First-round breakdown: Sharks-Avs
If the San Jose Sharks are going to have a chance at exorcising their many playoff demons with a long playoff run this spring, you have to believe this is the best possible matchup for them.
If there is such a thing as being able to ease into the playoffs, the Sharks appear to have managed that feat in facing a Colorado Avalanche team that defied virtually all prognosticators by even making it to the postseason.
But as impressive as their season was, the Avs struggled down the stretch, winning just three of their past 13 games and coming within a whisker of falling out of the playoffs altogether. In short, they do not match up well against the talented, deep Sharks. The Sharks are within the top 10 in goals scored, goals allowed, penalty killing and power-play efficiency and won eight of their final 10 outings to finally secure the top seed in the Western Conference for the second straight season.
The Sharks also have a wealth of experience, while the Avs pretty much turned over the keys to a bunch of talented kids this season. The strategy yielded unexpected results -- a playoff berth -- but it may not amount to much more than that when the dust settles in this first-round matchup.
1. The stats we know, the heart we don't: There has never been any denying the skill and potential the Sharks possess, not with a lineup featuring five 20-goal scorers and one of the top offensive lines in the game (Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley). Still, this is a team that has found ways not to get the job done every spring.
It is imperative for the Sharks not to fumble their way through this first round as they did two seasons ago against Calgary, ultimately winning but looking uncertain in doing so (they promptly lost to upstart Dallas in the second round). Instead, it behooves the Sharks to come out roaring against a banged-up Colorado team that doesn't match up well on almost every front. The theory in San Jose all season has been that with captain Rob Blake offering a different voice and style than former captain Marleau, the Sharks will have that killer instinct early and keep it.
Can they do it? Guess we'll find out.
2. The kids are more than all right: Hate to keep borrowing off the old Who tune, but when it works, it works. This season, youth was more than served for the Avs, who were led by character kids up and down the lineup. Of the top 20 first-year point producers in the NHL, four wore Colorado jerseys. Matt Duchene finished at the top of the list with 55 points and will likely be a finalist for rookie of the year honors; Chris Stewart, 22, led the Avs with 28 goals in his second season; and defensemen Kyle Quincey and Kyle Comiskey both logged important minutes to help take some of the weight off veterans Adam Foote and Scott Hannan.
All of which is great news for the Avs' future. But against a talented, veteran team like the Sharks? Maybe the kids seemingly won't know how they're supposed to act and will play with abandon and let the cards fall where they may. Unless, of course, they realize they are youngsters who are under playoff pressure.
3. Tender 'tenders: The series presents an interesting goaltending matchup. San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov tries to shrug off his own playoff demons (a pedestrian 32-31 lifetime in the postseason) and an uneven string of performances after a disappointing turn at the Olympics, while Colorado's Craig Anderson tries to regain the form with which he garnered some early Hart Trophy talk.
Nabokov finished with 44 wins, tops in the conference and second behind Martin Brodeur of New Jersey, and should give the Sharks a distinct advantage given his playoff experience. Anderson, who has never appeared in an NHL playoff game, saw his level of play drop off down the stretch, a function perhaps of playing the third-most minutes in the NHL and facing the most shots of any goalie in the league. In short, it looks like Anderson is wearing down. He'll have to disprove that notion if the Avs have a shot at an upset.
4. Health issues: As if having a potentially worn-out netminder wasn't bad enough, the Avs are dealing with a number of injury issues, including the loss of talented winger Peter Mueller, who was picked up from Phoenix at the trade deadline. Mueller took to the Avs right away with 20 points in 15 games, but he suffered a concussion a week ago and his availability for the series is unknown. Duchene was also injured late in the regular season; while it's believed he'll play, his effectiveness may be in question. Winger David Jones is also trying to return from a knee injury that has kept him out of action since late November. The Sharks, meanwhile, will hit the postseason with a healthy lineup, further tilting the scales in their favor.
5. Coaching newbies: The players weren't the only fresh faces around the Avs' locker room this season, as minor league coach Joe Sacco was named bench boss after attempts to bring Patrick Roy back into the Avs' fold failed. Sacco should get some consideration for the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, but this will still mark his first playoff experience as a head coach. In two years with the Avs' AHL team, Sacco's squads failed to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, Todd McLellan will be looking to get over the stain of his first NHL playoff trip last spring, when the Sharks were dumped in the first round by eighth-seeded Anaheim after winning the Presidents' Trophy.
• Sharks' power play versus Avs' penalty killing: The Avs gave up 15 power-play goals in their past 14 games, which, if our math is right, is more than one a game. If they cannot tighten up their special-teams play, this series will be over in a hurry. The Sharks have scored just one power-play goal in their past five games, but still finished with the fourth-best power-play unit in the league. With Thornton recovered from a lower-body injury, the Sharks' special teams are a potent force.
• San Jose: Nabokov won his final three starts and allowed just five goals on 100 shots over that period. Devin Setoguchi had just four goals in his past 19 games.
• Colorado: Top center Paul Stastny finished the season with a five-game points streak (two goals, four assists). Brandon Yip, who has produced points in bunches this season, has one point in his past 10 games.
• There won't be any first-round slip-ups for the Sharks this time and they'll coast past the youthful Avs in rapid fashion. Sharks in five games.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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