WCSF Game 1: San Jose Sharks vs Detroit Red Wings series preview, a changing of the guard?

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Friday, April 29, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

San Jose Sharks Stanley Cup Playoff Western Conference Semifinal Detroit Red Wings preview

Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard


Game 1: 4/13 @Detroit 4, Phoenix 2
Game 2: 4/16 @Detroit 4, Phoenix 3
Game 3: 4/18 Detroit 4, @Phoenix 2
Game 4: 4/20 Detroit 6, @Phoenix 3



Murray (L) – Boyle (R)
Wallin (L) – White (R)
Vlasic (L) – Demers (R)

Niemi-Niittymaki (reserve: McGinn, Desjardins, Ferriero, Braun, Huskins).



Lidstrom (L) – Stuart (L)
Ericsson (L) – Rafalski (R)
Kronwall (L) – Salei (L)

Howard-MacDonald (reserve: Modano, Draper, Kindl, questionable: Osgood).

On a recent episode of the Discovery Channel’s ‘Deadliest Catch’, a grizzled captain explained the right of succession on a crab boat. “Sometimes old guys don’t go down gracefully,” he said. “You have to take them down with a hammer.” If last year’s Western Conference Semifinal defeat of the Detroit Red Wings was an actual changing of the guard, now the San Jose Sharks have to make sure they stay down.

The series will be won or lost in the trenches. Detroit pioneered the net front strategy that San Jose took as their own and adapted, but it is a game of smoke and mirrors. While blue collar forwards set up in the NHL’s version of the red zone in front of the net, it is the Wings skill players that intelligently slice and dice opponents at critical moments of a game. “Your best players need to be your best players,” and in the Western Conference it has been tough for other teams to match up with a Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Nicklas Lidstrom or Brian Rafalski.

This is not the same Sharks team from 2010, the same team that ousted Detroit in 5 games. Somewhat under the radar this season despite a league leading 27-6-4 run down the stretch, San Jose now has something they have never had before — three lines that can score in any situation. The depth on the roster, developed internally and bolstered with key additions before the trade deadline, allowed head coach Todd McLellan to drop Dany Heatley down to the second line with Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe, and drop Joe Pavelski to a shifty third line with Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell. Trying to overload on the top line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi is not going to work. On any night all three of the top lines can take over a game. Now it is opponents that have problems matching up with San Jose, Detroit included.

The Sharks would be rolling a 4th line, but a 20-game injury absense for checking center Scott Nichol hindered it’s cohesion. Given San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan’s philosophy of building up his players instead of tearing them down, they should receive a full opportunity to contribute in the second round. The Los Angeles Kings, without leading scorer and leading 2-way forward Anze Kopitar, tried to adjust to San Jose by rolling 4 lines. Detroit will take that one step furthur. The Red Wings will bring more speed and more veteran experience than LA, but wearing down San Jose over the course of a game or over the course of a series has not worked as of yet.

The gameplan against San Jose has to be to play them tight, wait for them to make mistakes and let them beat themselves. Against Los Angeles, the bulk of their offense early was created on San Jose turnovers and undisciplined penalties. Playing Detroit that simply can not happen. If the Sharks can deliver more of a playoff style execution, then the game will boil down to details, net front battles, special teams. If San Jose continues to play with fire, tries to force plays and score themselves out of problems, eventually the track meet offense will come to an end. Detroit’s stated intention is to play a smart series. “We have to minimize our mistakes, and not give them anything for free,” Henrik Zetterberg said on Wednesday.

“We have our foundation, something that we believe in. We are not going to stray from that,” Todd Mclellan told reporters after practice Thursday. “We are going to look at a different penalty kill, we are going to look a power play that operates a little differently. Every team has their own set of faceoff plans. Detroit has that. The goaltending tendancies are different. There are a lot of adjustments that are made from team to team, and series to series.” The Sharks have a significant edge over most teams when it comes to the faceoff circle, but against Detroit it will be a more of a strength on strength competition. Matchups in the faceoff circle will be critical. Marleau likes to win draws clean, Thornton can occasionally bull rush forward, Datsyuk likes to dig in and win hard on his backhand. Gaining 15-20 seconds of possession at key times will build momentum. Trends and adjustments made as play goes on could decide a game or a series.

“I was saying yesterday that you basically close the book and you start over. Your power play, your penalty kill percentages, your faceoff percentages, it’s over. You start at zero again,” McLellan said. “You try to build them and be the better team in the series. Those will be goals for us as the series goes on, to be better in specific areas.”

Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock noted the depth up front for San Jose, but also credited their blueline. “Their back end has improved. I was saying yesterday, you don’t really know who there 5-6 guys are, you know who their 3-4 guys are. They have good depth there,” Babcock said recently after practice. In the first round, the Sharks defense played with seven 3-4 defenseman, Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray, Ian White, Niclas Wallin, Jason Demers, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun included. White’s absence in game 2 after a Jarret Stoll forearm to the head was concerning. His aggressive play and heavy point shot add a dangerous element on the backend to complement Dan Boyle on the first unit. Jason Demers, with goals in game 4 and game 6, also displays an abundance of confidence in his second season. Playing with a steady Vlasic, Demers has shown better decision making to take chances offensively, but at times he can take too many liberties trying to lay someone out. “Last year is last year, this is a different team. A healthier team. Probably a more motivated team than it was last year,” Dan Boyle said Thursday. “The room for error is very slim. We saw what they did to Phoenix, which was a very good hockey team. We will need to be even better than we were last year.”

Goaltending may be the bottom line for the series. With the expectation that Johan Franzen returns fully from a left ankle injury that forced him to miss a game, and the expectation that Henrik Zetterberg will return from a left knee injury that forced him to miss the entire first round, this Western Conference Semifinal may boil down to which second year goaltender plays better: Antti Niemi or Jimmy Howard. After a strong performance in game 1, Niemi struggled in game 2 and was pulled from game 3 in Los Angeles. San Jose went to their middle reliever on the bench, and Antero Niittymaki made 11 saves on 12 shots as the Sharks erased a 4-0 deficit. After another win, Niemi was pulled again in game 5. Similar to how the Sharks abandoned their defensively responsible second half play, Niemi started to get away from some of the things that helped him to an enormous second half run. As a team, the Sharks have confidence in him. Despite a number of questions from the media, it could take all of one game for the former Zamboni driver to lock it down and flummox shooters as he did against as a Blackhawk against Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose last year.

Niemi is not alone in the goaltending question mark area. Unlike the defending Stanley Cup netminder, Jimmy Howard does not have an experienced veteran on the bench to back him up. Chris Osgood has been practicing for weeks trying to return from a January sports hernia surgery, a dreaded injury for goaltenders. An untested Joey MacDonald will fill the backup role. Howard was a perfect 4-0 in the opening round (2.50GAA, .920SV%) against Phoenix, but he was beaten by a number of pucks down low that deflected off traffic. Last year Logan Couture caught Howard cheating with a hard angle shot from the goal line, and the Wings netminder never looked the same after. If a goaltender starts questioning his play too much, at times he can get away from what made him successful. Howard has another year of experience under his belt, but the Sharks will be looking to crack him in net for the second consecutive season. Scouting report says 5-hole and high blocker side on the left catching Howard.

History part 1:

The 2011 WCQF round should give the Sharks pause. Detroit dismantled a Phoenix Coyotes team that split the home-at-home regular season finale with San Jose. In that series the goaltending duel between Ilya Bryzgalov and Antti Niemi was one of the best of the year, but that level of play was not maintained by either through the first round. In Bryzgalov’s case, his upcoming free agency and the potential free agency of the Phoenix Coyotes franchise itself was swirling around their WCQF series. Putting distractions, past results, or a past goal against are keys for playoff goaltending, but few goaltenders have to live with the fact that their last save could be the last one made for a city. The league recently billed Phoenix $25 million for losses incurred this season. The city has until Monday to pay. One way or another, make the 2 year nightmare end.

An easy first round playoff series can cut both ways. The Sharks dispatched Nashville matter of factly in 5 games in 2007 and 2008, and subsequently lost in the next round to Detroit and Dallas in 6 games apiece. Detroit is an experienced, veteran lineup that knows how to take advantage of teams and almost make them beat themselves, but the Coyotes did not put up much in the form of resistance. The Red Wings put up 4-0 and 3-0 leads in games 2 and 3. A window dressing comeback attempt by Phoenix in game 2 did not paper over the fact that the defense and goaltending was a shadow of what it was down the stretch. Pavel Datsyuk’s poke around Keith Yandle, and through the legs shot on goal was eventually punched in by Darren Helm. It was a demoralizing circus goal, one the Coyotes never recovered from. The Wings scored from long point shots twice in the first 3 minutes of game 3, and Dany Cleary scored late in game 4 on a near impossible angle from the goal line. Bryzgalov cheated towards the center of the ice, and Cleary banked it off his blocker. Bryzgalov’s head was clearly somewhere other than a playoff game and given the circumstances it would be hard to blame him.

According to The Hockey News, the Red Wings were shorthanded an uncharacteristic 18 times in the first round. A penalty kill that operated at 82.3% in the regular season (17th), allowed 6 goals on 18 opportunties in the first round for a playoff worst 66.7%. “I didn’t like what we did and felt we didn’t have the same kind of puck pressure that we’ve had when we’ve been real good,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “We’ve worked a lot on it the last few days. We’re going to be ready to go and we’re going to be very aggressive.” It would be a departure from Los Angeles, who blocked shots and sagged back into a homeplate formation around Jonathan Quick. They played the body hard to prevent and second and third opportunities. An aggressive penalty kill could open up a 2nd ranked regular season Sharks power play that scored on just 2 of 23 chances in the first round. 6-time Norris trophy winning defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was not a fixture on the Wings penalty kill in the first round. It could be one of the first adjustments made by head coach Mike Babcock should San Jose start to heat up with the man advantage.

History part 2:

Fans in San Jose can be forgiven for wanting to put the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals out of their minds, but they have a more recent run-in with Detroit to draw on. The Sharks dispatched the Red Wings from the Semifinals in 5 games last year. Instead of coming off a relatively easy series sweep, Detroit had to battle Phoenix to a 7th game in 2010. San Jose snapped a streak of four straight game 1 losses on pair of big goals by Joe Pavelski. In game 2 (after an Oceans11-esque Shark toss), the Team Canada line of Thornton, Marleau and Heatley were reunited in a come from behind 4-3 win. A line of scrimmage battle emerged in front of both nets. The Sharks defense fronted a rotating cast of forwards looking to set up in front of the net. A cast that included Tomas Holmstrom, Todd Bertuzzi, Darren Helm and Dan Cleary. Then they would mix it up challenging the shooter, blocking shots and clearing the crease. Without a heavyweight defensive lineman like Rob Blake in front, it will be on a Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Douglas Murray and Niclas Wallin to step up to that role.

From the Sharkspage recap of last year’s game 2:

At the line of scrimmage in front of Evgeni Nabokov, a fascinating battle in the trenches is being waged by both coaches. At times during the first game the Sharks defense fronted the Red Wings several feet out from the net. They would mix up challenging the shooter and trying to block shots, along with the physical crease clearing duty. Sunday night the Sharks were getting a better edge on one-on-one battles. Rob Blake pasted Tomas Holmstrom as he tried to release around him to get to the net in the first. Douglas Murray lost a heavyweight battle for body position with Todd Bertuzzi. In a 30 second span in the second period, Blake hammered Cleary to the ice after he set up in front. It took 3-4 cross checks before Marc-Edouard Vlasic could send him to the ice again. After a quick change, Boyle won a battle for position inside of Tomas Holmstrom before the Sharks moved the puck up ice.

After Colorado scored 3 goals on 3 deflections off Sharks players in the opening round, San Jose started to get the bounces against Detroit in the semis. Nicklas Lidstrom’s stick disintegrated and allowed a goal in game 2, and an errant shot by Jason Williams set up Joe Thornton for a 2-on-1. The Sharks overcame a 3-1 deficit, and took a 3-0 lead in the series. Franzen scored 4 goals, and was briefly credited with 5, in an epic 7-1 win at Detroit in game 4, but this was not 2007. Joe Thornton scored a goal, and set up Patrick Marleau for another game winner to close out the Wings in 5 games. After the win current San Jose head coach and former Detroit assistant coach Todd McLellan sidestepped questions about whether it was a changing of the guard for the Western Conference. Soon to be captain Joe Thornton revealed just how big the win was for the Sharks as a team. “They have been the best hockey team in the last five years, in my opinion. They’ve dominated this whole League. They’ve gone to conference final after conference final and Stanley Cup appearances. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve been great for the last 20 years, actually,” Thornton said.

[Update] Red Wings-Sharks series and Game 1 set-up: which team’s more highly evolved? – The Malik Report on Kukla’s Korner.

[Update2] Red Wings better than last season’s team that lost to Sharks in second round – Ansar Kahn for Mlive.com.

The lineup for the Detroit Red Wings tonight in Game 1 against San Jose will be nearly identical to the one they dressed while losing to the Sharks in five games in the second round of the playoffs a year ago. Their two most notable changes are the additions of forwards Jiri Hudler and Mike Modano. Neither had the impact they anticipated. Modano likely will be a healthy scratch. Hudler’s spot is not secure…

The biggest difference is their third and fourth lines. Darren Helm has become an impact player with his speed and physicality, his ability to wear down defenses and create scoring chances. Young Justin Abdelkader has improved with experience, as have veterans Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves. That prompted Babcock to say this team forechecks as hard as it did during its 2008 Cup championship run with Dallas Drake. Detroit’s fourth line plays 10-12 minutes a game. San Jose’s plays about 5 minutes a game.

[Update3] Previewing the Sharks-Red Wings series – Jake Leonard for the SF Chronicle.

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