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NHL Playoffs, First Ro... (04/14)

April 14, 2010
NHL Playoffs, First Round
San Jose Sharks vs. Colorado Avalanche

by Philip Myrland

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San Jose vs. Colorado

The Colorado Avalanche were one of this year’s surprise teams, making an unexpected run into the playoffs as the 8th seed in the tough Western Conference. Their opponent in the first round is the Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks, a team that has a recent playoff history full of disappointment and underachievement. The pressure is on Joe Thornton, Evgeni Nabokov and their teammates to show that this year they are finally up to the challenge. Can the Avalanche continue to defy expectations and will the Sharks fold again? Or will San Jose finally find the elusive winning postseason combination?

San Jose Offense vs. Colorado Defense

San Jose Offense GVT: +30.5 (Rank: 4th in NHL)

Colorado Defense GVT: -8.9 (Rank: 22nd in NHL)

Colorado Goaltending GVT: +10.3 (Rank: 8th in NHL)

Joe Thornton is one of the premier playmakers and scorers in the National Hockey League, and is coming off another strong season in 2009-10 with 89 points in 79 games and a 16.7 GVT rating. Regular season dominance is a familiar story for Thornton, but the entire hockey world is still waiting to see a vintage Thornton performance in the second season. With Dany Heatley (39 goals, 16.7 GVT) and Patrick Marleau (44 goals, 19.8 GVT) on his wings, Jumbo Joe has more supporting talent than he has ever had in the playoffs.

Since Thornton’s line provides most of the offense, they will also get most of Colorado’s defensive attention. Expect Scott Hannan and Kyle Quincey to play most shifts against San Jose’s top line. In past playoff seasons the Sharks have struggled to score goals at times when Thornton was shut down. The second line of Ryan Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi needs to outplay its opposition and provide secondary scoring, especially if Thornton struggles.

Colorado finished the regular season ranked 25th in shots against with 32.1 per game. With the other team putting so much rubber on net, Colorado’s chances will depend on which version of goaltender Craig Anderson shows up in the playoffs. Anderson was the Avalanche team MVP (16.3 GVT) and was outstanding in the early part of the season, but ended the season with month-by-month save percentages that read .939, .897, .902, .946, .926, .893. If Anderson isn’t in form it could be a short series.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks

Colorado Offense vs. San Jose Defense

Colorado Offense GVT: +10.5 (Rank: 6th in NHL)

San Jose Defense GVT: -3.0 (Rank: 17th in NHL)

San Jose Goaltending GVT: +17.9 (Rank: 4th in NHL)

For a #1 seed the San Jose Sharks have a surprisingly weak team defense. The play of Evgeni Nabokov (27.3 GVT, second-best mark among goalies) has been able to cover a lot of the holes, but San Jose now faces a young team that can skate like the wind and brings a balanced scoring attack. Colorado’s skaters may be able to create chances on the rush against Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, the veterans of San Jose’s blue line.

Paul Stastny (79 pts, 11.2 GVT) and Chris Stewart (64 pts, 12.0 GVT) lead Colorado’s offense, supported by veteran Milan Hejduk (44 pts in 56 GP, 9.5 GVT) and rookie Matt Duchene (55 pts, 7.8 GVT). Peter Mueller has also been a strong offensive contributor since coming over from Phoenix, with 20 points in just 15 games played, although he is battling an injury and likely won’t be ready for game one.

One significant advantage for San Jose’s defensive group is their ability to take faceoffs. San Jose led the NHL by a wide margin with a 55.6% success rate on draws, while Colorado ranked second to last at just 47.7%.

Advantage: Even

San Jose Power Play vs. Colorado Penalty Kill

San Jose Power Play Offense GVT: +8.7 (Rank: 5th in NHL)

Colorado Penalty Kill Defense GVT: -4.8 (Rank: 19th in NHL)

The Sharks’ excellent power play appears to be San Jose’s biggest mismatch in this series.

Heatley is the primary trigger man with 18 power play goals this season (2nd in the NHL). Marleau is the second scoring option (12 goals), while Dan Boyle quarterbacks from the point and Joe Thornton provides the passes up front. The Avalanche penalty kill is below average and their primary penalty killing forward (Ryan O’Reilly) has not had good results this year, having been caught on the ice for the second most power play goals against of any player in the league. The Avalanche will have to avoid taking bad penalties and will probably need Craig Anderson to be their best penalty killer to stop the Sharks.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks

Colorado Power Play vs. San Jose Penalty Kill

Colorado Power Play Offense GVT: -0.5 (Rank: 15th in NHL)

San Jose Penalty Kill Defense GVT: +10.6 (Rank: 4th in NHL)

San Jose has a solid penalty killing unit that has performed near the top of the league this season in large part due to the strong play of Nabokov (.898 save percentage while shorthanded this season). Colorado’s power play has been pretty average, but there might be some reason to hope for better than that during the playoffs. The Avalanche spread their power play time around this season among a lot of different forwards. If they shorten the bench and give more time to the likes of Stastny, Hejduk and Liles that should make the unit more formidable. Their success may also depend on the health of Mueller, who has 9 power play points in just 15 games in Colorado. If he comes back early in the series and continues to produce, the team should have a better unit than it did for most of the season.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks

Season Series Results

The two teams played twice in October and twice in the last two weeks of the season. They split the early games (3-1 for San Jose, 5-2 for Colorado), but in both of them San Jose heavily outshot the Avalanche, combining for an 86-45 advantage on the shot clock. The two more recent games were high-scoring affairs, the Avs winning 5-4 in OT and the Sharks winning 4-3 in regulation. In a bit of a turnaround Colorado was the outshooting team in both of the recent contests, with an 85-54 shot advantage. That doesn’t give either team much of an edge, although it suggests that this series could be fairly high-scoring.

Advantage: Even

Injuries and Intangibles

Colorado’s Matt Duchene is recovering from a torso injury, and could make his return on Wednesday. David Jones (knee injury) and Peter Mueller (concussion) are unlikely to play in game one, but could be available later in the series. The Sharks are healthy, and will have all of their regulars ready to go for game one.

If playoff experience matters, then the Avalanche are at a disadvantage with a rookie head coach, a goalie in his first season as a starter, and a number of players who have never played in an NHL playoff game. Colorado does have a few playoff graybeards in Adam Foote, Milan Hejduk, Stephane Yelle and Scott Hannan to rely on for leadership. On the other hand, perhaps there are members of the San Jose Sharks who wish they had a clean slate behind them instead of painful playoff memories haunting them every time the puck drops in April. No team has been more disappointing in the postseason in recent years than the Sharks, and the pressure will be heavy on them once again to make a breakthrough this spring.

Advantage: Even

Prediction

The Sharks are not the same dominant team they have been in recent seasons. They appear to be hoping that “special teams and goaltending” is the winning playoff formula, given that those are the main strengths of this year’s squad. If the Avalanche can stay out of the penalty box and have Anderson match or outplay Nabokov they are capable of giving San Jose a serious scare. Colorado’s main weakness is that they tend to lose the territorial battle and get outshot by the opposition, which is something that will be difficult to overcome against a strong opponent. This promises to be a competitive and entertaining first round series, but San Jose’s superior top-end talent should win out in the end.

Prediction: San Jose Sharks in 6 games.

Philip Myrland is an author of Puck Prospectus and runs the statistical hockey website Brodeur Is A Fraud. You can contact him at BrodeurIsAFraud@Inbox.com.

Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Philip by clicking here or click here to see Philip's other articles.

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