Second-round preview: Sharks-Wings
A year ago, the Sharks beat the Red Wings in five games, jumping out to a 3-0 series lead on Patrick Marleau's overtime goal at Joe Louis Arena, a series victory that was one of San Jose's most significant franchise accomplishments, especially given its history of playoff struggles.
We're not taking anything away from a well-played series by the Sharks, but the Wings were a tired and beat-up group -- not just because they went seven games with Phoenix the previous round and had to play in San Jose two days later, but also because they played catch-up hockey with a depleted lineup the entire season.
This time, the Red Wings got some much-needed rest after sweeping the Coyotes in four games, completely dominating that series. They did it without star center Henrik Zetterberg, who got to rest up his lower-body injury. That was a huge luxury for the Wings. He should be back in the second round, and the Wings, as a whole, are fairly healthy.
San Jose won the season series this year, taking three of four from the Wings.
1. Goaltending: San Jose's Antti Niemi and Detroit's Jimmy Howard had vastly different first-round experiences. Niemi was pulled twice, but his coach stuck with him as last season's Stanley Cup-winning goalie rebounded with a solid effort in the clinching sixth game. Still, Niemi enters the second round with an ugly .863 save percentage and 3.99 goals-against average. That won't cut it against Detroit.
Howard, meanwhile, sports a solid 2.50 GAA and .915 save percentage after four straight wins against Phoenix. He wasn't great against San Jose last season, and now is his chance for redemption.
2. Forward depth on both clubs: There isn't a playoff series in the second round that features this kind of top-nine forward depth on both teams. The Sharks have the incredible luxury of having Joe Pavelski as a third-line center behind Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, while the Red Wings have a very flexible lineup that can mix and match with some of their centers flipping to wing if need be. Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg form a superb one-two punch, while Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm, Jiri Hudler and Kris Draper give the Wings plenty of options at center. Helm in particular has made huge strides this season and should have received more attention from Selke voters.
3. San Jose's blue line: Ian White has been a good trade-deadline pickup by the Sharks, but overall, the blue-line corps is easily the team's question mark. The Kings' forecheck created problems for the Sharks' defense, forcing turnovers in the first round. Now imagine the more talented Red Wings forward group putting pressure on the Sharks' blue line. Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, in particular, need to step it up in the second round after so-so opening rounds.
4. Pavel Datsyuk the magician: There was no better player in the first round than the Russian All-Star, who had six points (2-4) and a plus-6 rating in just four games. From breathtaking offensive moves to his usual stellar defensive work, Datsyuk did it all versus Phoenix. We remember sitting in the office of Coyotes coach Dave Tippett in between Games 2 and 3. Tippett scratched his head as he circled Datsyuk's name on a piece of paper and wondered out loud just how exactly they would find a way to stop him. They couldn't. Now let's see whether the Sharks can find a way.
5. Special teams: The Sharks entered the playoffs with the second-best power play in the NHL but hit a wall against the Kings, converting on only two of 23 power-play chances. An 8.7 percent success rate won't win you many playoff rounds. They've got to get their dangerous power play back on track to win this series. The Red Wings, meanwhile, sparkled at 26.7 percent, converting on four of 15 chances.
Conversely, the Wings struggled on the penalty kill, allowing six goals on 18 Phoenix power plays for a measly 66.7 percent kill rate, second-worst only to Nashville in the Western Conference. The Sharks were middle-of-the-pack at 79.2 percent.
• Mike Babcock versus Todd McLellan: Two of the brightest minds in the coaching fraternity square off again, and it's always intriguing, given McLellan's time spent as an assistant to Babcock in Detroit. They know each other's tendencies and philosophies, and there's hardly any coaching secret between them. The chess game will be fun to watch again. You know the intensely competitive Babcock must have been burning after losing to his former protege last spring.
• San Jose: Devin Setoguchi's one goal in the opening round was a big one, an overtime winner in Game 3. But given the first-line winger's ice time with Thornton and Marleau, he's expected to contribute more than one goal in six games. Maybe this will be his breakout series.
• Detroit: Johan Franzen had two goals and an assist in three games versus the Coyotes. It's always feast or famine with Franzen, as he often scores his goals in bunches. But he's played his best in big playoff series.
• San Jose's inconsistent effort in the first round against Los Angeles didn't sit well with us, especially when compared to Detroit's hammer job versus Phoenix. The Red Wings are hungry to exact some revenge for last year's playoff defeat. This has the potential to be the best series of the second round, pairing two Cup contenders, but we like the tried-and-true Wings. Detroit in seven.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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