The San Jose Sharks dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in five games last postseason, taking it on the chin in Game 4 in Detroit but closing out the series on home ice. It was the playoff underachiever topping the perennial Cup contender; and in the case of Todd McLellan and Mike Babcock, the student defeating the teacher.
"When you start as a coach or a player, playing with that kind of motivation, I think it can be dangerous. It's not about Mike and Todd. Mike and Todd are going to stand there and change lines. The players are going to go out and play and at the end of the day, we know one of the teams is going to move on.
"Whoever plays best in a seven-game series is going to win. Eventually the better team evolves and takes off. We'd like to be that team and there's a pretty good team over there and we understand that."
Pretty good? The Wings looked damn impressive in Round 1, while the Sharks had their problems with a pesky Kings team (and some terrific goaltending).
Who wins this Western Conference semifinal? And, more importantly, will we see another friggin' Shark with a friggin' octopus in its friggin' mouth thrown on the ice?
Friday, April 29
at San Jose, 10:00 p.m.
Sunday, May 1
at San Jose, 3:00 p.m.
Wednesday, May 4
at Detroit, 8:00 p.m.
VERSUS (JIP), TSN
Friday, May 6
at Detroit, 7:00 p.m.
*Sunday, May 8
at San Jose, 8:00 p.m.
*Tuesday, May 10
at Detroit, TBD
*Thursday, May 12
at San Jose, TBD
The Red Wings group reads like … well, like the side of the Stanley Cup. Pavel Datsyuk was in Conn Smythe form, dominating the first round in stretches with six points. Tomas Holmstrom is the immovable object, Johan Franzen the irresistible force in the postseason. Missing from that list: Henrik Zetterberg, who'll be ready to roll in Game 1 and brings one of the best two-way games in hockey to the series.
But the performances the Sharks have received from their group can't be ignored. Ryane Clowe (7 points) and Logan Couture (5 points) were the team's most important and effective duo in the first round. Joe Pavelski had more postseason heroics. Players like Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell (4 points each) contributed down the lineup.
So they've got depth beyond the Big Three … but the Big Three aren't to be overlooked despite their postseason reputation, especially when Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton scored in Game 6 to oust the Kings. (Thornton with the series-clinching goal, forcing hockey fans to run outside to make sure up wasn't down and that dogs and cats weren't living together.)
Which group is better? We'd offer that one-through-nine, it's the Sharks. But it's hard to argue with the names on the Red Wings roster.
The first round afforded Nicklas Lidstrom rest both in games played and in ice time, as he averaged under 20 minutes (19:34) per game. Expect that total to spike in this series, as he and Brad Staurt will see copious amounts of Joe Thornton, one would imagine.
Niklas Kronwall led the Wings in ice time with 22:24 on average, scoring three points and being a physical presence with Ruslan Salei. Brian Rafalski averaged 21:19 and tallied two goals.
Dan Boyle does the heavy lifting for the San Jose Sharks, averaging 27:10 in the opening round with three points. His partner, Douglas Murray, brings a level of physical agitation along with effective defensive play. Jason Demers tallied two goals in the series, while Ian White had five assists. Marc-Edouard Vlasic had an up and down series, dealing with some off the ice issues.
Antti Niemi has a Stanley Cup ring … and a 3.99 GAA and a .863 save percentage in the first round. The Sharks were outscored 8-1 in the first period against the Kings, which is something they can't get away with against the Wings. A return to competence for Niemi is essential here.
Against the Sharks last postseason, Jimmy Howard gave up four goals in three of their four losses. Is he looking for revenge? From the Freep: "I'm just going to try and play the same that I did against Phoenix. I'm not trying to be spectacular, but make the saves when called upon. And try to come up with the one or two that you shouldn't."
The key here: Which goalie will a bigger liability for his team?
For what it's worth, Niemi had the best of Howard in a big way in the regular season.
The Todd Bertuzzi Song.
"He's skating all around and everybody's woozy." Yeah, there was this one guy …
Teacher vs. student again.
There are few coaches you'd want on your bench instead of Mike Babcock for a critical playoff game. He's deft at juggling lines, juggling his roster, motivating his troops and managing a series. If the Jack Adams could actually go to a coach who wins with a great team instead of barely making the playoffs with an average one, he'd have a shelf of them by now.
Todd McLellan, his former assistant, is 14-13 in the playoffs, and did some impressive work in what was a chaotic opening-round series vs. Los Angeles -- including standing by Niemi.
And, of course, he beat Babcock last season.
The Red Wings are 4 for 15 on the power play, but struggled on the kill, having given up six power-play goals in 18 times shorthanded.
The Sharks are 2 for 23 on the power play, an anemic 8.7 percent conversion rate. On the kill, they gave up five goals in 24 chances.
Sharks power play vs. Wings' kill … something's gotta give.
The sequel to "Jaws" that never was.
Sharks in seven. This San Jose team already has the confidence from defeating the Wings last season on top of the confidence that this team, because the emergence of a solid young core of players, has better balance in scoring and in leadership.
This is going to be a war. But the Sharks showed impressive perseverance in Round 1.