For the second year in a row, the Sharks and Predators will face each other in the four-five matchup as the Stanley Cup Quarterfinals begin. This is far from a rematch though as both clubs have dramatically altered their lineups from just a year ago.
“They’ve added to their team and we’ve added to our team,” said Evgeni Nabokov.
“Nashville specifically addressed issues regarding us,” said Coach Ron Wilson. “We addressed issues for no matter who we played (to be) more gritty and physical.”
On the Predators side, they have added Peter Forsberg, J.P. Dumont and Jason Arnott along with defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski. Scott Hannan is well aware of how dangerous Forsberg can be as he’s faced him several times when Forsberg skated with Colorado.
“We’ve had some good battles back and forth,” said Hannan. “They have a lot of skill and depth up front. They have (Martin) Erat, (Paul) Kariya, (David) Legwand and lot of others who can skate.”
Both clubs attempted to shore up shortcomings from their 2006 playoff ousters. The Predators brought in Forsberg and Arnott to match size with the Sharks big center combo of Joe Thornton
and Patrick Marleau
Meanwhile, San Jose has added scoring punch and experience in Bill Guerin. They’ve included grit, penalty killing and leadership with Curtis Brown and Mike Grier. Rookies Joe Pavelski
and Marc-Edouard Vlasic
have given the team a boost.
Up front, the Predators top scorers were Kariya (76 points), Dumont (66 points), Legwand (63 points) and Steve Sullivan (60 points). Kariya, Dumont, Legwand, Sullivan, Arnott and Scott Hartnell all reached the 20-goal plateau. And Forsberg would likely have been in the group had he played more than 57 games.
For San Jose, the leading scorers were Thornton (114 points), Marleau (78 points), Cheechoo (69 points), and Michalek (66 points). San Jose boasts three 30-goal scorers in Cheechoo (37), Guerin (36) and Marleau (32), while Thornton and Michalek lit the lamp more than 20 times.
Defensively, the Predators are like the Sharks in that their names may not be common to those who don’t follow hockey regularly, but make no mistake, they’re a talented group.
Kimmo Timonen is talented offensively and led all Predators blueliners with 55 points, including 42 helpers. More impressive is that Timonen led all Predators defensemen with a plus-20 rating.
Shea Weber pumped in 17 tallies from the backend and had a plus-19 rating while others such as Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis and Vishnevski are well rounded in every aspect of the game.
San Jose’s defense features some solid stay-at-home types like Hannan, Vlasic, Kyle McLaren and Craig Rivet. Two blueliners have offensive upside: Christian Ehrhoff and Matt Carle.
Goaltending could be the tale in this series. Last year, two postseason novices stood in the crease. However, Vesa Toskala outshined Chris Mason. This year, Toskala and Mason have played a lot, but will Evgeni Nabokov and Tomas Vokoun get the bulk of the work? Neither Wilson nor Nashville Coach Barry Trotz is saying, yet.
Wilson and Trotz will have the rare benefit of depth in goal. Of the 271 playoff series over the past 20 years, only four have featured matchups in which each team had two goaltenders who played in at least 45 percent of the team’s regular season games. This will be the fifth.
In the NHL race for best goals-against-average, the Sharks finished seventh with a 2.39 GAA and Nashville was eighth with a 2.49 GAA. Both clubs finished with 11 shutouts.
San Jose had the NHL’s second-best power play unit (22.4 percent). They’ll have to face the League’s No. 3 penalty kill in Nashville (85.8 percent). The Predators were tied for 17th in the power play (17.4) while the Sharks had the 14th best PK unit (83.3). Nashville had eight shorthanded goals, compared to seven for San Jose. The Preds allowed an NHL-best two shorties, with San Jose tied for second (four).
San Jose can play disciplined hockey – they were the NHL’s fifth least penalized club. But will Nashville play a controlled game? They were the 16th most penalized team.
“Every team in the playoffs has big weapons and Nashville is no different,” said Brown. “With players (like Forsberg), you’ve got to finish every play. You have to take time and space away everywhere and force them to shoot from areas that are harder to score from.
“You’re playing with fire if you play shorthanded too much. It will be a huge factor in the series. If you have to kill too many penalties, you take some guys out of the game.”
Nashville took the season series 2-1-1, but both sides are different teams at this point. The Sharks did face Forsberg once after he joined the Predators, but they haven’t faced the Sharks with Guerin and Rivet.
So when it comes to analyzing the regular season numbers or the series from a year ago, there‘s only one way to some things up.
“It’s a whole new series,” said Bill Guerin.
LOT OF TRAVEL
The Sharks will travel quite a bit since Nashville is about as far as one can go and stay in the Central Time Zone, but both clubs have to do it and it tends to be less of an issue when games begin.
“Once you’re on the ice, it doesn’t matter,” said Guerin. “It’s a big deal if you make it a big deal.
Cheechoo took batting practice with the San Francisco Giants before their Easter Sunday game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He found out hitting with major league materials is a bit different.
“I’ve never hit with a wood bat before,” said Cheechoo. “I’ve hit with steel bats in softball and you can hit the ball a ton.”
Cheechoo used the bat of former San Jose State University star and rookie infielder Kevin Frandsen. Cheechoo was allowed to keep the bat and said a stick in return might be an option.
“He may want a different stick than mine,” said Cheechoo. “He may want the big guy’s (Joe Thornton
National Hockey League fans turned out in record numbers for the 2006-07 regular season, with total attendance of 20,861,787 and a per-game average of 16,961. Those numbers surpassing the marks set in 2005-06. With divisional rivalries and suspenseful playoff races extending to the season's final weekend in some cases, the figures for the 1,230 games outdid the corresponding 20,854,169 and 16,955 from last season. In all, NHL teams played to 91.7 percent of capacity.
The Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks played to 97 percent of capacity or better over the full season.
Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals is set for Wednesday in Nashville. Game time is at 5 p.m. (Pacific) and the game can be seen on FSN Bay Area and can be heard on KFOX 98.5 FM, Sharks Radio Network Affiliates and SJSHARKS.com.