Though Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals may be only 60 minutes long, pending any overtime play, the winner of the matchup between the San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings will come down to perhaps two minutes – penalty minutes that is.
NHL special teams are, well, special. And it will be up to these few special men during those two minutes that can determine the winner of the series.
“Special teams often win a series for you and we don’t think this (series) will be any different,” Head Coach Todd McLellan said.
Tonight, the Sharks’ strong penalty killing units will be well matched with the Red Wings’ equally strong power play units.
As they did with the Colorado Avalanche, the first task for Team Teal will be to limit their penalties, said forward Torrey Mitchell
“I think we had 15 in six games against Colorado and that is pretty good,” Mitchell said. “We want to get that number even lower for this series.”
When the Sharks do face a shorthanded situation, they will need to be at their best.
“No disrespect to Colorado, but you have to say Detroit has a couple more weapons than they do,” said defenseman Douglas Murray
. “It will be a great challenge for us.”
Murray points out that the Red Wings’ depth on special teams makes them a very dangerous team.
Added defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic
: “Detroit has tons of skill – it’s positioning, skill, and sticks.”
Playing smart when shorthanded will be another factor for the Sharks.
“When the PK works harder than the power play, it usually works out,” said Vlasic. “Clearing the puck will be huge. When you throw it down the other end of the ice, it takes 10 seconds and you get to make a change. If you don’t clear it, you get stuck in your own end for a minute or 1:15 and you get tired.”
McLellan stressed the importance of his team making quick, smart changes to keep fresh legs on the ice against the Red Wings.
“It’s real important that we stay fresh because they can hem you in your end for quite a while,” said McLellan. “When you get tired and get running around, you’re apt to make more mistakes.”
The Sharks have their own powerful power play and will look to strike gold when up a man themselves.
“Special teams play is going to be big and we know that,” said forward Dany Heatley. “As long as we are creating chances, we’ll be okay.”
40 AND STRONG
The Sharks and Red Wings both feature 40-year-old blueliners who have both won the Norris Trophy in Rob Blake and Nicklas Lidstrom.
Both Blake and Lidstrom help guide their teams’ defense and the power play.
McLellan has had the opportunity to coach both Norris Trophy winners.
“There are a lot of similarities between the two,” said McLellan. “They are both really good leaders. When they speak everything seems to get quite and people listen. They’ve both won, are both Norris Trophy winners and are both Hall of Famers. I’m stating the obvious.”
“He is a great hockey player and one of the best of all time and that is something everybody knows,” said Douglas Murray
Murray was asked if his Olympic teammate has slowed down at all.
“I think he answered that in Game 7,” said Murray.
San Jose and Detroit were the two hottest teams in the NHL as the season wound down, both going 8-1-1 in the last 10 regular season games.
“They’ve been great for a long time and won a lot of Cups,” said Murray. “They’ve won the Stanley Cup and been the runner up the last two years.”
Sharks’ Dwight Helminen will be facing the team he grew up playing for.
Helminen was born in Detroit’s Upper Peninsula and grew up in the Detroit area. He said the family may switch allegiances for the series, but the extended group of friends may be tougher to switch.
“Everybody, first cousins and stuff, claim they are cheering for the Sharks,” said Helminen. “My sister informed me that a couple of her friends weren’t and they actually live in a house that I own, so I might have to adjust their rent. The rent might be going up.”
Helminen is excited about the matchup with his childhood team.
“It’s extra special, it’s the playoffs,” said Helminen. “There is a lot on the line. You really want it, especially against these guys. I grew up about 45 minutes west of Detroit and played for Compuware.”
The Sharks were able to use their size and physical game to wear down the Avalanche. Ideally, San Jose could do the same
“I’d like to think it will,” said McLellan. “They play differently than Colorado, but we get the opportunity to get ahold of them and bang and crash. If we get the opportunity, we’re going to do that.”
Forward Ryane Clowe
echoes the notion.
“I feel our depth is showing with our four lines,” said Clowe. “It’s a matter of who battles harder and longer. You’ve got to make sure you’re physical. You can’t be sloppy and running around. Every time you get a chance to lay a lick on them, you lay it.”
Detroit is known for creating havoc in front of the opposing netminder, but that is the goal of both clubs.
“I want to make it clear to our players that we expect the same thing to be going on in front of Jimmy Howard,” said McLellan. “We’d like to be in his eyes and not off to the side.”
The battles will be harder fought and the stakes are higher, but for an NHL player, this is the best time of the year.
“It’s fun,” said Dany Heatley. “It’s down to eight teams. You’re one of the only games going each night and the rest of the league is watching each game. It’s fun to be a part of.”
Todd McLellan and Jay Woodcroft will be facing the coaching staff they broke in with at the NHL level, but it’s all business for the next few weeks.
“It’s business now,” said McLellan. “We’ll probably stay out of each other’s way until it’s over.”
There is now doubt that McLellan’s roots are a reason why the two clubs play very similar styles.
“The teams play similar, so whoever goes out and plays it harder and longer will eventually come away the winner,” said McLellan.
It looks like McLellan will start with the same line combinations that won finished off the Colorado series. That included Torrey Mitchell
skating with Joe Thornton
and Patrick Marleau
and Dany Heatley pairing with Manny Malhotra and Logan Couture
The game tonight is a 6 p.m. start at HP Pavilion and the game will be on Versus, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com.