Sharks-Wings Rivalry Takes Center Stage

The Stanley Cup Playoffs tend to breed certain matchups; Boston-Montreal, Washington-Pittsburgh, Vancouver-Chicago just to name a few in recent years. But we can now add San Jose-Detroit to that list.

The Sharks and Red Wings are set to do battle in the Western Conference Semis for the second straight postseason and for the third time in the past five seasons.

In total it is the fifth ever playoff series between the clubs with each team winning twice. San Jose defeated Detroit in their first ever playoff series back in 1994 but lost to them in the same round the following year. In the 2007 Western Semis Detroit beat San Jose in six games but the Sharks countered with a five game series victory in round two last season.

Make no mistake about it, these two clubs do not like each other one bit. And as most hockey fans will argue, rivalries are only built and sustained with playoff matchups. The Red Wings-Sharks rivalry is no exception to that argument. In fact, the rivalry between San Jose and Detroit (despite being in separate divisions) might be the best one going in the entire Western Conference.

The Red Wings, thought of by many as the New York Yankees of the NHL, are known for being essentially the exact opposite of the Sharks when it comes to playoff success.

Detroit is referred to as “Hockey-Town USA” due to their 11 Stanley Cup Championships, four of which coming since 1997. No other U. S. team has more than five. San Jose meanwhile has only been around since 1991, has yet to win a Stanley Cup and has been labeled by most hockey fans as playoff choke artists.

Simply put, the Red Wings have earned a reputation every other team dreams of having, and the Sharks will once again have to go through HockeyTown in order to earn their own.

But will the Sharks be able to knock off the Red Wings for the second year in a row? Well, if this year’s first round is any indication, one would be wise to take the Wings in this series.

Detroit swept the Phoenix Coyotes and looked as dominant as ever. They posted a 4.50 goals per game mark in the series as well as a 2.50 goals against. Conversely, the Sharks scored at a lower rate (3.33 G/G) and allowed goals at a higher rate (3.33 GA/G). Furthermore, Detroit’s power-play sparkled in round one, succeeding 26.7% of the time versus San Jose’s power-play which sputtered at an abysmal 8.7% success rate.

But even though the Red Wings had a better opening round, the Sharks were the better of the two clubs in regular season five on five scoring. The Sharks scored 21 more five on five goals than they allowed this season while the Red Wings scored just three more.

So while Detroit holds the better G/G mark of 3.13, to the Sharks 2.96, it is San Jose who has a better goal differential. Detroit’s gap between goals for and goals against during the regular campaign was just plus-.24, while San Jose’s gap is nearly double at plus-.42. Both teams boasted top-five regular season power-plays and below average penalty kills. Therefore if the calls are relatively even in this series, the special teams should be a wash. And since the even strength edge has to be given to San Jose, one would also be wise to take the Sharks in this series.

The Sharks won the season series between the two clubs as they took three out of four games. But San Jose looked quite poor in their opening round series against the Kings. Most notably star defenseman Dan Boyle had one the worst playoff rounds in his career. Boyle and the Sharks needed six, almost seven games to defeat the Kings despite dominating in terms of puck possession and chances.

Meanwhile, the ageless wonder Nicklas Lidstrom (who is the odds on favorite to win his seventh career Norris Trophy) and the Red Wings appeared to have little trouble in dispatching the Coyotes even without the injured Henrik Zetterberg — their leading scorer during the regular season. According to reports, Zetterberg will be ready to go for the start of this series but even if he gets back into the swing of things quickly, the Sharks could be too much to handle as their roster is signicantly upgraded from last season.

Logan Couture emerged as Calder Trophy candidate this season, and mid-season acquisitions of center Kyle Wellwood and defenseman Ian White have given the Sharks their deepest roster in history. Detroit on the other hand remains strong but the additions of Jiri Hudler and Mike Modano don’t compare to the improvements on San Jose’s end.

If Detroit is to knock off the Sharks, they will almost certainly need to continue their hot ways with the man advantage and hope that they get the majority of opportunities. San Jose’s power-play struggled in round one but against an extremely solid Los Angeles penalty kill. Look for that to change against Detroit.

San Jose spent more time in the box (averaging 11.3 minutes) than did Detroit in the regular season (9.2 minutes), but the difference is minimal when you consider they were just four spots apart in the rankings.

San Jose proved down the stretch that they can be a solid defensive team with tremendous goaltending from Antti Niemi. The Sharks went 26-6-4 in their final 36 games of the regular season led by a stingy defense. The Sharks finished 10th in the league with a 2.54 GA/G in the regular season, 13 spots ahead of the Red Wings (23rd, 2.89 GA/G).  They also blocked more shots 1,148 to Detroit’s 917.

Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard can steal a game or two in this series, but the Sharks are the better team this year.

Not only will the Sharks’ power-play get back on track, but Boyle won’t have a second straight sub-par series, and neither will the San Jose defense as a whole.

Prediction: Sharks in six.

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One Response to “Sharks-Wings Rivalry Takes Center Stage”

  1. scooter
    May 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    Andrew,

    That is quite the analysis there. Spot on. I’d also like to think that we are a little bigger and younger than Detroit too.