Our previews of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs' opening round, featuring pretty pictures and a special guest video by the great Steve Dangle at the end.
Earl Sleek is a blogger at Battle of California, the very aptly named site that chronicles the left-coast wars between the Sharks, Ducks and Kings. For the first time since the Kings played the Oakland Seals in 1969, two Golden State teams are meeting in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And Sleek perfectly captured what it means for the first-place San Jose Sharks and the eight-seeded Anaheim Ducks to finally battle in the postseason:
In their collective history, they've met a total of 90 times during the regular season, plus a couple dozen preseason games, and as far back as I can remember the Ducks v Sharks match-ups have always featured intensity and pride. But instead of a real rivalry, the Ducks-Sharks story (and hell, the BoC storyline) has been more about commonalities -- fans of both teams can associate with following a sport that's not locally mainstream, they can commiserate about frustration with the late-90s dominance of the Detroit-Dallas-Colorado western trio, and they are all-too familiar with the east coast bias which continues to dominate this sport's coverage (even if this series is a sweep, Versus will have shown as many postseason games featuring a CA team as it showed all regular season).
Sure, the Ducks/Sharks have enjoyed beating each other whenever their regular-season paths crossed, but up until now, victory has never been critical.
But now they are playing with real bullets and real blood -- one team's postseason's hopes will be crushed at the hand of the other.
Season Series (San Jose won, 4-2)
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Forwards (Advantage: San Jose)
The tantalizing part of this series is the idea that we could see power vs. power on most nights: The Ducks outstanding top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Calder candidate (or if you ask a Ducks fan, winner) Bobby Ryan vs. Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Devin Setoguchi.
It's been Sharks Coach Todd McLellan that's forced the issue here, because Thornton's presence puts the Ducks' big guns on the defensive; that can dramatically affect the series, considering the Anaheim top line had 17 goals in the team's last nine games.
Being that it's the playoffs, we'll naturally hear 10,000 reasons why Thornton is a choker or not a primetime player; never mind the fact that he's been at nearly a point-a-game clip in his last three postseasons.
Depth-wise, this is a no contest. The Sharks are loaded with impact players on their other lines: Milan Michalek, playoff hero Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe on the second line; former Duck Travis Moen playing with Marcel Goc and Jonathan Cheechoo (!) on the third line; and then a fourth line that features players like Jeremy Roenick and Mike Grier.
The Ducks received a major infusion of exuberance from Andrew Ebbett, who finished with 32 points in 48 games, and from Erik Christensen, who has nine points in 17 games after being acquired from the Atlanta Thrashers. They've paired with Teemu Selanne, and secondary scoring could win or lose the series for the Ducks.
The implosion of the Ducks' fabled checking line, which culminated with Sami Pahlsson's trade to Chicago, was indicative of the underperformance down the lineup. Can't go as far as to call the Ducks a one-line team ... but if it isn't Perry-Getzlaf-Ryan leading the way, it's not going to be Brown-Nokelainen-Parros.
Defensemen (Advantage: Anaheim)
There are two factors on the Anaheim blueline that could completely change the tone, complexion and fate of this series:
Chris Pronger's elbows.
OK, besides those, there's also the rest of Pronger. And Scott Niedermayer, too. Pronger logged 26:56 of ice time a night during the regular season, while Niedermayer played an average of 26:55; both make an impact at even-strength, and their management of one of the best power plays in hockey over the last month of the season was impressive.
The Ducks received a huge boost when Francois Beauchemin returned from a knee injury he suffered back in November, and Ryan Whitney has played an average of 23:51 with 10 assists and zero goals since coming over from the Pittsburgh Penguins. But it's James Wisniewski, who come over from Chicago, that's made a huge impact in the Ducks' run to the postseason -- blocking shots, playing hard and doing everything that made some Blackhawk hears break when they saw him depart.
But if the story is about vital additions to the blueline, then it begins with the San Jose Sharks last summer. Adding Dan Boyle and Rob Blake to the defense and to the locker room was an enormously important decision, especially in Boyle's case: He was the team's ice-time leader (24:46) and was sixth in the League in scoring for defensemen at 57 points.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic continues to be an underrated D-man, fifth on the team in plus/minus with a plus-15. Christian Ehrhoff, Douglas Murray and Brad Lukowich all play their roles well in front of Evgeni Nabokov. Speaking of which ...
Goalies (Advantage: San Jose)
Nabby's goals against average inflated by 0.30 and his save percentage flatlined at .910 from last season, but that's quibbling: He was outstanding at times this season, pitching seven shutouts in leading this team to the President's Trophy (outside of some struggles with injury). To call him the key to the Sharks' playoff hopes wouldn't be an understatement ... even if it's a surprise to those who make watching the stagnation of Joe Thoronton's goal totals a spring hobby.
Plus, he called Corey Perry a crybaby in an interview with us. Which makes him A-OK in our book.
The Ducks made the right decision in starting Jonas Hiller (if the plan is stuck to), because he's been the better goalie (2.39 GAA, .919 save percentage) this season than Jean-Sebastien Giguere (3.10, .900). But more importantly, it allowed Jiggy to ride in as the conquering hero should Hiller falter. That's a hell of a potential emotional lift, given the personal challenges Giguere has battled through this season.
If This Series Was a Movie, It Would Be ...
As if you needed to ask ...
Power Play (Advantage: Anaheim)
Both teams have impressive power plays, with the Sharks ranked third in the League with a 24.2 conversion rate and the Ducks right behind them at a 23.6 percent clip. But the Ducks get the nod here because their power play is the reason they're in the playoffs; converting 20 of their final 48 power-play opportunities for a 41.7 percent success rate. If they repeat that feat in the first round, it could be upset city ...
Penalty Kill (Advantage: San Jose)
... of course, the Ducks would have to solve the fifth-best kill in the NHL in order to do that. San Jose (83.3 percent) uses several players on the penalty kill, but Vlasic (2:39) leads the team with Marleau (2:33) second overall.
The Ducks were 23rd overall at 79.7 percent, and that speaks volumes about the trouble they've had with the depth lines this season.
Fight We'd Love To See
Jody Shelley and George Parros have danced three times this season, with Parros winning once and two draws according to the pugilism fans on HockeyFights.com. This scrap from Dec. 11 earned the highest rating from the readers. If you thought Parros's mustache was pimp, check out the "smell the palm" move to knock Shelley to the ice:
Coaches (Advantage: Anaheim)
Todd McLellan has to earn it. Despite doing some very good things in the regular season and turning this Sharks team into the favorite in the Western Conference, it'll mean nothing if San Jose is bounced in one round. We haven't seen him deal with postseason adversity or psychology yet. But he's learned from the best.
Randy Carlyle, meanwhile, went from a potential coaching casualty to a coach who pushed the right buttons and steadfastly kept his team in the playoff hunt. That, and the ring he has from 2007, give the Ducks the edge here.
Best Player Nicknames (Advantage: San Jose)
You've got your Nieds and your Jiggy and your Wiz and, of course, "The Finnish Flash" on Anaheim.
That's all well and good. San Jose has a defenseman named Douglas "Crankshaft" Murray and Marc-Edouard "Pickles" Vlasic. Any team that has nicknames that can either work in G.I. Joe or pornography is a big win.
Home Ice (Advantage: San Jose)
Uh, we're willing to let the numbers speak for themselves here:
San Jose: 32-5-4 at home
Anaheim: 20-18-3 at home
The San Jose Sharks have some quality blogs (Fear The Fin, Sharkspage) and the Anaheim Ducks have some good ones (Girl With a Puck, On the Pond), too. But this being the Battle of California, then we suppose The Battle of California would be required reading.
Captains (Advantage: Even)
Is it OK if we still sort of giggle about Pronger not being the captain anymore?
Niedermayer is one of the best leaders by example in the League, and the further the Ducks go in the postseason the more stately his playoff foliage gets.
Patrick Marleau, however, has been flat-out inspirational to the Sharks this season; a season that saw him rebound to a new career-high in goals (38). What was the trick? From the Mercury News:
For months, Marleau has shrugged his shoulders. He has politely, in his soft-spoken way, talked generically about having a clean slate. He has let others speculate about the correlation between his production and distance from former Sharks coach Ron Wilson, but he won't go there.
"I'm not much for letting people into my weird little world," Marleau said.
Uh ... sure.
Pests (Advantage: San Jose)
The Sharks have some absolutely tenacious players, especially down the lineup with Roenick and Grier. That group could get a boost if Torrey Mitchell returns from injury. And, of course, let's not forget the patron saint of pains in the ass is lurking in the press box: Former Conn Smythe winner Claude Lemieux.
The Ducks have had a more physical brand of annoyance vs. typical pestering; Parros, Wisniewski and Pronger want to beat you up. But the addition of Petteri Nokelainen gave the Ducks a glorious annoyance, along with a pretty darn good faceoff guy.
Potential Unsung Heroes
Is Joe Pavelski still considered unsung? Because the guy has shown to be a clutch player for the Sharks in the postseason.
As we said before, Ebbett could be a key player in this series for the Ducks if the top line is neutralized.
Prediction: Sharks in seven.
The Western Conference favorites get a huge scare from their eight seeded rivals, but survive and advance. San Jose's depth wins out in the end, as a valiant run by the Ducks to make the playoffs ends in an elimination game for both teams. The loss will allow Anaheim to focus on more important things, like the fate of fickle veteran players and where Chris Pronger's salary will be paid next season.
Take It Away YouTube Superstar Steve Dangle!