Kukla's Korner

The Malik Report

Red Wings-Sharks series and Game 1 set-up: which team’s more highly evolved?

If you missed any of yesterday’s late-breaking practice updates and are preparing to watch the first game of the Detroit Red Wings’ second-round series against the San Jose Sharks tonight (10 PM EDT, FSD/CSN Bay Area/Versus/TSN/WXYT), you might find yourself a little bit confused.

With the “experts” nearly split as to which team will prevail over what seems to be a long and drawn-out series in the making, there’s no doubt that the Red Wings will need to shake off whatever rust nine days’ worth of rest has deposited upon them by attempting to ratchet up their penalty-killing while surviving the first ten-to-twenty minutes of hockey at the raucous Shark Tank tonight, but whether the Wings’ and Sharks’ players will tangle in a series of two evenly-matched teams who will win or lose based upon which team does a better job of sustaining possession and control of the puck in the offensive zone, executing on their chances and working for an edge in special teams play, or whether we’re simply looking at a series where one of the teams hasn’t changed at all, but the other one has grown stronger, and that stronger team will prevail…

That seems to depend on which columnist you’re reading, and, in some cases, which player you’re talking to. If you believe Joe Thornton, who spoke to the San Jose Sharks’ website about the battle up front, the Sharks remain bigger, stronger, deeper and plain old better than the undersized and aging Wings’ forwards, from himself on down:

“We’re just deep,” Thornton said. “Patty [Marleau] is a centerman, Torrey Mitchell is a centerman (along with Kyle Wellwood). “We’ve got six of our top nine forwards that are centermen, so anybody can take faceoffs. Obviously we feel like we have depth at center, but really our top-nine forwards are very, very strong.”

“You you can be a little more aggressive at times and team up,” [Joe] Pavelski said of having multiple centers on the ice. “They’re confident in the faceoff circle and it’s a good thing to have as a center going in there.”
...
“Usually, I’m always set up against Datsyuk and Zetterberg, so really it’s just competing as hard as you can against them and try to wear them down,” Thornton said. “ I’m a bigger forward than they are and hopefully over the course of seven games you can wear them down.”

The Sharks are well aware of the fact that both teams’ puck possession styles of play depend upon winning faceoffs, and those without an ego as big as his “Jumbo” nickname—and you can read the Mercury News’s Mark Emmons’ profile of Thornton on your own—suggested that the Wings and Sharks’ are very evenly matched in terms of faceoff acumen:

“The more you have the puck, the more successful you’re going to be,” [Logan] Couture said. “Both teams are puck possession teams and that’s the first thing that the coaching staff here brought over to San Jose from Detroit. Puck possession and faceoffs are a huge part of it. We have been such a successful faceoff team last year and this year during the regular season. They have some good centermen in Datsyuk and Zetterberg and guys like that who want the puck. It’s going to be a battle in the faceoff circle.”

Couture’s right. Nichol paces San Jose with an amazing 59.4 percent success rate, followed by Thornton (54.4), Pavelski (54.3) and Couture (53.4). Kris Draper (56.6) and Datsyuk (54.6) topped Detroit, but Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm and Zetterberg were all better than 52 percent.
...
“I’ve had lots of experience over there and I know the type of centermen they have in Datsyuk and Zetterberg and Helm has played a hell of a season and had a real good (first) playoff series,” Coach Todd McLellan said. “They’ve got Filppula (51.5) who they can put in there so they have some talent. They have some strong people up the middle as far as skating and faceoffs go so they’re very talented and deep.”

McLellan suggested to the AP’s Josh Dubow that the Sharks can’t simply look at last year’s series, which involved pouncing on a tired Wings team that had made a post-Olympic break push to make the playoffs and then played a seven-game series against Phoenix, and assume that history will repeat itself:

“It’s a completely different series, different teams, different circumstances,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “If we fall into that trap of looking back to last year we’ll sorely regret it. They’re a healthier team they’re much more rested. They’ll have a revenge factor. There’s a lot of things that will be different this year. Our team will have to be very cognizant of that.”
...
The time off has given the Red Wings time to heal some injuries. Johan Franzen, who led the team with 28 goals in the regular season, has recovered from an injured left ankle that forced him to miss Game 4 against the Coyotes. Leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg is also back after missing the entire first round with an injured left knee.

“They’re going to be healthier,” Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said. “They’re going to be better and they’re going to be probably more motivated. Had we faced Chicago we would have had that little extra oomph in our step. I’m sure they’ll have that. We’ll have to be better than we were last year to beat them.”
...
The Sharks have had the upper hand of late, winning seven of the last nine meetings starting with last year’s playoff. But none of that will matter come Friday.

“You can wipe that right out the window,” San Jose forward Devin Setoguchi said. “Every year is different. It’s a new series, a new season. It doesn’t matter how many games we won against them the last two years. It’s going to be totally different in this series.”

McLellan did suggest something plain old weird to the CBC’s series blogger, however…

“If they think this is the same team as last year, we will be trailing this series sooner than we know,” McLellan said Thursday. “They are healthier, they are rested, and they have revenge on their minds.”
...
“They’ve made some adaptations in what they do,” McLellan said. “Everybody has to. We’re a lot different than we were a year ago.”

In fact, the Wings are probably better at the grittier matters - dumping the puck, working the corners, combining their skills with a bit more grind. But the real truth may be found in the fact that they went from one day off to eight days off before they faced the Sharks, and after two full runs in the playoffs in 2008 and ‘09, plus being extended to seven games by Phoenix last year, their bodies may have finally rebelled. This Red Wings team is clearly fresher, and McLellan is frankly grateful for the motion that the Sharks are underdogs.

“We’re just trying to stay under the radar as long as we can,” he said.

Underdogs? No way. Not at all.

The CBC’s blogger did post the Sharks’ lines…

Projected forward lines

Patrick Marleau-Joe Thornton-Devin Setoguchi
Dany Heatley-Logan Couture-Ryane Clowe
Torrey Mitchell-Joe Pavelski-Kyle Wellwood
Jamie McGinn-Scott Nichol-Jamal Mayers

Defence pairings

Douglas Murray-Dan Boyle
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Jason Demers
Ian White-Niclas Wallin

McLellan made the most intriguing comments about his team’s re-set from its series against the Kings while speaking to the Mercury News’s David Pollak:

“We have our foundation and something we believe in and we’re not going to stray from that,” he began. “But we’re going to look at a different penalty kill, we’re going to look at a power play that operates a little bit differently. Every team,” he continued, “has its own set of faceoff plans and Detroit has that. The goaltending tendencies are different. There are a lot of adjustments made from team to team, series to series.”

Each series means a fresh start when it comes to special teams and other aspects of the game.

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

And here’s McLellan’s response when asked if he’ll need to see more out of Antti Niemi this series.

“We will,” the coach said. “We’ll need a little more out of everybody and I don’t think you can single out one individual. But usually in playoffs, it starts in the pipes. He has a ring and he has a championship because he’s been able to rebound and we’ll expect that from him as we go on.”

Overall, Pollak breaks down the Wings and Sharks as follows:

STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH: Both coaches say they like to match their best players against the opposition’s best, so expect to see a lot of skilled talent on the ice at the same time. And that requires commitment to offense and defense by San Jose when skating against Detroit’s top forward, Pavel Datsyuk, or Henrik Zetterberg. “You have to be strong on both sides of the puck,” Patrick Marleau said. “You make a mistake or take a shift off and it usually ends up in the back of your net.” Sometimes Detroit coach Mike Babcock keeps Datsyuk and Zetterberg on the same line, sometimes he splits them up. Sharks coach Todd McLellan isn’t getting caught up in what the setup will be at the start. “They’ll be apart, they’ll be together. I know exactly how it’ll work over there,” he said. Will McLellan make adjustments accordingly? “We’ll see.”

IN THE NETS: Based on 2010 playoffs and 82 games that followed, give the Sharks the edge with Antti Niemi, a proven commodity with a Stanley Cup ring. Niemi also put up better individual statistics (2.38 goals-against average, .920 save percentage) than Detroit starter Jimmy Howard (2.79, .908) over the regular season. But that edge disappears when you look at the last two weeks. While Niemi was yanked twice against Los Angeles and had sof numbers (3.99, .863), Howard was solid if not spectacular against Phoenix (2.50, .915). One intangible: San Jose’s success against Howard a year ago—especially when a harsh-angle shot by Logan Couture in Game 3 somehow squeezed into the Detroit net and might have turned the series around.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Unlike their matchup with Los Angeles, the Sharks face special teams similar to their own in the regular season. San Jose’s power play had a 23.5 percent success rate (second in the NHL), slightly better than Detroit’s at 22.3 percent (fifth). Detroit’s penalty kill finished with an 82.3 percent success rate (17th), ahead of the Sharks at 79.6 percent (24th) but was far from lights out. Based on performances in the first round, an anemic San Jose power play that scored only 8.7 percent of the time (13th among 16 teams) could get healthy against a Detroit penalty kill that finished 15th with only a 66.7 percent success rate. McLellan looks at special teams differently in the postseason. After every round, he said, “You basically close the book and you start over.”

And as this is as much a “series preview” as an entry setting up the first game of the series, I offer you the plain old strange take of Comcast Sportsnet’s Ray Ratto, who believes that the Sharks are the only team that’s grown over the course of the past year, and as such, they’re the ones in charge, the ones who will dictate the course of the series, and the team that should logically prevail:

The Wings will dump and chase more than they used to, they will play the body a bit more, and Lidstrom is more willing to slow a game’s pace down than he used to – I mean, the man is 57 years old, after all. But the Sharks are the Western Conference’s most ethereal good team, dominating regular seasons and then making you gnaw your fingers to the second knuckle in the playoffs. When your top moment comes in the second round, you have issues. And the Sharks revivified all those fears by needing six games to take out the Kings. They actually blotted out the three months when they were the best team in the sport with a maddeningly uneven performance, and the questions about their best players in the big ones has extended, at least for the moment, to defenseman Dan Boyle.

In short, this series is about the Sharks rather than the Red Wings. Most observers with the blessings of distance give the Sharks the benefit of underestimation, which actually works to McLellan’s advantage, but San Jose has something to prove here. In fact, a lot.

One, whether they are who they say they are. Detroit had an easier time against a tougher opponent (Phoenix), and that alone makes front-runners look at the Sharks with their usual disdain.

In short, huh?

Two, whether consistency can still be theirs. San Jose built its rush from 12th to second on being the same team pretty much every night – careful in their own end, as comfortable with 3-2 games as 5-2 games. But they have these voices in their heads that tell them, “You’re still young, you’re still fast, you can win with just your skills,” and the voices get louder and more persuasive at the most difficult times.

Three, whether they can beat the Red Wings when they are whole and rested. Most folks believe the Wings were vulnerable last year, and they were right. Few people believe that this time, and the Sharks have to prove them wrong by reverting to the slightly duller, slightly more conservative and much more responsible course. They cannot skate with Datsyuk, they cannot match Zetterberg’s tirelessness, and they cannot equal Lidstrom’s calm in the face, of well, anything, and they definitely cannot recreate match the enormity of Holmstrom’s backside in Antti Niemi’s line of sight.

The Sharks can dictate terms in this series; they have before. But they’ll have to do it a different way, and they’ll have to be comfortable with that. They cannot pretend to be what they used to be, unless they want to become again what they used to be – a team who never failed to fail in the second round.

Right, San Jose’s Evil Drew Sharp. Sure. Evil Drew will weigh in down the line, and all I’m going to say is that he and Mr. Ratto were writing their articles in the same room.

The Mercury News’s Mark Purdy offers a slightly different Sharks-predicting series preview while focusing upon both last year’s series and the fact that, for better or worse, these teams have “no secrets” between them:

No-Houdini Hockey. No sideshows. No psychological misdirection. We won’t have the high-jinks of the Sharks-Kings first-round series, when Los Angeles coach Terry Murray kept trying to bait players and/or referees by talking about how certain Sharks were bloodying noses and committing felonies. We also won’t see any drop-the-gloves fights, as we witnessed early on between the Sharks’ Ben Eager and the Kings’ Kyle Clifford. Nope. Just straight-up, competitor-vs.-competitor hockey. It is why I am holding my breath and picking our beloved Los Tiburones to win the series in seven games. For two reasons:

One, the Sharks are still a bigger and stronger team than Detroit, which in last year’s series paid off over the course of five games in a Sharks victory. And, two, although the result from a year ago doesn’t mean anything this time, it also doesn’t mean zilch. Detroit no longer possesses the boogeyman mystique it once did for the Sharks. Oh, the Red Wings are still respected in the Sharks’ room. Greatly. But there is no longer a hump to jump for the first time. That happened last spring. It feels different this time, even though the Sharks pretty much realized that the hump would be back, wearing a Red Wings uniform.

“We figured we would have to go through them at some point to get to where we want to go,” Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said. “With Detroit, it’s almost guaranteed that will happen. We figured we’d see them at some point.”
...
[T]he worry for Detroit this time is that it will be rusty after sweeping Phoenix in the first round and sitting around since April 20. We’ll find out in the first few shifts of Game 1. The series probably will be decided by how well the Red Wings implement their forechecking strategy. Detroit will try to create turnovers off the sticks of Sharks defensemen and then shovel the puck to Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg for various forms of offensive mayhem.

On the other hand, if the Sharks defensemen handle the puck well and move it up the rink, then Joe Thornton and Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski should be centering lots of chances at the other end of the rink. Drawing penalties would also help. In Detroit’s first-round sweep of the Coyotes, the Red Wings allowed six goals on 18 Phoenix power plays.

Mainly, the Sharks can’t mess around. Over their 18 periods of hockey plus three overtimes against Los Angeles, they played perhaps seven really good periods of hockey. That inconsistency could be written off as the Sharks taking the Kings too lightly. But if Detroit gets an early lead in any game, it will roll all four lines and hold the puck forever. In the first round against L.A., the Sharks could also give up a four-goal lead and still come from behind to win. Against the Red Wings in a series of No-Houdini Hockey, that will not work. It’ll be the Sharks in seven. But with a very nervous rabbit inside the hat.

Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area’s Adam Kurz also offers a set-up with several points of emphasis, but he’s also buying into the whole concept that the rest of the NHL believes that the Wings are unstoppable, which just isn’t the case:

Balancing act: The most impressive stat, perhaps of the entire first round itself, is that 13 different Red Wings were able to get on the scoresheet with goals. That’s without access to their leading scorer, Henrik Zetterberg, who should be able to suit up for Game 1 against the Sharks after a knee injury late in the regular season kept him out against the Coyotes. Of the remaining playoff teams, only Tampa Bay has had that many players light the lamp, but it took them seven games to do it.

Leading the way with Zetterberg out was fellow superstar Pavel Datsyuk, who has six points to lead the Wings in playoff scoring. As is always the case with the perennial Selke Trophy candidate, his offense is just half of the story. Datsyuk dominated on both ends of the ice against the Coyotes and was arguably the best player in the league in the first round. Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader are two players that won’t necessarily make headlines, but are gobbling up valuable minutes and providing energy on the third and fourth lines.

Killing time: If there was one area of their game which was an issue in the first round, it was the Red Wings’ penalty-killing. Detroit allowed six power play goals in just 18 opportunities to the Coyotes, who aren’t exactly an offensive powerhouse. Only Nashville has a worse percentage than the 66.7 percent mark of the Red Wings when it comes to killing penalties. The Sharks’ penalty-killing was a point of concern for most of the regular season, but it came through in important situations against the Kings in the first round. With special teams magnified in the postseason, and with both teams featuring such high-powered offenses, whichever club wins this battle will have a huge edge in the series.

Waiting game The Red Wings haven’t played since April 20, and while it’s allowed Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Co. an opportunity to heal from some bumps and bruises, that’s a significant amount of time between games. Detroit should be enough of a veteran team to not let that affect them too adversely, but look no further than the 2008-09 Boston Bruins for an example of a team that wasn’t able to recover from that kind of respite. The Bruins, who were the top seed in the East that season, swept the Montreal Canadiens in the first round and had eight days off before falling to the less-talented Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. Now, we’re not saying that’s going to happen to the Red Wings, but it could be an obstacle they have to overcome.

Top Jimmy: This time last year, Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard was a hot shot rookie who might not have been prepared for the bright lights of playoff hockey after some outstanding regular season numbers. If his first-round performance and demeanor are any indication, he’s much more prepared now.

Howard, much like Antti Niemi, doesn’t necessarily have to steal any games for his club. After all, the Red Wings and Sharks are two of the most offensively gifted teams in the NHL, and just need a netminder to stop the shots he’s supposed to stop. While Niemi struggled with even that in the first round, Howard did not. His 2.50 goals-against average and .915 save percentage were more than enough to help the Red Wings advance. What may be even more impressive, though, is that he appears more driven and focused this season. Take, for example, what Howard had to say following the Game 4 clincher: When interviewed on the ice, Howard was asked why he hadn’t cracked a smile. “I’ll smile in June,” he simply said.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Jamie Leonard suggests that Kurz’s latter point may be the biggest “key to the series”:

Our best guess this year: Detroit in seven.

Of course, there are plenty of things that can push it the other way. Most prominently, Antti Niemi could outplay Jimmy Howard. Niemi wasn’t good (3.99 goals-against average, .863 save percentage, pulled twice) in the first round, but this is a guy who was the Sharks’ most valuable regular-season player and won the Stanley Cup last season with the Blackhawks. And he has a 5-1-1 career record against the Wings with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. He needs to steal a couple of games.

Howard, on the other hand, looked just fine in the first round, with a 2.50 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage that were more than good enough for a team that scored 4.5 goals per game. But don’t forget that the Wings were worried enough about him a few months ago that they tried to sign former Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov. And Howard’s career numbers (3-2-1, 2.81, .914) against San Jose are middling. The Sharks need him to give away a couple of games.

For Niemi, the key to improving is the guys in front of him. Fourteen of the 20 goals San Jose allowed in the first round were off defensive- or neutral-zone turnovers. The Kings were bringing a lot of pressure on the forecheck, and it led to panicky clearing attempts and rushed decision-making on the Sharks’ breakout. Of the eight remaining teams, San Jose’s 11.8 giveaways per game in the playoffs is the worst mark.

Ever the league’s great puck-control team, Detroit gave had a playoffs-best 4.8 giveaways per game in the first round. It’s not a new problem for San Jose. The Sharks were fourth worst in the league during the regular season with 10 giveaways per game. But this is no time for that number to get worse. Detroit kills teams by counterpunching off turnovers.

Let’s allow NHL.com’s John Kreiser’s actual game preview to ground us in the fact that an actual game of hockey, not rhetoric, will be played tonight:

Season series: The Sharks dropped the first meeting of the season, 5-3 at home, but won the last three – including both visits to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, the first time they’ve done that since entering the NHL in 1991. The teams are meeting in the second round for the third time in five years – Detroit won in 2007 and the Sharks got even last year.

Big story: The seedings are different , but the stakes are the same as they were a year ago. The second-seeded Sharks and third-seeded Wings (they were No. 1 and No. 5 in the West a year ago) meet again with the Wings looking to atone for a five-game loss to the Sharks a year ago – a series that saw San Jose win the close games while losing the lone blowout.
...
Who’s hot: Pavel Datsyuk was dynamic for the Wings in the opening round with 2 goals and 6 points in the four-game sweep. … Ryane Clowe led the Sharks with 4 goals and 7 points in the first round.

Injury report: Detroit beat Phoenix without star forward Henrik Zetterberg (knee) and played Game 4 without Johan Franzen (ankle). Both are expected to be ready for this series. Chris Osgood, the Wings’ backup goaltender, hasn’t played since January due to hernia surgery. … San Jose is still without defenseman Kent Huskins (upper body), but is otherwise healthy.

Stat pack: The Sharks got at least five goals from each of their top three lines in the opening round, while Detroit had 13 players score goals in its sweep of Phoenix. … One interesting mini-battle will be the Sharks’ power play, which went 2-for-23 in the opening round, against Detroit’s penalty-killers, who allowed Phoenix to go 6-for-18. … San Jose won all three overtime games in the opening round; Detroit-Phoenix was the only series without an overtime game.

And, for the record, tonight’s referees will be Steve Kozari and Stephen Walkom, and Jay Sharrers and Brad Lazarowich will be working the lines.

As for the Wings’ press corps’ take on things, let’s get the Detroit Free Press’s Evil Drew Sharp out of the way first. Evil Drew, who is picking the Sharks to win in seven games, suggests that the Red Wings and Sharks don’t hate each other enough to be truly considered arch-rivals, though the Wings’ players seem to believe that the Sharks’ status among some fans as “merely” the team that bumped the Wings out of the playoffs last season will change in a hurry:

“This is what happens when you play a team a lot in consecutive years,” captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. “There’s a familiarity that lends itself to becoming a rivalry.”

This is their third playoff meeting since 2007, the fifth overall. The 20-year-old Sharks have played the Wings in the postseason more than any other franchise. But there’s really nothing to despise about this team. There’s no animosity, no moment that stands out through recent history to raise the hackles of Wings players and fans. It’s certainly not like Colorado back in the day or even Anaheim in those initial post-lockout years, when the Ducks eliminated the Wings in the Western Conference finals on the way to their first Stanley Cup. Cheap-shot artist Chris Pronger was always a convenient villain.

The Sharks ran the Wings out of the playoffs last year in five games, but the officiating was more the enemy than Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski.

Can you honestly have a likable rival?

“There probably isn’t the bad feelings that there might have been with other teams,” forward Johan Franzen said. “We have a lot of respect for them. We know that they’re a great team; and to be successful against them, you have to outwork them. You have to be disciplined.”

Isn’t that the same strategy for beating the Wings?

“We’re two teams that are pretty much alike,” he said.

Um, Mike Babcock ripping into Devin Setoguchi? Joe Pavelski scoring at will? Joe Thornton being Joe Thornton? Douglas Murray’s endless face-washes? Ryane Clowe’s attempts to imitate Tomas Holmstrom? Todd McLellan’s repeated insistence, to the point of making you wonder if there is something to it, that there’s no McLellan-versus-Babcock element to the match-up? The addition of Ian White’s ego to the equation, the sandpapery Jamal Mayers, Scott Nichol, Ben Eager and Niclas Wallin, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle’s dynamic offense and Dany Heatley’s endless attempts to imitate Brett Hull? Antti Niemi’s incredibly ugly but frustratingly effective style of goaltending?

There’s a lot about the Sharks to respect—and dislike.

In terms of the match-up, as far as the Wings’ press corps is concerned, aside from noting that, according to the Free Press, the Wings possess a 2-and-3 record over the course of their past five road playoff series (plural), let’s start with the Free Press’s Helene St. James’ breakdown of the Wings’ and Sharks’ forwards and defense…

OFFENSE: The return of Henrik Zetterberg is huge for the Wings, as it’ll take some of the attention off Pavel Datsyuk and offset Johan Franzen still recovering from an ankle injury. Datsyuk and Zetterberg might play together with Tomas Holmstrom some shifts, or each man a line with wingers including Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler. This also means a third line with Danny Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi on the wings, and the Sharks aren’t going to be able to cover everyone. The Wings’ fourth line, pivoted by Darren Helm, was tremendously effective in the first round. If Franzen needs more time to recover, Mike Modano showed in Game 4 against Phoenix he’s a more-than-able reserve. Joe Thornton heads up the Sharks’ top line between Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi, and Calder Trophy finalist Logan Couture mans the second line with wingers Ryane Clowe and Dany Heatley. These are two lethal lines, and Joe Pavelski, Torrey Mitchell and Kyle Wellwood make a dangerous third line.

Advantage: Even.

DEFENSE: The Wings’ offense begins with the back end, where Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski make outlet passes few can match. Niklas Kronwall is playing at an elite level, and Brad Stuart gives the top pairing a punishing physical presence. Jonathan Ericsson is a steady guy who can make a big hit to free the puck (like he did against Phoenix), and Ruslan Salei gives Kronwall a solid safety net. Dan Boyle has a nimble touch on the Sharks’ back end, and his partner, Douglas Murray, can lay some big hits, like he did last spring on Franzen. Third-pair guy Ian White had a nice first round offensively against the Kings, but man to man, the Sharks’ defense doesn’t measure up to Detroit’s.

Advantage: Red Wings.

And the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan looks at goaltending and special teams:

Goaltending

Red Wings: Jimmy Howard was considered to be the weak point heading into the postseason. Not so fast. Howard was better than Ilya Bryzgalov, and was an underrated factor in the Wings’ sweep of the Coyotes. Howard is facing a much better Sharks team. Can he withstand the pressure?

Sharks: Antti Niemi has a Stanley Cup ring, taking the Blackhawks to the top last season. But in Round 1 against the Kings, Niemi almost cost the Sharks. He was pulled twice and didn’t seem comfortable or confident. Niemi has to be significantly better this round.

Edge: Even

Special teams

Red Wings: As good as the power play was, the Red Wings struggled against a weak Coyotes power play (six goals). The Red Wings will be tested on the penalty kill by the Sharks, who boast some of the most efficient forwards in the league. The Red Wings power play will be bolstered by the return of Henrik Zetterberg.

Sharks: As good as the Sharks power play is on paper, it struggled against the Kings. Still, watch out for Dan Boyle and Joe Thornton, a clever passer from the half-boards.

Edge: Red Wings

Let’s stay on the bright side of things as the Macomb Daily’s Chuck Pleiness offers three reasons why the Wings could move on, and three reasons why they might not. Here’s the positive part of his article:

1. Pavel Datsyuk: Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle said this about Datsyuk after Game 2 of their opening round series: “The guy’s disgusting. He’s fun to watch, but not fun to play against.” Datsyuk was the Wings’ best player in Round 1. He had two goals and four assists in four games. And with all their forwards back healthy, Datsyuk could have an even bigger impact in this round.

2. Still that Franzen factor: Johan Franzen had two goals and an assist in the three games he played against Phoenix. That gives him 62 points in 54 games during the past four springs. He has 37 goals and 35 assists in 78 career playoff games.

3. A well rested team: That equals a fully healthy team. The Wings will have Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen in the lineup to begin the series. Zetterberg, who led the team in scoring during the regular season, missed the entire first round with a sprained left knee. Franzen missed Game 4 of the series with Phoenix with a hurt left ankle. When these teams met last year, Detroit had one day off before opening the next round in San Jose.

And let’s toss out a few more “points” of emphasis via the Detroit News’s Kulfan, who offers five keys to the series for Detroit. Among them:

1. How will Zetterberg and Franzen perform? The Red Wings were able to get past the Coyotes without Henrik Zetterberg (sprained left knee, missed series) and Johan Franzen (left ankle, missed Game 4). Zetterberg practiced this week and proclaims himself fit. Franzen has practiced sparingly, said he’s ready, but isn’t guaranteed to play.

Getting past Phoenix without Zetterberg and Franzen at 100 percent is one thing. Getting past a deeper — and better — San Jose team won’t be as easy. Health is always important in the playoffs, and the Red Wings appear to have depth to overcome injuries — as long as there aren’t too many. Having Zetterberg and Franzen playing at peak efficiency is crucial.
...
3. Can the Red Wings’ depth remain dominant? When they’re rolling four lines, and each is contributing, the Red Wings have been at their best. In the first round, the Red Wings were playing with that type of effectiveness. All four lines contributed — 13 players scored goals and 16 got on the scoresheet. And when they weren’t contributing offensively, the defense stood out.

It’ll be interesting to see which forwards coach Mike Babcock will scratch with Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen healthy. Mike Modano was out three games before replacing Franzen. Is Jiri Hudler a possibility?

Regarding the Wings’ personnel in a specific sense, Ansar Khan noted that Wings coach Mike Babcock might very well play Henrik Zetterberg on Pavel Datsyuk’s wing while he regains his conditioning:

“I decided they’re practicing together today,’’ Babcock said. “They’re going to warm up together tomorrow night.’‘

Said Zetterberg: “You never know how it’s going to be tomorrow. I’ve been playing with (Valtteri Filppula) and Homer a lot, too, this week.’‘
...
Here are the lines they practiced with:

Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Holmstrom

Hudler-Filppula-Franzen (Modano working in)

Cleary-Abdelkader-Bertuzzi

Miller/Draper-Helm-Eaves
...
Lidstrom-Stuart

Ericsson-Rafalski

Kronwall-Salei
...
Howard

Danny Cleary suggested to the Free Press’s St. James that the Wings’ ability to toss out the Eurotwins give the Wings an edge both offensively and defensively…

“When you think of the concept of a line,” Danny Cleary said Thursday, “they just make sense. Tommy is so great in front of the net, and he knows his role better than almost anybody. He just gets the puck and then let’s Pav and Z do their thing. It’s nice for us to have that.”

The line might not stay together long, if at all, especially if a tender ankle limits Johan Franzen’s mobility. The key for the Wings in this series is likely to be their third and fourth lines, because they’ll need them to counter the Sharks’ wealth of forwards.

“We’ve got good depth to the team, especially what all the lines showed in the first round,” Franzen said. “All the lines contributed goals and forechecked hard. We feel like we’ve got a really good group here.”

It’s a group that’s highlighted by Datsyuk and Zetterberg, but a group that’s strong because of supporting players Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm.

One could very well argue that as important as Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Franzen are to the Wings’ success, the rejuvenated play of Bertuzzi, Cleary’s all-round acumen, Valtteri Filppula’s possible Wings-career-saving performance thus far and the fact that Jiri Hudler and Mike Modano have added punch when necessary, it’s Helm’s almost viciously efficient forechecking and Abdelkader’s crash-and-bang performance centering Bertuzzi and Cleary that gave the Wings the real edge against Phoenix…

And it’s Helm and Abdelkader who might serve as the team’s “X-factors” that allow an admittedly smaller and older Wings team to counter the Sharks’ size. If you look at the Wings’ stats, Abdelkader didn’t register a point, but Helm had three, and St. James believes that the duo will successfully shut down Logan Couture and Devin Setoguchi:

Setoguchi and Couture deliver big games for the Sharks, but that’s to be expected from two guys who were both top-10 picks. Abdelkader, a low second-round pick, has developed into a good, physical utility player for the Wings, one coach Mike Babcock decided late in the regular season to put between two big wingers in Danny Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi. Helm, a fifth-round draft choice, was one of the Wings’ most consistent players all season and had a fantastic first round.

“Helm and Abby weren’t high picks, but they’re real good players for us, and they’ve had real good growth,” Babcock said. “Different growth than their guys—more meat-and-potatoes, straight-forward and be on you physically than scorers, but they’ve given us good lines and good depth down the middle.”

Abdelkader’s line was used against Shane Doan’s group in the Phoenix round and is likely to see shifts against Joe Thornton’s group this round, at least when the Wings are home. When they’re on the road, the Sharks are going to have to use their best defenders against the top two lines, which should be a boon for Abdelkader’s line.
...
“Abby is really evolving as a player and getting better and better,” Cleary said. “The more experience he gets at center and playing in big games, the better. He’s a big guy who is physical and is really good on face-offs, and me and Bert played together a lot during the season, so we know each other well, and Abby has been a good fit so far. We’re certainly as a line, we know what our role is. We’ve got to go out and wear down their defense and maybe draw a matchup that’s not as favorable for them.”

The fourth line figures to play a big part in this series, too. It’s a checking line, primarily, but with Helm and Patrick Eaves and either Kris Draper or Drew Miller, the line is fast and capable of helping out offensively.

“We play hard and we use our speed and we think we’ve got more skill than people might give us credit for on our line,” Helm said. “We try to do things pretty smart, pretty simple, and that works for us most of the time. Obviously being physical in the playoffs is a huge, huge key and for us on the fourth line, it’s really important for us to be finishing all of our checks and making it hard on their d-men.”

Between Abdelkader and Helm’s emergence and the fact that Niklas Kronwall (and Ruslan Salei!) played lights-out hockey in the first round, reclaiming the form he displayed before Georges Laraque smashed up Kronwall’s knee last season, the Wings have most certainly improved from within.

In a column trumpeting the Wings as a team with a “long run” in them, the Detroit News’s Bob Wojnowski took note of the fact that the Wings are, for lack of a better word, a little ticked off coming into this series…

“We have a sour taste from last year that’s not easy to forget,” forward Danny Cleary said. “It’s a good time for us to get some redemption. We’re ready.”

And when Johan Franzen was asked what the Wings could do to stop the Marleau-Thornton-Heatley-Clowe-Pavelski-Couture-Setoguchi monster, he offered a simple answer:

“They are skilled and so are we, and we’re gonna have to take it to them before they take it to us,” Franzen said. “We played great last round, and hopefully we can continue to forecheck and punish their defensemen. Great team, great challenge.”

In other words, while the Wings remain a relatively even-keeled team that believes in disciplined play above all else, they are, if only occasionally, willing to admit that while their series against Phoenix was business…

This one is personal, and as it turns out, they like the Sharks much less than Evil Drew might lead you to believe.

The Wings also argue that Ray Ratto’s suggestion that the Wings are quite literally and figuratively the, “Same old, same old” team, playing against the Sharks on the day after Nicklas Lidstrom’s 41st birthday, simply isn’t accurate:

“We’re a better team than last year, we play harder,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Even though we didn’t like our team a lot this winter, I think the individual growth of our players was significant. It showed in the last round and it has to show again. You get on a roll and get confidence, it’s crucial.”
...
Drawing outmanned Phoenix was a break. Watching other teams pummel each other for six and seven games was a break. Getting nine days for Zetterberg and Franzen to heal was a well-earned break. Seeing West stalwarts San Jose and Vancouver struggle was a break. The Canucks barely survived the Blackhawks, and Roberto Luongo showed gaping cracks. The Sharks needed three overtime victories to oust the Kings, and goaltender Antti Niemi was pulled twice.Jimmy Howard has been solid in net. Penalties are still an issue, but the Red Wings found a missing gear, and now must find another. The Sharks have beaten them seven of the past nine meetings, counting playoffs and the regular season.

And, as Wojnowski suggests, the likelihood of rust included, the Wings have shaken off their late-season stupor, and they did so for a very good reason:

Which brings us back to that wake-up call — where and when did it happen? That 10-3 home loss to the Blues late in the season sparked a rare, angry team-lashing from Lidstrom. Then, when Detroit went to Chicago for the season finale and beat the desperate defending champs, the signs were there.

“We didn’t have any doubts whatsoever we could turn it on,” Howard said. “We knew when the time arrived, guys were gonna step up, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Speaking of turning it on, aside from noting that Babcock would not reveal which two forwards—out of a group that includes Mike Modano, Kris Draper, Drew Miller, and possibly but probably not Patrick Eaves and Jiri Hudler—he’s going to sit as Zetterberg and Franzen return, the Detroit News’s Kulfan spoke to the Wings about the fact that the first ten minutes of tonight’s game are so essential:

Most opponents say the first 10 minutes of a road game are the most important. If a team can take the home crowd away early, and silence a loud building, the chance of winning increases.

“That’s usually the case here (HP Pavilion), they come out hard and throw a lot of pucks to the net,” Franzen said. “We have to take it to them before they take it to us.”

Said Brad Stuart : “You don’t want to go in with the mentality of just weathering the storm. We know it’s going to be high energy, and they are going to come out hard and fast and we have to be ready for it. But we want to counter that with the same mindset.”

And again, as Kulfan suggests, with the Hudler-Filppula-Franzen line almost sitting behind the Cleary-Abdelkader-Bertuzzi line on the depth chart, and whoever Darren Helm and Patrick Eaves play with earning “more than a fourth line” status, the Wings will rotate through four lines and three defensive pairings, the Wings know that, again, depth may very well carry the day:

The Red Wings and Sharks have so much talent up front, so much ability to produce offense, there’s a sense the two sides can cancel each other out. So, which team’s role players and grinders can outdo the other, such as the Red Wings third- and fourth-line dominance against the Coyotes, could prove to be the difference in the series.

“Scoring a timely goal can change the momentum,” Eaves said. “If you look at rosters, everyone is deep these days, it’s not just the first two lines. Everybody has a deep roster these days.”

Overall, the Wings believe that they’ll be okay despite a road start, but they’re well aware of the fact that they all but need to win Game 1 or they face a must-win situation in Game 2, as they told the Windsor Star’s Dave Waddell prior to leaving for San Jose:

“Home ice is a good advantage to have, but we certainly do play well on the road,” Wings forward Dan Cleary said. “You need that in order to be a top team. At times this year, it certainly saved our butts. Being good on the road, got us out of bad stretches at home. San Jose is a tough building to play in. We got to be ready, withstand the first 10-12 minutes, and try to keep your head above water. If we can do that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The Wings posted a 26-11-4 road record this season and scored more goals (132) on foreign ice than any club in the league. They also allowed 17 fewer goals (112) on the road than at Joe Louis Arena. That trend continued in the first round of the playoffs where Detroit posted 4-2 and 6-3 wins in Phoenix. Detroit defenceman Brad Stuart said the Wings must avoid repeating last year’s mistakes.

“Our start of the series, to get down 2-0 on the road, it’s tough to come back,” Stuart said. “We were in the box a little too much last year as well. Some five-on-threes hurt us. You can argue the calls, but the fact is we have to be better in that area. Just the execution, the teams are pretty similar. Who’s going to impose their will on the other team I guess is going to be the difference.”

And that’s the other big question going into tonight’s game: will Stephen Walkom and Steve Kozari call penalties as tightly as the NHL instructed them to call ‘em in the first round, or will the referees let a horizontal stick holds, slashes, hacks and whacks, scrums in front of the net and the kinds of penalties that are supposed to be called as charging, boarding and roughing next season go?

If the standard of officiating drops, that obviously benefits the Sharks’ big forwards, because if they’re allowed to take Raffi Torres-style runs on the Wings’ defensemen, the Sharks’ forecheck will be that much more effective, and of course, while none of the press corps has admitted it, players will get hurt.

Do the Sharks have any “Shane Doans” on the roster? Yes. Scott Nichol, Douglas Murray, Jamal Mayers, Ryane Clowe and several others hit to hurt and do so on a very regular basis, so the Wings will need to keep their heads on a swivel this evening.

Hometown writers’ and experts’ picks: I’ve tried to sprinkle series predictions throughout the stories preceding the series, and here’s the latest crop thereof:

• In terms of local picks, the Macomb Daily’s Chuck Pleiness is picking the Wings in six;’

• Four of the five Free Press staff writers are picking the Wings to advance, with the exception of Evil Drew Sharp;

• Three of the five Detroit News staff writers are picking the Wings, but Ted Kulfan and Chris McCosky believe that the Sharks will prevail;

• The San Francisco Chronicle’s Jake Leonard is picking the Wings in seven;

• Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area’s Ray Ratto is picking the Sharks in seven;

• The Mercury News’s Mark Purdy is picking the Sharks in seven;

• Very surprisingly, seven of eight of ESPN’s staff writers are picking the Wings;

• The Ottawa Sun’s Chris Stevenson is picking the Sharks;

• The Toronto Star’s Paul Hunter is picking the Wings in seven;

• Sportsline’s AJ Perez is picking the Sharks in six;

• According to the NHL, EA Sports’ NHL 11 picked the Wings to prevail in seven games;

• USA Today’s Kevin Allen is going with the Sharks in seven;

• The Sports Forecaster is picking the Wings in seven;

• Conveniently, ESPN’s Barry Melrose spoke to the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan about his pick:

A. This series has the potential to be something special. Two very good, fast, creative, imaginative teams that go back and forth and play at a very high level. I see this series going a long way, going back and forth.

Q . Saying that, who do you give the edge to?

A . I like Detroit. I like Detroit’s forwards going against San Jose’s defense. I just don’t know if San Jose’s defense can handle (Pavel) Datsyuk or (Henrik) Zetterberg. Los Angeles did a good job against San Jose’s defense, and the Red Wings are much more talented than Los Angeles. Now, if San Jose can contain Datsyuk and Zetterberg and (Johan) Franzen, it could be much different.
....
Q . So, a final prediction.

A . I’ll say the Wings in six games. Like I said, I just don’t know if San Jose can stop Datsyuk and Zetterberg. If they do, then it’s a different game. But this should be an outstanding series.

If you want to watch tonight’s game with fellow Wings fans: As the Free Press’s Steve Schrader notes in his Octopus’ Garden:

The Wings and Absolut Vodka—cheers, Pavs—are hosting viewing parties for the first two games: tonight at the Hamlin Pub, 55076 Van Dyke, Shelby Township, and Sunday at the Hockeytown Café.

Here’s the Wings’ press release about viewing parties:

RED WINGS AND ABSOLUT VODKA TO HOST PLAYOFF VIEWING PARTIES THIS WEEKEND…

Hockeytown Café & Hamlin Pub are the Best Spots for the MotorCity’s NHL Fans to Watch Games 1 & 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals ...

Detroit, MI… The Red Wings and Absolut Vodka will be hosting a pair of viewing parties for the first two games of Detroit’s Western Conference Semifinal matchup versus the San Jose Sharks this weekend. Citizens of Hockeytown are invited to attend both of these parties, where they’ll be able to enjoy great food and drink specials, play interactive games and have the chance to win autographed merchandise as well as playoff tickets all while enjoying the unparalleled excitement of post-season hockey in a fun-filled environment.

The times and locations for both of this weekend’s viewing parties can be found below:

Game 1 vs. San Jose – Friday, April 29: Puck Drop @ 10:00 p.m. Hamlin Pub – 55076 Van Dyke Avenue, Shelby Township, Mich.

Featuring Special Guest & Red Wings Alumnus Brent Fedyk

Game 2 vs. San Jose – Sunday, May 1: Puck Drop @ 3:00 p.m. Hockeytown Café – 2301 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Mich.

In the event that the Red Wings’ series with the Sharks goes to a fifth game, a viewing party will be held at MotorCity Casino (2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit, Mich.) on Sunday, May 8 (puck drop – 8:00 p.m.). Additional information on all Red Wings/Absolut Playoff Viewing Parties can be obtained by visiting DetroitRedWings.com.

Wings and Sharks notebooks: The Free Press’s George Sipple profiled Jamal Mayers in his Sharks notebook, and Mayers made an intriguing comment about playing the Wings given that he previously played for the St. Louis Blues:

“You realize they’re not going to engage in a lot of stuff after the whistle,” Mayers said. “You have to play between the whistles and be physical and be effective that way. All of us that play on that fourth line have the ability to skate and get in on the forecheck regardless of who we’re playing. I’d like to think we can be effective in different ways as well.”

• The Detroit News simply posted David Pollak’s Sharks notebook from Thursday;

  • And this Sharks video from Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area didn’t post until late on Thursday evening:


Also of Red Wings-related note: I’ve mentioned this over the last few days, but I find it very intriguing that the Wings’ Black Aces, whose ranks include Joakim Andersson (Sweden), Jan Mursak (Slovenia) Tomas Tatar (Slovakia), are not being made available to their national teams for the World Championships—and Tatar’s Slovaks are playing at home in Bratislava—but the Wings clearly believe that the players’ professional interests are best served by staying with the big club for now.

“Puck Worlds’” Bruce Peter, however, reports that Sergei Kolosov will be playing for Belarus, and the World Championships start today. According to Pro Hockey Talk’s James O’Brien, Versus will air a few games from the preliminary round:

VERSUS’ preliminary round coverage of the 2011 World Championships is as follows (all times ET, subject to change):

Saturday, April 30 — USA-Austria (Live) — 10 a.m.

Monday, May 2 — USA-Norway (Live) — 10 a.m.

Tuesday, May 3 — Canada-Switzerland — TBD

Wednesday, May 4 — USA-Sweden — TBD

You can follow the Worlds on IIHF.com.

• If you missed it, the Detroit News’s David Guralnick posted a fantastic 23-image gallery of the Wings and Sharks practicing yesterday;

• And I chose not to clutter this entry with too much stuff, but if you want to take a gander at yesterday’s press conferences from both the Red Wings and Sharks’ players and coaches, and listen to a spate of radio interviews, they’re available here.

Filed in: | The Malik Report | Permalink
 

Comments

Avatar

I figured it would take at least one perceived slight before the officiating excuse came out, so kudos to you for building it into the series starting with your preview.

Posted by RoneFace on 04/29/11 at 10:57 AM ET

Trish's avatar

Take off you hoser Boneface.

Good work George.

LGRW

Posted by Trish from Tampa/Clearwater FL on 04/29/11 at 11:12 AM ET

MsRedWingFan's avatar

(( 

quote Drew: The Sharks ran the Wings out of the playoffs last year in five games, but the officiating was more the enemy than Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski.

  ))

WOW he dared say it !  ...  we must give him one of our foil hats cheese

Posted by MsRedWingFan from West Michigan hometown of Abdelkader on 04/29/11 at 12:35 PM ET

PaulinMiamiBeach's avatar

The Wings and Absolut Vodka—cheers, Pav

um, Absolut is Swedish.

Posted by PaulinMiamiBeach on 04/29/11 at 01:02 PM ET

Wings_Fan_In_KC's avatar

Good work, GM.

Awesome.  My head always spins after I read one of these great updates.

Posted by Wings_Fan_In_KC from ...somewhere southwest of The Motor City... on 04/29/11 at 02:53 PM ET

Hippy Dave's avatar

Wow George, don’t your fingers ever get sore from all that typing?

Nice work, glad to hear the Mule and Z can play.

Posted by Hippy Dave from Portland by way of Detroit on 04/29/11 at 03:11 PM ET

MsRedWinger's avatar

Thanks, George - great work, as always, and most appreciated.

I’m chuckling every time I read how “deep” the Sharks are.  I’m hoping the only “deep” they feel tonight is “in deep doo-doo” after the Wings bury them.

LET’S GO RED WINGS !!!!!

Posted by MsRedWinger from Flori-duh on 04/29/11 at 05:41 PM ET

Add a Comment

Please limit embedded image or media size to 575 pixels wide.

Add your own avatar by joining Kukla's Korner, or logging in and uploading one in your member control panel.

Captchas bug you? Join KK or log in and you won't have to bother.

Smileys

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Feed

Most Recent Blog Posts

About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.