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Detroit vs. San Jose: MOP Squad on the NHL's Second Round
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor
Apr 26, 2007 - 7:40:54 PM

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Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. San Jose Sharks (5): Western Conference Semifinals

The Goods: Despite the fact that they outscored the Flames 18-10 and outshot them a ridiculous 255 to 129, Detroit’s first round victory over Calgary was anything but easy. Not only that, it also came with a price: defenseman Brett Lebda and winger Tomas Holmstrom are not expected to play in game one due to injuries suffered at the hands of Calgary players, and their return date is unknown. The good news for Detroit is that they did survive, and it was some of their top players that got them through to the second round. Nicklas Lidstrom led the team with eight points in six games and was great throughout, while Pavel Datsyuk, heavily criticized for his playoff non-production last year, led the team with three goals. What’s more, in Detroit’s four wins it seemed as though a different player stepped up his game in each and, along with Lidstrom, led them to victory. Datsyuk was great in game one, with a goal and an assist. Mathieu Schneider had an assist and fired ten shots at the net in game two in 22 minutes of solid play. Henrik Zetterberg had two goals and an assist in game five, his only points of the series, and Daniel Cleary broke a scoreless tie with a penalty shot goal and played a gritty, inspirational game. In game six Dominik Hasek made some key saves in goal, and Johan Franzen scored a great overtime-winner. Even in the games they lost players stepped up; Kris Draper had both the Wings goals in game three and Todd Bertuzzi had a goal and an assist in game four and played his best hockey in a long while. San Jose, meanwhile, got such balanced scoring against Nashville that only one player on their team, winger Mark Bell, who appeared in only two games, didn’t get at least one point in the five games. Captain Patrick Marleau, as he has in so many Shark playoffs in the past, led the way with three goals and six points. Deadline-addition Craig Rivet was very good on defense, averaging 26:34 in ice time, tops on the team, and added five points. Winger Milan Michalek, whose injury against Edmonton last year was a contributing factor in the team’s second round loss, scored four goals, while rookie Ryane Clowe had three. The Sharks were able to hold Nashville’s Peter Forsberg to just two goals and four points, and their top-line duo of David Legwand and Paul Kariya to no goals and just five assists between them. In fact, after losing game two 5-2, the Sharks trailed on the scoreboard at just two points in the remaining five games that comprised less than two full periods of play. In a series that many thought would be the toughest of the first round, the Sharks actually had a surprisingly easy time of it. The only bad news from a San Jose perspective? No goals from any of Bill Guerin, Jonathan Cheechoo, or Joe Thornton, though Thornton was on the scoresheet for six assists. That and San Jose’s power play, which tied for second in the league during the season, was a pathetic 6.7%, good for the second worst mark of the opening round. Their penalty kill was eighth at 86.4%. Detroit’s power play managed a 13.2% rate against Calgary, good for tenth, while their penalty kill was twelfth at 82.4%.

The Key: Attacking the defenses. Detroit gave notice at the end of their series against Calgary that they wouldn’t be intimidated. At the end of game five, with the score out of reach, Calgary decided to run around on the Wings; there was Daymond Langkow’s uppercut to Brett Lebda’s chin, Jarome Iginla’s butt-end on Mathieu Schneider, Marcus Nilsson’s attempt to goad Kris Draper into fighting and, of course, Jamie McLennan’s rather despicable slash to Johan Franzen’s midsection. The Wings walked away from it all, then wrapped up the series in game six in Calgary. San Jose, however, will be a different animal altogether. Where the Sharks win physical battles is down low in the offensive zone; guys like Thornton, Clowe, Steve Bernier, Mike Grier and others are at their best in the corners, wearing defenses out and getting pucks out to players set up in the slot. What Detroit is going to have to be wary of, particularly with Lebda out for an indeterminate length of time and fellow defenseman Niklas Kronwall also out for the year, is having their defensemen get worn out chasing the Sharks around and grinding it out with them in the corners. This is likely to be a long series, and the Sharks would like nothing better than to force the Wings, especially top defensemen who are also somewhat older like Lidstrom, Schneider and Chris Chelios, into battling it out with them in the corners right from the start. The Wings, meanwhile, should be keenly aware that two of the Sharks top six blueliners are rookies, and another, Christian Ehrhoff, is occasionally prone to lapses in his own zone. Kyle McLaren and Scott Hannan are solid, tough blueliners, but both have limited offensive upside and can be taken off their game at times by physical play. The other, Rivet, played well against Nashville, but rarely in his career has he been asked to play as many minutes as he did against Nashville and as he likely will against Detroit. Both defenses have weaknesses, and it’ll be up to the coaching staff and the forwards to figure out how best to exploit those deficiencies, because it may well be the difference in the series.

Detroit Wins If: They can stay out of the penalty box as much as possible. San Jose gave up one of the fewest numbers of power plays to opponents of any team during the regular season and that trend continued in the playoffs, as they gave Nashville the second fewest power plays of any team in the first round. And while Detroit and Calgary’s series didn’t exactly hinge on their respective power plays, each team did spend a large portion of the series on the power play, far more than Nashville or San Jose did. Don’t let the Sharks 6.7% power play fool you; they were one of the best groups in the regular season and if Detroit gives them as many opportunities on the power play at key times as they did the Flames, they’ll be a major factor. They just have too much talent and experience not to be. Guys like Schneider, who picked up 14 minutes in minor penalties against the Flames all on his own, are going to have to watch themselves against San Jose, because not only is the Sharks power play dangerous, but having too many penalty kill situations is only going to serve to tire out an undermanned Wings defense, and especially guys like Lidstrom and Chelios, all the more. At worst, the Wings need the two power plays to end up even and at best they need their power play to score more than San Jose's and to do that, they need to give up as few power plays as possible, because San Jose isn't going to give them too many.

San Jose Wins If: The Cheechoo-Thornton combination gets going. Cheechoo left game one against Nashville after a knee-on-knee hit from Scott Hartnell and played the rest of the series clearly hobbled. Thornton, meanwhile, did have six assists but no goals and no points on the power play, and his lack of production there was a major reason why the power play was so ineffective. Contributions from the rest of the lineup were enough to get the Sharks past the Predators, but unless Thornton and Cheechoo start scoring against Detroit, or at least start playing better, getting shots on goal, working the Detroit defensemen down low in the offensive zone, and occupying Detroit’s checkers, the Sharks won’t get by the Wings. Thornton doesn’t need to get two points a game and Cheechoo doesn’t have to score every time out, but they need to elevate their level of play well above where it was against the Predators. I wrote it in my Nashville-San Jose preview, and I’m writing it again here: Thornton has to put past playoff disappointments behind him and lead this team. Playing good, not great, isn’t going to cut it against the Wings.

Bottom Line: This one will be fun to watch. I think it’ll be a long series, and I think that works against the older, more beaten-up Wings. San Jose in seven.

Copyright 2007 - MOP Squad Sports

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