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Colorado Avalanche vs. San Jose Sharks @NHLdotcom
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GAME: Colorado Avalanche at San Jose Sharks.

PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinals; Game 1.

TIME: Thursday, 10 p.m. EDT.

Even though the San Jose Sharks are the higher-seeded team, they still aren't favored to defeat the Colorado Avalanche in the playoffs for the first time.

The Sharks and Avalanche renew their postseason rivalry when the clubs meet in the Western Conference playoffs for the third time in six seasons.

Colorado and San Jose looked very strong in the first round, as each team polished off its opponent in five games. That set up another meeting between the Sharks, the second seed, and the No. 4 Avalanche in the semifinals.

For the first time in the teams' three matchups, San Jose had the better regular season. That has done little to change the overwhelming perception that the Sharks are still the underdogs.

With an even more impressive collection of superstars than usual, the Avalanche will be taking on a Sharks club that relies much more heavily on grit than talent.

"I'm sure they're going to be the favorite, but we've surprised a lot of teams this year," current Shark and former Avalanche enforcer Scott Parker said. "They're pretty loaded, but I wouldn't put anything past us."

San Jose piled up 104 points and won the Pacific Division, relying heavily on tough, physical defense and outstanding goaltending by Evgeni Nabokov. The Sharks looked very good in beating the St. Louis Blues in the opening round, allowing only nine goals in the five games.

The firepower that Colorado will bring to HP Pavilion for Thursday night's opener, however, makes it very difficult to find a hockey observer who honestly favors the Sharks.

Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay and Rob Blake were outstanding during Colorado's quarterfinal victory over the Dallas Stars. The Avalanche also received unexpectedly big contributions from forwards Marek Svatos (six points) and Steve Konowalchuk (three goals).

"This was a team that was supposed to run away with the conference, if not the whole league," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said of the Avalanche. "They might be looking to make up for it now. If you look at talent, man for man, they have to be the favorite."

If the Sharks didn't have enough to worry about, they represent the perfect opponent for Colorado forward Teemu Selanne to erase the memory of a disappointing first season with the Avs.

A nine-time All-Star, Selanne left the Sharks after 2{ seasons and signed with Colorado in a package deal that included his former teammate, Paul Kariya, during the offseason. The duo immediately made the Avalanche one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, but it didn't work out quite as planned.

Selanne finished with 16 goals and 32 points, both career lows. One of the league's best scorers for 12 seasons, he was relegated to the third and fourth lines and was a healthy scratch twice.

Selanne, however, has built more of his reputation against the Sharks than any other team. In 45 games against San Jose, he has 37 goals and 37 assists for 74 points, his best total against any club.

"Obviously, I know those guys very well and that helps a lot," Selanne said. "I think it's a little bit more excitement when you play against your old teammates and you want to show how you really can be."

Kariya, who teamed with Selanne for six seasons with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, also endured a disappointing season. He missed 31 of the first 38 games with a sprained wrist and hasn't played since spraining his ankle in the season finale. He is not expected to play in at least the first two games of this series, and won't make the trip to San Jose.

While San Jose doesn't have Colorado's skill level, it does have the speed to skate with the Avs in what should be a fast-paced series. In forwards Patrick Marleau, Vincent Damphousse and Alex Korolyuk, the Sharks boast some of the NHL's best skaters.

Those players are balanced by grinders such as Scott Thornton, Johnathan Cheechoo and Mike Ricci, who will try to force the Avalanche's quick forwards to battle them for the puck in the corners.

Rugged San Jose defensemen such as Brad Stuart, Mike Rathje and Kyle McLaren will try to give Colorado as little room as possible to operate in the offensive zone, and look to wear the Avs down with constant hitting.

"They definitely have more skill and more depth," the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Rathje said. "This is probably an ultimate challenge for us. Everybody is going to have to be up for it. We're a younger team with less experience, but this is how you gain more experience."

One area where the Sharks have more experience is in goal, as Nabokov has played 22 postseason games to Aebischer's seven. Nabokov, though, has not had much success against the Avalanche. He went 0-2 with a 4.94 goals-against average against Colorado this season, and is 2-10-1 with three shutouts and a 2.62 GAA in 13 career matchups.

Second-seeded Colorado defeated seventh-seeded San Jose in a six-game quarterfinal series in 1999. In 2002, the No. 2 Avs knocked off the third-seeded Sharks in seven games after overcoming a 3-2 series deficit. Patrick Roy beat Nabokov 1-0 in Game 7 of that series.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Avalanche - 4th seed; beat Dallas Stars 4-1, quarterfinals. Sharks - 2nd seed; beat St. Louis Blues 4-1, quarterfinals.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Avalanche - Sakic, 4 goals; Forsberg, 5 assists and 8 points; Blake, Adam Foote and Matthew Barnaby, 6 PIM. Sharks - Marleau, 3 goals; Damphousse, 4 assists; Marleau and Damphousse, 4 points; Scott Hannan, 8 PIM.

PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Avalanche - Power play: 28.6 percent (6 for 21). Penalty killing: 81.8 percent (18 for 22). Sharks - Power play: 9.7 percent (3 for 31). Penalty killing: 95.5 percent (21 for 22).

GOALTENDERS: Avalanche - Aebischer (4-1, 1.83 GAA); Tommy Salo (no appearances). Sharks - Nabokov (4-1, 1 SO, 1.56); Vesa Toskala (no appearances).

REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Avalanche, 2-1-1. Sakic led the Avs with two goals and four assists in the series, and Hejduk had two goals and three assists. Aebischer posted a 1.97 GAA in playing all four games. Nils Ekman had three goals and an assist for San Jose.

Associated Press
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