This Series is a Battle of Two Really Good (and Balanced) Teams
Thursday, 04.24.2008 / 11:58 PM / Feature
By J. Douglas Foster
On The Road With DotCom
By now, hopefully, you know how this column goes.
Again, as much as I would like to argue with national prognosticators and pick a winner in the Stars’ second-round playoff series against San Jose, I prefer to just break down the matchups – hopefully with some semblance of accuracy – and let you deduce who should emerge victorious based on the information.
Just like we did in round one -- even though some of the matchups didn’t turn out as we might have expected (who would have though a banged-up Stars blueline would clearly outshine Anaheim’s?)
Do I have an idea as to how I think the series will go?
But again, I’ll leave the predictions to ESPN.
Talk about strength on strength.
San Jose has Joe Thornton, possibly the best forward in the Western Conference.
Dallas has three centers who could potentially be top-line centers on any squad – depth unmatched by arguably anyone in the NHL.
San Jose has a former 50-goal scorer in Jonathan Cheechoo.
Dallas has a three-time Selke Trophy winner in Jere Lehtinen.
San Jose has a 500-goal scorer in Jeremy Roenick, who registered four points in the Game 7 victory against Calgary Tuesday.
Dallas has a 500-goal scorer in Mike Modano, who put up six points in the first-round win against Anaheim and 11 points in eight regular-season games against the Sharks this season.
San Jose has breakout youngsters Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe, who combined for 15 points in the first round. Dallas has a top-line duo of Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow, who registered 16 combined points against San Jose this season and 14 points in the opening round against the Ducks.
The difference maker? Could be Dallas’ second line, with 2004 Conn Smythe trophy winner Brad Richards, who seems to have found a finisher in Swedish linemate Loui Eriksson. Not only does Richards have skins on the wall from playoffs past, but he put up five points in the opening-round series against the Ducks and has helped Eriksson mature into a true scoring threat in a matter of six games. Compare that to San Jose’s second-line center, Patrick Marleau, who has put up great numbers in the past but had a disappointing regular-season.
And, don’t forget Stu Barnes and his 11 career playoff game-winners, including two in the opening round.
Very, very close matchup. The Sharks are top-heavy with Thornton, who has led the NHL in assists each of the last three seasons. But the Stars appear to be deeper, with more players capable of scoring that big goal when necessary.
The Sharks have improved in this area drastically in the last few seasons.
Coming out of the lockout, it was clearly the weakness of a team that had plenty of size and scoring potential up front. The emergence of Douglas Murray, who was plus-20 in this, his third NHL season, along with trade-deadline acquisitions of Craig Rivet (2007) and Brian Campbell (2008) have turned the Sharks blueline from an ugly duckling into a swan.
Matching that is a young Dallas defensive corps that has two things really working in its favor:
1: They played great, each and every one of them, and Stephane Robidas became a cult hero in Round One.
2: They might not be so young anymore, not if Sergei Zubov returns from injury and is at 100 percent.
Simply put, Zubov is one of the top three defensemen in the world, and when completely healthy, he changes games. His 30+ minutes each night are valuable minutes, played in every situation, and he single-handedly takes pressure off every other guy in the Dallas blueline. San Jose has gotten better – drastically better – on the back end. But they still don’t have a player back there who is at Zubov’s level. No disrespect intended to Campbell, who is a great player. But we’re talking about Sergei Zubov. If he plays, he alone sways the vote.
Two players who have had fantastic regular-season success in their careers, but who are both still looking for that run to the Stanley Cup Final, will have to go through each other to get one step closer.
Both goalies have also taken criticism for past playoff performances, and probably unfairly so.
Marty Turco certainly played well enough for the Stars to win last year’s opening-round series against Vancouver, registering three shutouts. This season, he had a team that provided much more offensive support in the opening round, and as a result got the first-round win he so deserved. He posted a 4-2 record, a 2.11 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage against the Ducks, and in the last two seasons his 1.59 goals-against average is unequaled by any goalie with at least five games under his belt.
For San Jose, Evgeni Nabokov is now a seasoned veteran, with 53 career playoff games under his belt. His career playoff numbers look like this: 28-23 record, 2.20 GAA and a .917 save percentage. But more than anything, Nabokov looks focused this season, posting his best career regular-season goals-against average (2.14) and win total (46), no doubt numbers worthy of Vezina Trophy consideration.
You pick a winner. I dare you.
STARS POWER PLAY vs SHARKS PENALTY KILL
In the regular season, this would have looked like an easy advantage for the Sharks.
Dallas finished the 82-game schedule 13th in the NHL in power play percentage, at 18.1 percent. San Jose finished the season No. 1 in penalty kill, with a success rate of 85.8 percent.
In the playoffs, however, things have changed quite a bit. Dallas boasts the league’s second-best power play, clicking at a 26.3 percent rate. San Jose, conversely, had the worst penalty kill in the first round, killing just 72.7 percent of its penalties against the Calgary Flames.
That should bode well for the Stars, as should Zubov’s return. But in picking an edge, I’ll prefer to use an 82-game sample rather than a 6-game sample.
SHARKS POWER PLAY vs STARS PENALTY KILL
San Jose certainly has the weapons with the man advantage. They have the league’s best passer in Thornton, certified snipers in Roenick and Cheechoo and a great quarterback in Campbell. In the regular-season, San Jose was 10th in the NHL at 18.7 percent.
They hold that same 10th position in the playoffs, scoring on 19.4 percent of their chances. But the Stars finished the regular season second in penalty kill, just getting passed by the Sharks PK unit on the season’s final day. Either way, they led the NHL for almost the entire season, and despite killing just 79.2 percent so far in the playoffs, they are still among the league’s elite PK units.
As was the case in the opening round against Anaheim, some of these matchups could swing in an unexpected direction as the series progresses. Could San Jose’s size up front give the Sharks the edge at forward? Possibly. Will Turco shine in HP Pavilion, as he has throughout his career, and outplay Nabokov? Could happen. Will San Jose’s power play rise to the occasion and ride the wave of Thornton’s great passes? You never know.
We’ll find out soon enough.