The sigh of relief of advancing through the first round of the playoffs this spring must give way to some concern for the San Jose Sharks based on a couple significant factors.
First, San Jose's top guns were far from deadly against the Colorado Avalanche with Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau held to a cumulative 10 points in six games, with just one of those points a goal. Secondly, the Red Wings won three of the four games played against the Sharks in the regular season and outscored them, 11-6.
Conversely, against the Phoenix Coyotes, the Red Wings' top offensive players were Detroit's top players, with Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen combining for 12 goals and 14 assists in seven games.
Zetterberg and Datsyuk are once again a dynamic duo, even if they are on different line and that makes them a bear to stop, even in the playoffs when the opposition focuses more intently on thwarting a big line.
Zetterberg (6 goals, 5 assists) has helped raise the game of Valtteri Filppula (3 goals, 4 assists) and Todd Bertuzzi (1 goal, 4 assists) has been using his wide body to good effect in front.
Datsyuk (5 goals, 3 assists) has been centering Franzen (1 goal, 6 assists) and either Tomas Holmstrom (2 goals, 2 assists) or Dan Cleary (0 points in 7 games).
The Wings' third and fourth lines have chipped in offensively, but have played a larger role in checking the opposition, killing penalties and playing physically. Justin Abdelkader has supplanted Jason Williams in the lineup.
While Heatley (4 assists in 5 games), Marleau (1 goal, 2 assists) and Thronton (3 assists) were an afterthought against the Avalanche, Joe Pavelski (5 goals, 3 assists), Ryane Clowe (1 goal, 7 assists) and Devin Setoguchi (3 goals, 3 assists) became the potent offensive unit for the Sharks.
The big hope for the Sharks is for the top line to return to their point-producing games of the regular season in order to combat Detroit's two offensive lines.
The sight of Nicklas Lidstrom jumping into the attack was a common one against the Coyotes and resulted in Lidstrom finishing the seven-game series with 3 goals (all on the power play) and 3 assists, while looking like the Lidstrom of old and not an old Lidstrom.
Brad Stuart (2 goals, 4 assists) and Brian Rafalski (5 assists) again were solid, dependable presences on the back line, as was Niklas Kronwall, who had 5 assists against the Coyotes. Jonathan Ericsson and Andreas Lilja rounded out Detroit's six-man defensive unit.
Dan Boyle rebounded nicely from the mistake in Game 3 that cost the Sharks a game against the Avalanche. He finished the series with 2 goals and 4 assists and was a plus-5 in six games, playing over 26 minutes per game.
Douglas Murray also was an offensive threat from the blue line with 1 goal and 4 assists. The remainder of the Sharks defensemen, Rob Blake (1 goal, 1 assist), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (1 assist), Jason Demers (1 assist) and Kent Huskins (0 points) were not as potent offensively, but played solidly in advancing. Niclas Wallin played in just one game against Colorado.
Jimmy Howard got through the baptism of fire that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Calder Trophy finalist played every minute against the Coyotes and came away with a 2.59 goals-against average and .919 save percentage as well as a shutout. For Howard, the goal in the first round wasn't to break records, but to contribute to a winning effort and gain experience. He accomplished both.
Evgeni Nabokov was strong against the Avalanche with a 1.76 GAA and .926 save percentage and a shutout. But believe it or not, the pressure will still be on Nabokov to come up with a performance that gets the Sharks into the Western Conference Final for the first time in five seasons.
There are few secrets here as San Jose's Todd McLellan is a former assistant to Detroit's Mike Babcock. Both are strong coaches, but Babcock has the edge in postseason success here by a wide edge. Babcock doesn't panic, as evidenced by both his approach and demeanor during an often frustrating regular season and some scary moments against the Coyotes.
Babcock lets his players improvise in the offensive end, but demands accountability -- and strong play -- in Detroit's zone. He also reads his team especially well and knows when to tinker and when to let things stand.
McLellan is no slouch in the coaching department, having led San Jose to the Presidents' Trophy in 2008-09 and to the top record in the Western Conference this season. But in San Jose, the onus is on postseason success. Last spring, the Sharks were upset in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks in six games. Moving the Sharks into the Western Conference Semifinals is an accomplishment for McLellan, but the team and fans will not be satisfied if that's where the trail ends in 2010.
The Red Wings improved on their regular-season mark on the power play, going from 19.3 percent to 23.5 (7 goals on 34 chances), thanks in large part to their top players being their top players. The Sharks converted at a 19.2 percent clip against the Avalanche, scoring 6 goals on 26 chances. San Jose was at 21 percent during the regular season.
The Sharks played to an 86.7 percent kill rate in the first round, allowing just 2 goals on 15 power plays. The Red Wings killed off penalties at an 81.8 percent rate, allowing 6 goals on 33 power plays.
Jimmy Howard -- The Wings will ice two solid offensive lines and a very strong veteran presence. But in the Stanley Cup Playoffs it always comes down to goaltending and Howard now has been tested in the postseason. He faces a strong challenge from the Sharks, especially if Thornton, Heatley and Marleau can get rolling, but Howard carried the Red Wings to the playoffs and with his supporting cast now healthy and productive, the onus is on him to get Detroit back to the Western Conference Final.
Joe Thornton -- It always seems to come down to Thornton for the Sharks. Thornton is a proven offensive player during the regular season with 931 points in 915 career games. But come playoff time it has been a different story as Thornton has struggled. Heading into Round 2, he has 12 goals and 44 assists in 82 career playoff games and is minus-16.
Red Wings will win if … Howard is able to raise his level in goal to the level of his more experienced teammates. After a difficult regular season, the Red Wings are looking more like the Red Wings of the recent past, so the onus will be on the goalie to make sure the solid play of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom is rewarded.
Sharks will win if … They forget about this being the playoffs. San Jose has an excellent team that is more than capable of winning. The Sharks simply need to play up to their capabilities and be true to their game.