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Sharks hope history won't repeat vs. Avs

by Staff

For the San Jose Sharks the journey to redemption will begin at home against one of the NHL's biggest surprises, the Colorado Avalanche. The last thing the top-seeded Sharks want is a surprising result.

Playoff disappointment has followed the perennially strong Sharks in recent years and Joe Thornton and company have to be hoping this is their year. The Sharks have strong goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov, a defense led by Dan Boyle and Rob Blake and forwards such as Dany Heatley, Joe Thronton and Patrick Marleau, who rank among the NHL's top stars.

In Colorado, San Jose is going up against a rookie NHL coach in Joe Sacco, a heretofore journeyman goalie in Craig Anderson and an array of kids led by 2009 draftees Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly. It is far from the formidable array of talent that Colorado used to bring to bear in past playoffs, but it also is a team that shocked early and often by ignoring predictions of a last-place finish and playing strongly.

For a San Jose team used to being upset, this is not welcomed news; too much bad karma. But the Sharks know they earned the first seed in the West for a reason -- they won 51 games, scored 257 goals and were 27-6-8 at home. 

You'd be hard-pressed to find a deeper, more-talented group in the NHL. The Sharks possess perhaps the game's best playmaker in Joe Thornton, whose 69 assists were second only to the 83 of Vancouver's Henrik Sedin.

A table-setter like Thornton is only as good as the finishers around him, and the Sharks have plenty. San Jose has five 20-goal scorers, including Thornton (20). Patrick Marleau leads the way with 44 goals, and his supporting cast includes Dany Heatley (39 goals) Joe Pavelski (25 goals), Devin Setoguchi (20 goals) and Ryan Clowe (19 goals).

A team with this many offensive weapons will provide problems no matter who the opposition may be.

The Avalanche feature four 20-goal scorers, from grey-beard veteran Milan Hejduk (23) -- a holdover from the Cup-winning years -- to fresh-faced teenager Matt Duchene (24). Center and leading scorer Paul Stastny (20) and hard-charging, hard-working sophomore Chris Stewart (28) are also in that mix.

Rounding out the top-six forwards are rookie winger T.J. Galiardi and trade deadline acquisition Peter Mueller. The latter is an unknown heading into the postseason, as Mueller missed the final four games with a concussion. In Mueller's 15 games with the Avalanche, he scored 9-11-20 and joined Theo Fleury as the only players in team history to record points in each of their first seven games with the Avalanche. Colorado went 7-7-1 with the 21-year-old center in the lineup.

Around the time Mueller was lost, rookie Brandon Yip returned to the active lineup after missing 14 games with a shoulder injury. From the time of his call-up through March 1, Yip went 11-7-18 with five multi-point performances in 26 games. Among players with at least 25 appearances, Yip led all NHL rookies in goals-per-game at 0.38.

Without a true game-breaking scorer, Colorado must receive balanced scoring throughout the lineup and heroic performances from the third and fourth lines.

Dan Boyle is one of the NHL's biggest offensive threats along the blue line. He finished fourth among defensemen with 58 points, 29 of which came while quarterbacking the power play.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray are two of the more unheralded defensemen in the League. Vlasic, 23, had his season hampered by a lower-body injury that cost him 18 games. Still, his plus-21 rating is the best he's posted during his four-year career.

The 26-year-old Murray isn't known for his offense, but his 4 goals and 13 assists career-highs. He also represented Sweden at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Even at 40, Rob Blake is getting it done. He's not the offensive force he's been in the past, but his 21:21 of ice time per game is third on the team. Niclas Wallin, acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes at the trade deadline, and Kent Huskins round out the unit. Jason Demers is ready to fill in should Vlasic or any other blueliner be unable to go. There is also a possibility the Sharks will dress seven defensemen in a game.

The Avalanche were one of eight teams to have five 20-point scorers on the blue line in John-Michael Liles (31), Kyle Quincey (28), Ryan Wilson (21), Kyle Cumiskey (20) and Brett Clark (20).

If play call for a physical presence, Colorado can send out either of veterans Scott Hannan, Ruslan Salei or captain Adam Foote, two of the team's leaders in ice time per game. Of those seven, only Liles (minus-3) and Salei (minus-1) finished the season as a minus, and those two barely missed the cut.

Liles and Quincey will make the power play go, and Clark and Cumiskey will also see time. Hannan, Quincey and Foote all averaged more than two minutes a game shorthanded.

Evgeni Nabokov returned from the Olympics and played some of his worst hockey of the season. In his first nine post-Vancouver appearances he went 3-6-0 and allowed three goals or more seven times. But he closed the season 7-1-1 and posted a .921 save percentage during that stretch. Nabokov will need to be on his game if the Sharks are to get out of the first round.

With 70-plus appearances, Craig Anderson is in unfamiliar territory; his previous high in an NHL season was 31. His career high was 59 in his last season with Guelph of the OHL in 2000-01. Toward the end of the regular season, there was speculation Anderson was wearing down, though no one in the organization admitted as much. Not even workhorse Hall of Famer Patrick Roy ever played in 70 games for Colorado.

Anderson, in his first season with the Avs, burst out of the gate with 10 wins in 14 games in October. Since then, he hasn’t win more than 7 in any one month. But give him credit. For the first time in his seven-year career as a bona fide No. 1, Anderson has set franchise records in starts, minutes, shots faced and saves. His reward will be playing in his first NHL postseason game.

Last season was Todd McLellan's first as a head coach. He talked about changing the culture in San Jose in an effort to erase past playoff failures, but the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sharks were bounced in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks. A repeat performance this season could mean trouble for McLellan.

Before cutting his NHL teeth, Joe Sacco coached for the organization for two seasons with AHL Lake Erie. The 2009-10 season marks his fifth overall with the organization, as he also spent two years as an assistant coach with AHL Lowell and Albany. Sacco is all too familiar with the many home-grown products that dot the Avs' lineup and has helped them make successful transitions to the NHL.

"From the start of training camp, we wanted to be a hard team to play against," Sacco said. "I wanted guys who could provide energy, play physical and skate. I think we've done a pretty good of that this season."

The Sharks are among the best in both power-play percentage (21.0 percent, fourth) and penalty-killing efficiency (85.0 percent, fifth). Dany Heatley's 18 power-play goals rank him second in the NHL behind Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos.

Colorado was a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of playing up a man and down a man. Their power play was No. 15 in efficiency at 18.1 percent (56 for 310). With the man-advantage they were better on the road (19.3, 28 for 145) than at home (17.0, 28 for 165). Penalty killing is not a strength, as the Avs placed no. 21 in the League at 80.2 percent (60 for 303). Their effectiveness was better at home (83.1, 25 for 148) than on the road (77.4, 35 for 155).

Sharks, Joe Pavelski -- The Sharks are 14-2-3 when he scores, showing that they are pretty tough to beat in regulation when they get a goal from a key secondary scorer. If he can chip in offensively, it will take the pressure off Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau.

Avalanche, Craig Anderson -- Tired or not, playoff untested or not, Anderson has to be Colorado's best player on the ice. And why shouldn't a goalie who placed in the top 10 in the League in wins and shutouts not be?

"Craig has given us a chance to win each and every night he's played, and that's all you can ask for from your goaltender," Sacco said. "Certainly, he's been one of our most important and consistent players throughout the course of the season."

Sharks will win ... If they put their past playoff disappointments behind them and play up to their capabilities.

Avalanche will win if ... The postseason pressure doesn't get to them. Colorado has 22 players who have appeared in at least 40 games, and 11 of that group -- including Anderson -- have never participated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before. Five of those players are rookies who take a regular shift. Veterans Hejduk, Foote, Stephane Yelle and Darcy Tucker will be around for guidance. Staff Writers Rocky Bonanno and Dave Lozo compiled this report.

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