Hold on to Your Butts
Come inside, the show’s about to start
guaranteed to blow your head apart
Rest assured you’ll get your money’s worth
The greatest show in Heaven, Hell or Earth.
You’ve got to see the show, it’s a dynamo.
You’ve got to see the show, it’s rock and roll ….
Right before your eyes we pull laughter from the skies
And he laughs until he cries then he dies then he dies
Come inside the show’s about to start
Guaranteed to blow your head apart
There is so much beauty in sports, even a sport as brutal and chaotic as hockey. The anticipation, an unnerving calm before the storm. The moment, always unexpected but immediately recognizable. The sacrifice, pushing the mind and the body past the point of what seems possible. The finality, and all of its cruelty.
Every year those in and around the game of hockey spend 10 months planning, plotting, arguing, watching, and waiting, followed by a glorious 2 months celebrating the very best the game has to offer. The best teams. The best players. The highest drama. The ultimate prize. And then 29 teams pick themselves up off the mat and start the chase all over again.
The 2011-2012 Sharks were in many ways a disappointment. The string of 4 consecutive division titles was ended, they didn’t reach 100 pts, they didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the last week of the season, and they probably won’t have home ice advantage in any round of the playoffs. Yet none of that matters because, as the saying goes, “we’re here now.” The slate has been wiped clean and the only numbers left that hold any meaning are 4, 4, 16, and 16. 4 games to win a series. 4 series to win it all. 16 wins to lift the Stanley Cup. 16 teams with the chance to complete the journey.
For the Sharks that journey begins Thursday in St. Louis against a Blues team that dominated them in the regular season, winning all 4 games between the 2 teams. Playing the Blues represents an immense challenge for the Sharks but it’s not an impossible task, not by any means.
How do these teams matchup? Well…
It may be a cliche to say that a playoff series hinges on special teams, but that doesn’t make it any less true. This series features 2 teams with special teams that are polar opposites. The Sharks boast the league’s 2nd ranked power play at 21.1% but they pair that with a penalty kill that finished 29th in the league at just 76.9%, for a combined special teams percentage of 98%. Conversely the Blues have a penalty kill that ranked 7th in the NHL at 85.8% and pair that with a power play that ranked just 19th at 16.7%, for a combined special teams percentage of 102.5%. It’s going to be strength vs strength when the Sharks are on the power play, and weakness vs weakness when the Blues have the man advantage. During the regular season games between these 2 teams the Blues penalty kill really frustrated the Sharks so it will be critical that the Sharks make some adjustments, particularly on zone entries. Simply dumping the puck in and chasing it down won’t be good enough if the Blues don’t have anything else to think about. The Sharks need to find ways to have Martin Havlat, Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns, and Dan Boyle carry the puck across the blue line with speed in order to turn the tide against St. Louis, and that’s easier said than done.
Edge: St. Louis
What the Blues lack in elite scoring forwards they more than make up for with their depth of 2-way players. 54 pts from David Backes was enough to set the pace for a team that ranked 21st in the league in scoring at just 2.51 goals per game. Andy McDonald is probably the most dangerous individual scoring threat having posted 22 pts in only 25 games played, a pace that would have lead the team in scoring by a wide margin. The problem for McDonald has been that at 5’10” 183 lbs he’s had trouble staying healthy, first with a concussion that caused him to sit from October 13 to February 12, and then a shoulder injury that caused him to miss 9 games in March. It’s not a coincidence that when the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007 they had a healthy Andy McDonald playing alongside Teemu Selanne and giving them 2 dangerous scoring lines. If McDonald plays in every game of this series, and plays well, he brings an element of speed and skill that is otherwise absent from the Blues roster and that will be tough for the Sharks to contain.
For the Sharks, their Andy McDonald is Martin Havlat. Like McDonald, Havlat brings an element of speed and skill that the Sharks desperately miss when he’s not in the lineup. Havlat is not the best player on the Sharks but it’s not a stretch to say that the Sharks are a different team when he’s in the lineup, as evidenced by the team’s 8-4-0 record since he returned from a hamstring injury on March 15. A team that went 14 games without scoring more than 3 goals was able to top that mark 4 times in the 12 games after Havlat returned. Beyond Havlat the Sharks boast 4 players that scored over 60 pts in 2011-2012 and have a roster much deeper and more balanced than the one that started the season. The Blues only faced Havlat in 1 of the 4 games against the Sharks this season, only faced deadline acquisitions Dominic Moore, Daniel Winnik, and TJ Galiardi once, and never faced Havlat, Moore, Winnik, and Galiardi in the same game. In other words, the Blues didn’t see the full Sharks at any point this season.
Edge: San Jose
The Sharks may have the bigger names on the blueline in Dan Boyle and Brent Burns, but those names were actually outscored by this season by Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk during the regular season. If the Sharks are to pull an upset Boyle has to be his usual stellar self and Burns has to step up and be the difference maker the Sharks thought they were getting when they traded for him and signed him to a big extension before the season started. Between the 2 of them Boyle is much more of a known playoff commodity while Burns only has 11 games of playoff experience. Burns is kind of caught between a rock and a hard place as he enters his first postseason in San Jose: on the one hand he needs to find a way to use his speed and his shot to push the pace and contribute offensively, and on the other hand he can’t let himself become a liability defensively by forcing the issue on offense. Burns’ ability to strike a balance and find a way to contribute at both ends of the ice will go a long way towards determining the outcome of the series. Douglas Murray was able to get back into action for the final game of the regular season after sitting for a few games with a lower body injury, and the Sharks have to feel comfortable with what they will get from the big Swede as well as the dependable Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Justin Braun has made big strides this year and become a real key player for the Sharks, and it will be interesting to see If McLellan decides to start him out with Jason Demers or Colin White. Despite Braun and Burns’ lack of playoff experience Vlasic, Murray, Boyle, and White have plenty of it, with Boyle and White having Stanley Cups on their resumes.
Burns’ 11 games of playoff experience entering this series may seem a little light but he’s a seasoned veteran compared to the Blues’ top 6, which has a combined 24 games under their belts (including 0 for Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk). Kent Huskins did win a Stanley Cup in Anaheim with Andy McDonald, and the former Shark figures to see action in this series though he’s a bottom pair guy at best. The Blues rely on their ability to play a tight defensive system and it will be absolutely critical for the youngsters to get comfortable in a hurry.
Edge: Sharks, albeit a small one
Another area where the Sharks and Blues are almost polar opposites. Antti Niemi had a largely forgettable season for the Sharks, but he can fall back on 40 games of playoff experience, a Stanley Cup, and the knowledge that regular season doesn’t matter any more. On the other hand, while Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, who split time in net, put up fantastic statistical seasons they have just 25 games of playoff experience between them and neither has won a Stanley Cup (Halak did lead the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010). Lots of big questions at this position for both teams. Can Niemi put his regular season struggles behind him? Who will Hitchcock ride in net? Knowing he has a solid backup, can he resist the temptation to yank his starter at the first sign of trouble? The Blues play an impressive defensive system and led the NHL in both goals and shots against, surrendering just 1.89 goals per game and 26.7 shots per game. How much of that is due to the system the team plays and how much of that is the goalies? Although the goals against is more than impressive the fact that the Blues led the league in shots against tells me the system played a big role in the success of the goalies.
Ken Hitchcock has coached 121 playoff games in his career, including a Stanley Cup winning run in 1999 (the Brett Hull “foot in the crease” game) and another trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2000. Beyond that impressive playoff resume is the way Hitchcock has turned the Blues around this year after replacing Davis Payne in November. The players have bought into Hitchcock’s tight, defensive oriented game plan and have been executing it to near perfection since his arrival. What many thought was a fringe playoff team ended up finishing 2nd in the Western Conference despite playing in the toughest division, and Hitchcock deserves a ton of credit for the turnaround. Hitchcock is arguably one of the 5 best coaches in the NHL right now.
Todd McLellan has yet to get the Sharks to the promised land in his first 4 seasons as their head coach but his record is still impressive. Almost 200 regular season wins and 39 games of playoff experience in 4 years, and he’s coming off consecutive trips to the conference finals. Having said that, the most consistent thing about the Sharks this season has been their inconsistency. Some nights they look unbeatable, while other nights they appear inept. One of the biggest problems with the Sharks over the past couple of years is that they appear either unable or unwilling to make tactical adjustments to the way a team is playing against them. Given the way the Blues played the Sharks during the regular season, and the success they enjoyed, this series could very easily come down to whether the Sharks are able to adjust their game or whether they keep bashing their heads against the wall. Ultimately it’s always up to the players to execute, but especially in this series McLellan and his staff need to have a plan in place to break the Blues defensive system.
Edge: St. Louis, and it might be the biggest edge enjoyed by either team
Keys for the Series
Early Bird Gets the Worm: The Blues play a style of hockey that can be frustrating for fans and opposing players because when they get a lead they go into a shell, and they’re very, very good at it. The Blues got the first goal in every game against the Sharks during the regular season and the Sharks were never able to mount a comeback. As well as the Blues play with a lead, they aren’t nearly as good when forced play catch up because they don’t have the top end offensive players which causes them to get outside of their defensive comfort zone. The most important key to this series, for both teams, is to score first.
Work Hard, Work Smart: There’s a saying that hockey analysts and coaches love and it’s this: will beats skill. The Sharks may have a little bit more talent than the Blues but the Blues work incredibly hard on a consistent basis. When the Blues came in to HP Pavilion on March 3rd they not only won the game 3-1, they seemed to win every puck battle and every 50/50 foot race in the game. In other words, they worked harder than the Sharks that night. Many of the key players for the Blues don’t have a lot of playoff experience to fall back on and could easily come out trying to do too much. It’s going to be important for them to settle in, don’t get overly aggressive, and play their game without expending too much energy and emotion in the first few minutes like a boxer who punches himself out in the early rounds and has nothing left by the end of the fight. For the Sharks the players who don’t have a ton of experience in the playoffs also have to stay within themselves, especially early, and as a team they have to make sure the effort is there every minute and every shift of the series because their skill isn’t enough to carry them through if they don’t have the will. Skate hard, stay out of the box, and pick your spots.
Ignore Momentum: Goals will be scored in this series by both teams, and as always the next shift will be critical. The team that wins this series will be the one that best responds to adversity, that answers back after giving up a goal, and comes back after scoring just as hungry for another one. Don’t let the emotion in the building get you too high or too low at any point during a game. This is where previous playoff experience can be a real asset.
The Plan: McLellan and his staff have to come up with a way to beat the defensive system that St. Louis employs, something they were unable to do during the regular season. How much were the Sharks game planning for the Blues during those regular season matchups? Certainly not as much as they will in this series. Ken Hitchcock has been around the block and will have a few tricks up his sleeve but it’s up to the Sharks to make the Blues do something different.
Step Up: It’s amazing how often a playoff series is determined not by the biggest stars but by a role player who steps up and seizes the opportunity to make a difference. Who wants to step up? Who wants to be a hero?
The Sharks have put together a solid run to end the season thanks in no small part to the return of Martin Havlat and their rediscovered scoring depth. In the end that’s enough for the Sharks to squeak by in a very close series against a quality opponent. Expect at least 1 overtime game and all the minor heart attacks that go with sudden death playoff hockey. Sharks in 6.
The Rest of the West
Vancouver (1) vs Los Angeles (8)
Once again Vancouver has the home ice advantage all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, and once again they are the team to beat on paper. If Daniel Sedin doesn’t return early this series could go either way because the current Kings roster, with the addition of Jeff Carter, isn’t the same group that struggled to score for most of the season. The Kings will take their pound of flesh from the Canucks but it won’t be enough to stop them from advancing. Canucks in 6
Phoenix (3) vs Chicago (6)
Chicago has the big names but their best, captain Jonathan Toews, hasn’t played since February 19 due to a concussion. If he’s ready to go in game 1 that would be a huge boost for the Blackhawks, and they’ll need it if they are to overcome goaltending problems that have persisted throughout the season. This one could easily go either way, but there are fewer questions surrounding the no flash, all substance Coyotes. Coyotes in 7
Nashville (4) vs Detroit (5)
Nashville has all the ingredients that historically lead to a championship. They have 2 of the 5 or 10 best defensemen in the league in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. They have a likely Vezina finalist in Pekka Rinne. They have a great coach in Barry Trotz and a deep stable of 2-way forwards. And with the recent return of Alexander Radulov from the KHL they finally have the gamebreaking forward they’ve lacked in the past. The Red Wings still have Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Nicklas Lidstrom and are still very dangerous. This series hinges on whether Radulov helps the offense more than he hurts the defense. Is this the swan song of the great Nick Lidstrom? Predators in 6
The Beasts in the East
New York Rangers (1) vs Ottawa (8)
The Rangers probably aren’t as good as their record indicates based on their goal differential. Ottawa is an up and coming team led by 21 year old all-world defensemen Erik Karlsson. The future is bright again in Ottawa but it’s not their time yet. Rangers in 6
Boston (2) vs Washington (7)
There are a lot of similarities between the Caps and the Sharks. Both teams have a ton of talent, both have failed to get over the hump in the past, and both find themselves at the bottom of the playoff bracket for the first time in recent memory. The defending champs have been scuffling down the stretch: are they tired or bored? I’m guessing bored but if a hungry Capitals team shows up there’s real upset potential here. Bruins in 5
Florida (3) vs New Jersey (6)
Please join me in welcoming the Florida Panthers back to NHL relevance! Florida won their division to take the 3 seed despite the fact that New Jersey actually ended up with more points. At age 39 the end is near for the great Martin Brodeur, but it’s still hard to pick against him. Ilya Kovalchuk is the best player on either team (by a lot), throw in Zach Parise and Florida’s awful goal differential and this is one of the easier picks on the board. New Jersey in 5
Pittsburgh (4) vs Philadelphia (5)
The Hatfields and the McCoys. The most eagerly anticipated series of the opening round features 2 teams and 2 fanbases that flat out don’t like each other. Pittsburgh is the most talented team in the NHL with Sidney Crosby, likely Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, and a host of others. The biggest questions surrounding the Penguins are about Crosby’s health and whether he can stay healthy for the 6-8 weeks it will take to win the Stanley Cup (he hasn’t been healthy that long in over a year). This one is going to be an absolute war from start to finish. The Flyers can’t stop the Pens from winning this series, but they could take enough out of the Pens to keep them from winning the Stanley Cup. Penguins in 7
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