Stanley Cup Finals Preview - Detroit vs. San Jose

Stanley Cup Finals Preview - Detroit vs. San Jose

Stanley Cup Finals Preview - Detroit vs. San Jose
April 24th, 2007

(Sports Network) - The Detroit Red Wings gave their fans a tiny scare in the opening round against Calgary, but while the Western Conference's top-seeded club may have scored few style points, the Wings were still able to survive and advance.

In the first round, the Red Wings drew the Calgary Flames, a team that posted 30 of its 43 wins during the regular season at home. The home team held serve for the first five games of the series before Detroit broke through in Calgary on Sunday to end the conference quarterfinal set in six games.

Dominik Hasek, Detroit's 42-year-old goaltender, proved to be the team's greatest asset against the Flames. Hasek, winner of six Vezina and two Hart Trophies, faced only 129 shots in the six contests, but posted a 1.57 goals against average and .922 save percentage.

The Czech-born Hasek, who also has won a Stanley Cup title and Olympic gold medal, has a 57-41 lifetime record in the playoffs.

Leading the Red Wings in scoring during the set against the Flames was four- time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. Lidstrom punched in two goals and added six assists to lead Detroit, but he also had some rough patches in the series. The steady Swede made a pair of uncharacteristic defensive errors that led to two goals and a Game 3 win for Calgary.

One would think that Lidstrom's productive offensive series would mean that Detroit did well on the power play against the Flames, but the Red Wings only scored on 5-of-38 opportunities with the man advantage (13.2-percent). Detroit also yielded six power-play goals to Calgary on 34 shorthanded situations.

Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen were the top-scoring forwards for Detroit in the opening round, as the pair each posted five points against the Flames. Datsyuk was just signed to the longest contract in franchise history before the Calgary series, as he inked a seven-year deal with the Red Wings.

Oft-injured winger Henrik Zetterberg, who scored a team-leading 33 goals in 63 games during the regular season, played in all six tests against the Flames and notched two goals and an assist.

SAN JOSE SHARKS (5th seed, West)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 51-26-5

2007 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Nashville 4-1 in conference quarterfinals

REVIEW - The San Jose Sharks have been one of the most-feared teams in the NHL since acquiring centerman Joe Thornton in the early stages of the 2005-06 campaign and this year they may have what it takes to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.

The Sharks come into this postseason as the fifth seed, an unfortunate result of being in the same division as the Anaheim Ducks, but San Jose still posted a franchise-record 107 points during the 2006-07 regular season.

Thornton, last year's Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner, was the No. 1 overall pick by Boston in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft and has blossomed into the NHL's premier playmaker. The 27-year-old led the NHL with 92 assists this season, and his 114 total points trailed only Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby for tops in the circuit. Thornton, who had 96 assists in 2005-06, joined Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux to notch 90-plus helpers in consecutive season.

It's not surprising that Thornton led the Sharks with six points, all assists, as San Jose ousted Nashville in five games during this year's conference quarterfinals. However, Thornton is not a one-man team by any stretch of the imagination.

Milan Michalek, a 22-year-old winger from the Czech Republic, benefited from playing on the top line with Thornton and notched a team-leading four goals in the series against the Predators. Fellow linemate Jonathan Cheechoo, who has scored 93 goals over the last two regular seasons, had three assists in the opening round.

With a centerman like Thornton leading the way for the Sharks, it's not a shock that teams sometimes forget about Patrick Marleau, the man in the middle on San Jose's formidable second-line.

Marleau had 78 points (32 goals, 46 assists) this season and picked up that pace a bit against the Predators, as he posted three goals and three assists in the five game. The Saskatchewan native also scored the game-winning goal late in the third period of the series-clinching Game 5 victory.

Despite the presence of Thornton and his numerous weapons on the power play, the Sharks were just 2-for-30 against Nashville on the man advantage. During the regular season, San Jose was third in the NHL with a power-play success rate of 22.4-percent.

Evgeni Nabokov had a solid first series in net for the Sharks, as he went 4-1 with a 2.39 goals against average and .902 save percentage. The 31-year-old netminder has an overall postseason record of 22-16.

MATCHUP

The Red Wings may have earned the top seed in the Western Conference, but the gap between them and the fifth-seeded Sharks is not as great as it may seem.

Detroit's 113 points led the West, but the Sharks actually finished with one more win on the season and were just six points behind the Wings in the standings.

This is the third consecutive season that the Red Wings are the conference's top seed and in 2003 they were the No. 2 team in the West. However, Detroit has failed to advance to the conference finals in each of the previous three postseasons.

Meanwhile, the Sharks are trying to get back to the conference finals for the second time in club history. They lost to Calgary in the 2004 Western Conference finals in head coach's Ron Wilson's second year in San Jose.

The Sharks won three of the four encounters with Detroit during the regular season and outscored the Red Wings, 18-9, in those meetings. San Jose posted a 9-4 victory over visiting Detroit in the last matchup between the clubs on January 4.

This will be the first playoff series between these clubs since 1995, when the Red Wings swept San Jose in the conference semifinals. The year before, the Sharks ousted Detroit from the opening round in seven games.

The Red Wings need to slow down Thornton if they want to win this series and that is not something that is easily done. San Jose will put much more pressure on Hasek than Calgary did, and the Sharks should be able to outgun Detroit.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Sharks in 6

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Re: Stanley Cup Finals Preview - Detroit vs. San Jose

Breaking down the Western Conference semis

Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. San Jose Sharks (5)

Leading playoff scorers
Red Wings: Goals -- Pavel Datsyuk (3); points -- Nicklas Lidstrom (8). Sharks: Goals -- Milan Michalek (4); points -- Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau (6).

Goaltenders
Red Wings: Ryan Miller -- 4-2, 1.57 goals-against average, .922 save percentage. Backup -- Chris Osgood. Sharks:

Evgeni Nabokov -- 4-1, 2.39 GAA, .902 save percentage. Backup -- Tesa Toskola.

Keys to series

Both teams ran through a meat grinder in the first round. If you missed any of the Sharks' series with Nashville, you missed five bruising games in which no quarter was asked and none was given. Likewise, the Red Wings gave as good as they got against the Flames. Expect some bruises to be in that ugly yellow stage when this series begins -- and to get plenty of opportunity to go purple again.

The Sharks are a bit more rested, which bodes well for forwards Jonathan Cheechoo and Steve Bernier. Cheechoo's knee remains a major concern, and he does move a bit gingerly on it. Bernier has a sore neck. But neither missed much time because of their injuries and will be ready for Game 1.

That plays into the Sharks' biggest advantage: their forward depth. The Wings and Sharks are blessed with plenty of skilled forwards who can be on the ice at any time, but the Sharks have more size, better scoring talent and more determined grinders. Age, too, is on their side in many cases. Nowhere is it more evident than on the teams' checking lines. Mike Grier is 32 and nearly four years younger than counterpart Kris Draper. Draper will make up for that with experience.

Speaking of age, the Sharks are getting great work out of Ryan Clowe, Joe Pavelski, Matt Carle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, in addition to Michalek, Bernier and Cheechoo. Carle and, especially, Vlasic figure to be targets in this series as young defensemen facing highly-skilled forwards.

Watch special teams play. The Sharks, strong during the season, were 2-for-30 on power-play chances against the Predators. The Red Wings were 5-for-38 against the Flames. The Wings allowed six goals in 32 shorthanded situations, the Sharks three in 22. The Sharks must continue to avoid penalties and improve their conversion rate with the man advantage.

The biggest edge is Hasek over Nabokov. The Dominator looks spry and driven, some say a 42-year-old playing like a 32-year-old. Nabokov is solid but will need big-time help from his teammates.

The Wings' injuries are troublesome but not disabling. Brett Lebda has a wonky ankle and a concussion, and Tomas Holmstrom won't look too pretty with an eye injury.

The big question is matchups: Who will Nicklas Lidstrom face? That might be a bit easier if coach Ron Wilson leaves Thornton, Marleau and Bill Guerin together. Cheechoo's knee will determine whether Wilson restores him to the Thornton line with Michalek and move Marleau back with Guerin and Pavelski.

Prediction: Oh, please let this series go seven games, just for the entertainment factor. The Sharks have more upside, but the Wings finally have exorcised the ghouls of their past three playoff years. Haven't they? Coach Mike Babcock says so. Still, I'll say Sharks in 7.

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