The San Jose Sharks finally have their second round opponent.
The Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks were the last series to start round 1 and were the last series to finish. On Wednesday night the Predators upset the Ducks in Game 7 and will now take on the Sharks.
Nashville and San Jose have faced off twice previously in the playoffs, but 2006 and 2007 series are so long ago that they really don't matter. The only established players remaining from those series are San Jose's Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau and Nashville's Shea Weber. Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic were rookies during the 2006-07 season.
For those who are interested, San Jose went 1-2 against the Predators this season. In reality though the regular season matchup also can be thrown down the garbage shoot. Three games spread out over six months doesn't say much when hockey is all about confidence and health at that given moment.
That said, the Sharks and Predators did play earlier this month in a game that mattered to the Predators. Team Teal was already in the playoffs with little chance of moving up or down at that point and came from behind to beat Nashville 3-2 on a pair of third period goals from Tomas Hertl. Brent Burns had this ridiculously bad ass shift at the end of regulation and dominanted the three-on-three overtime.
So how do these two teams compare?
For years under head coach Barry Trotz, Nashville had never been known for a quality scoring attack. Last season that changed with new head coach Peter Laviolette as the Predators were all of a sudden one of the better scoring teams. This season though the offense soured once again, prompting General Manager David Poile to give up some of his renowned defense depth for a boost up front. Poile sent the highly touted young defenseman Seth Jones to Columbus in a deal for top-line center Ryan Johansen. It took a few weeks for the team to find its groove after the trade, but from mid-February to the end of the season, Nashville was one of the best teams in the league.
Overall, the Predators finished tied 12th in the league with a 2.73 GF. The Sharks finished fourth at 2.89. Unfortunately for Nashville fans, as good as their team was down the stretch, they simply don't have the firepower to beat San Jose in this best-of-seven series. Particularly after a tough seven game tilt with the Ducks, it just isn't going to happen. San Jose is well rested after finishing off the Los Angeles Kings in just five games. Johansen is a solid upgrade but San Jose still features better centers on each of the top three lines. Joe Thornton is better than Johansen, Logan Couture is better than Mike Ribeiro and Patrick Marleau is better than Mike Fisher.
Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Joel Ward and Joonas Donskoi as top-six wings are also just as good if not better than the likes of James Neal, Filip Forsberg, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson. San Jose has significantly more fire power at the forward position.
Even though the Predators get tons of offense from their blue line in the likes of Weber and Roman Josi, the fact of the matter is the Sharks' top-4 D is actually much stronger overall at even strength. Weber is no longer the defensive force that he once was despite still putting up the points. Even though he isn't a big time scorer, Marc-Edouard Vlasic got more Norris trophy buzz this year than Weber.
Vlasic and Justin Braun are a much stronger overall top-pair as they can shut teams down defensively. And then San Jose backs it up with arguably the most dynamic offensive defenseman in the league. Half way through the season Burns turned his defensive game from a weakness to a strength. All year long his offensive game was second to only Erik Karlsson on the blue line. Had Burns' defensive game been as strong as it was in the second half, all season long, he would have been a slam dunk Norris winner.
With the steady Paul Martin as his partner, the Burns pair absolutely trumps Nashville's Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. No disrepect to either of these two Predators, but Burns and Martin are just that ridiculously good right now. As for the third pairs, with Barret Jackman for the Predators and Roman Polak for the Sharks, they are basically two mediocre pairs known for being physical. Any slight advantage isn't worth arguing.
For all the defensive firepower Nashville boasts, San Jose actually finished with a better GAA, 10th in the league at 2.52 compared to the Predators 14th ranking at 2.60.
The Predators finished a very respectable 10th in the league with a 19.7% success rate on the power play and were middle of the pack on the penalty kill at 81.2%. San Jose, however, finished with one of the best power plays in the league at 22.5% with a likewise middle of the road PK unit at 80.5%. Doing the simple math, and the slight edge on special teams has to go to the Sharks. Their power-play percentage finished 2.8% higher while the PK was only 0.7% worse than Nashville.
Some may think that based off reputation, Nashville's Pekka Rinne would be the goaltender with the best chance to steal games in this series. However, the Finnish netminder had the worst year of his career this season. His All Star selection was incredibly undeserved and he was far from spectacular in the first round against Anaheim.
If anyone has a better chance to steal a game in this series, I believe that it will be San Jose's Martin Jones. While Rinne posted a slightly better first-round save percentage (.915 compared to Jones .912), it was the first year starter Jones who finished with a .918 in the regular season compared to Rinne's disappointing .908.
After years of goaltending that just wasn't quite good enough, Jones has provided the Sharks with the type goaltender who can steal games on a regular basis. Despite Rinne's reputation, the slight edge has to be given to Jones here.
Depth Scoring/X-Factor Potential
This is by far the deepest team the Sharks have had in their 25-year history. While Nashville is a much more well-balanced team than they have been in the past, San Jose has the depth to really take over in this series. If the Predators are going to try and play the matchups straight up, then I simply don't see how Fisher is going to be able to keep up with Marleau. San Jose's longest tenured player may be 36, he may have struggled in the plus/minus category the last two seasons but he can still fly. His linemates Matt Nieto and Melker Karlsson are also tremendous skaters. This San Jose trio doesn't score a whole lot, but they are tremendous on the forecheck. Expect these three to play a lot of time in the Predators zone eating up quality minutes.
If the series is mostly going to be played line vs line, the Sharks have a clear edge. There is no way the Predators can win this series unless they can contain the Thornton line. The only Predators center capable of doing that is Johansen, but even if he is able to do a good job against Thornton, Couture and Donskoi's line is going to eat Ribeiro's line for lunch. And as just previously mentioned, Fisher will have a tough time keeping up with Marleau. The Sharks can score better than the Predators, they can defend better and they can netmind better. They are the much fresher team heading into this series and there is no reason they shouldn't be a clear favorite to win.
Sharks in five games.
(Burns photo credit: Zeke Mo)