The Sharks and Predators both pulled off big upsets in the first round — which team will keep their Cinderella run going?
SERIES STARTS: Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, in San Jose.
THE SHARKS WIN IF… The Sharks weren’t the popular pick in their first round series against the Kings, but Los Angeles was dismantled in five games by San Jose. The Sharks were considered the third-most likely of the three Pacific Division entries into the post-season to win the Stanley Cup, and now they’re the last team from the division standing. They’ve put the rest of the Western Conference on notice as they head to Round Two for a date with the Nashville Predators.
The play of the Sharks’ two Joes — Pavelski and Thornton — in the opening round was inspiring. Pavelski scored five goals in five games, with two coming on the power play and one standing as a game winner. Thornton had a goal and two assists, and he was no doubt one of the best players on the ice for either team in the first round. If those two continue to click, the Sharks will make life difficult for the Predators. That’s not to mention Logan Couture, Joonas Donskoi and veteran Patrick Marleau, who were all productive against the Kings and are capable of having the type of game where they almost singlehandedly power the offense. It’s one thing to shut down two stars, but slowing down a deep offensive attack can be difficult. It’s made more difficult, of course, when defenseman Brent Burns can hurt teams as much or more as the Sharks’ forwards. He’s been nearly unstoppable for the past two seasons, and it’s going to be a chore for the Predators’ defense to contain him when much of their effort will also have to be focused on stopping the Pavelskis and Thorntons. The bearded blueliner’s eight points led all Sharks players in the first round. More than anything, though, what made the Sharks successful against the Kings was their ability to control the flow of play and turn puck possession into scoring chances. That’s something the Sharks have been excellent at all season. For every 60 minutes played at 5-on-5, the Sharks generated roughly 13 chances from the slot area and allowed less than 10 against per 60 minutes. Maintaining a ratio that favorable against the Kings was next to impossible — harder yet given the Sharks jumped out to early leads in just about every game — but San Jose was still able to average 13 chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in the first round. If they can do that against the Predators, who gave up the fewest high-danger chances in the regular season, then the Sharks could turn what should be a close series into another walk.
THE PREDATORS WIN IF… Predators fans are probably sick of hearing it by now, but this is a team led by its defense. That may seem like a slight against the offensive weapons Nashville does have, but, really, when your top four defensemen consist of Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, it’s hard not to be a team that’s success is dictated by the play of its blueline corps. And in the first round, the Predators’ top four blueliners were excellent. Weber and Josi combined for two goals and eight points, played nearly half of each game and helped shut down Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. In Round Two, they’ll be tasked with doing the same thing on offense while slowing down Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, a trio that ran roughshod on the Kings’ defense. The Predators’ defense is deeper than the Kings’, though, and having a strong second pairing should make a difference. One area where the Predators’ strong defense will make the greatest impact is on special teams, and Nashville should come into the series with confidence on the penalty kill. The Predators faced the league’s best power play in Round One and only allowed four power play goals against in 25 attempts. That made for the sixth-best penalty kill in the first round, and the Predators killed off three of four Ducks power play opportunities in Game 7 to take the series. Nashville’s penalty kill is going to need to keep that up in Round Two against a San Jose team drew the fifth-most power plays in the regular season and had the league’s third-ranked power play. The one area that will need improvement for Nashville, though, will be production from their top-end players. From Game 3 onward, the Predators scored eight goals and the only game in which Nashville scored at least three goals in the final five games of the series came thanks to an empty-net goal by Weber in Game 6. Against a Sharks team that scored 16 goals in five games against one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league, the Predators’ offense is going to need to be better. It’s one thing to shut the opposition’s stars down, but if the Sharks are neutralizing the best Predators forwards, then it’s a wash and San Jose could win with its forward depth. A series like this is why Nashville went out and got Ryan Johansen, and if he, Filip Forsberg and James Neal can carry the offense, the Predators could be heading to the Conference Final for the first time in franchise history.
SHARKS: The Sharks were outstanding in the first round, but their weakest link was in net. Martin Jones needs to be better. The Kings and Predators scored at almost identical rates in the regular season, and Jones was only once able to keep Los Angeles to a single goal. His .912 save percentage was right in the middle of the pack for goaltenders in the first round. This second-round matchup could come down to which of the two goaltenders are better. If that’s Jones, the Sharks could be back in the Western Conference final for the first time since 2011.
PREDATORS: Pekka Rinne had an abysmal start to his season, to the point it looked like Rinne, who was once Nashville’s most important player, would be the one who sank a promising season for the Predators. Then came Game 7, where it was Rinne who made a handful of excellent stops to send the Predators through to Round Two. The Sharks, like the Ducks, are a team that can produce a lot of high-quality chances, and it will be Rinne’s job to make sure San Jose’s shooters are frustrated. He out-duelled Frederik Andersen in Games 6 and 7 of the first round, and now he’ll have to do the same against Martin Jones for the duration of the second-round.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn
San Jose vs. Nashville will be a great matchup if you live for the potential of slapshots ripping holes through nets. Both teams have two cannons on the backend in Brent Burns and Shea Weber and they’ll surely use them this series. Burns had a career year this season scoring 27 goals first among D-men and he ripped 353 shots on net, second only to Alex Ovechkin. Those are absurd numbers. Weber was fourth for goals, notching his third 20 goal season. On offence, Burns is clearly superior, but the knock on him has been his risky play leading to poor defensive numbers. That may have been true this season, but it pails in comparison to Weber’s shot suppression numbers. While Weber has already been selected to Team Canada’s World Cup squad, Burns is on the bubble. Perhaps a dominant showing here could sway heads his way. On paper he looks like the superior D. Let’s see what this matchup looks like on the ice.
THN’S PICK: SHARKS in six games.