April 28, 2011
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Of the eight teams remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, none looked as dominant, poised and balanced in the first round as the Detroit Red Wings.
It took all of four games for the mighty winged wheel to dispatch of the Phoenix Coyotes in what turned out to be an epic first round for the league, as half of the series went the full seven games. Detroit didnt have nearly the difficulty in advancing as its fellow Western Conference clubs, outscoring the Coyotes 18-10 and sending them packing (to Winnipeg?) in business-like fashion.
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Now, theyve earned another playoff date with the Sharks. There arent many secrets between these two rivals, and whoever coined the phrase familiarity breeds contempt was likely watching playoff hockey at the time. This jewel of a matchup will likely reflect that.
Here are a few things to look for from the Sharks second-round opponent, as San Jose attempts to advance to the Western Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons.
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. Thats 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.
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Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader are two players that wont 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 arent 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 havent played since April 20, and while its allowed Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Co. an opportunity to heal from some bumps and bruises, thats 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 wasnt 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, were not saying thats 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, hes much more prepared now.
Howard, much like Antti Niemi, doesnt 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 hes 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.
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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 hadnt cracked a smile. Ill smile in June, he simply said.
In order to advance, the Sharks will need better play from their goaltender, they will have to match the scoring balance that Detroit possesses, and get off to better starts. Furthermore, Dan Boyle will have to be more responsible with the puck and play like a No. 1 defenseman, if only because Nicklas Lidstrom is on the other side of the ice.
It wont be easy. Many view the Red Wings as the odds-on favorite to win another Stanley Cup after their first round performance, and for good reason.
But theyre not invincible.