Wednesday April 23rd, 2008

No offense to the gritty, give-it-all-they've-got Calgary Flames, but Tuesday night's game was all about the San Jose Sharks.

More to the point, this was their game, their series, to win or lose. There could only be a victory celebration or excuses as to why the Pacific Division champs again failed to live up to their immense postseason potential. But there were no mumbled apologies following Game 7. After a few rocky moments -- the ugly demon doubt surely popped up on the bench after Owen Nolan's breakaway goal in the second period gave the Flames a 2-1 lead -- the Sharks answered the call with a 5-3 win that clinched the first round series.

But even in doing so, San Jose left several questions floating, the kind that inevitably dog a favored team emerging from a series that went longer than it should have. Those questions provide a juicy subtext for their second round collision with the Dallas Stars, a matchup that gets underway Friday at the Shark Tank.

Is Ron Wilson up to the challenge? There are few NHL coaches who can feel secure about their continued employment after their season ends in April. Carrying the burden of expectations that come with a division championship and years of playoff disappointments, Wilson was not one of them. Despite San Jose's freight train surge to the regular season finish line, there's little doubt that his four-year tenure behind the bench would have ground to a halt had the Sharks failed to advance beyond the first round.

But while he's earned him a few days respite from pink slip talk, the questions about his ability to take this group to the next level weren't answered by the win over Calgary. The team's lack of intensity, especially in blowing Game 3 and their total no-show effort in Game 6, leave him open to criticism. Were those bumps in the road, or signs that his team is not prepared to snap a neck when given the chance?

Can Jumbo Joe become Big Game Joe? With seven points on the ledger, Joe Thornton enjoyed the most prolific scoring spree of any playoff series in his career. But did he do enough to quell the doubts about his ability to dominate in the clutch? Not by a long shot. Thornton had his moments against the Flames -- his ice-breaking power play tally in Game 7 was a key point in the match, to be sure -- but he never had his hand on the rudder of any particular game. Compare his performance to the inspirational effort of his Calgary counterpart, Jarome Iginla, a force throughout the series who seemed to will the Flames to each of their victories, and it's obvious there's another level that Joe's yet to imagine, let alone reach.

The fine work of Robyn Regehr certainly helped keep Thornton in check, but elite players have to find a way to fight through that. Dallas doesn't have a single D-man of Regehr's caliber in their lineup, but they'll present a more cohesive unit to blanket him. The sledding only gets tougher from here.

Does Milan Michalek have a pulse? How do you say "All-Points Bulletin" in Czech? The wing-footed winger was the team's second-leading scorer in the regular season, but fired blanks against the Flames. He went pointless in the series and offered up just seven shots. Worse, he seemed to crumble under pressure when he botched a three-on-one in Game 6 and was all but invisible in Game 7, a contest in which he almost seemed to be avoiding the puck. He certainly answered the call to be more physical in this series, but even as his ice time diminishes, Michalek has to find a way to contribute on the scoreboard.

Can Brian Campbell thrive in Western Conference playoffs? His arrival at the trading deadline is widely credited with sparking San Jose's 18-2-2 finish. That's all well and good, but where was he in the Calgary series?

There certainly were moments here and there when his puck-moving prowess caught your attention, and his work on the power play was credible, but defensively he was a nightmare. His positional play was weak (watch his blunder that directly led to Nolan's breakaway goal), and his decision-making -- usually one of his strengths -- was off, leading to passes that went nowhere and breakouts that fizzled in the neutral zone.

Campbell probably won't be hit as often by the Stars as he was by the Flames, so that might buy him a bit more time in the second round. What he makes of that opportunity could be as critical to the outcome as the dual between netminders Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco.

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