction, I’ll take the Wings downing the Sharks in 6 brutally tough contests.
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