The determined Sharks have gotten stout defense from captain Joe Thornton. (Chad Ziemendorf/Reuters)
By Stu Hackel
The second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs seems anticlimactic compared to the first, when four series went the limit, two lasted six games and only one was over in the minimum four. Now we've already had one sweep in the second round, and the Flyers and Red Wings face elimination on Friday night and should they be swept, that will leave the Canucks-Predators series with Vancouver coming home with a 3-1 lead. That one looks likely to end on Saturday night in five games.
If it all seems like a weird turnaround, well, it has sort of happened before. In 1992, perhaps the best first round in history -- six series went seven games, and three featured teams that came back from 3-1 deficits -- was followed by a second round that had two sweeps and two six- gamers. Both Conference Championships and the Stanley Cup Final were sweeps.
Does all the energy of a playoff year dissipate after an amazing opening round? One thing is certain: regardless of the dire situation in which the Flyers, Red Wings and Predators find themselves, this round isn't over yet. It's hard to imagine the Wings will go quietly while playing at the Joe in front of their fans. This has been a closer series than the 3-0 San Jose lead indicates, but the Sharks have been just a bit better than Detroit in every aspect of the game and that's all they need. Each of the Sharks' three wins has been by a one-goal margin, as was each of their victories over the Red Wings last spring. Just because a team goes down in four games doesn't mean the games themselves weren't competitive.
What separates these two teams? Besides the two OT goals that San Jose has scored (the Sharks are 5-0 so far in extra time this spring), the Red Wings are not getting much offense from their depth players. It's mostly the usual suspects --Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom. The Sharks' side of the score sheet has Joe Thornton (who doesn't always shine in the postseason) and Dan Boyle, but also Devin Setoguchi, Ian White, Niclas Walin, Joe Pavelski and Benn Ferriero.
The Sharks have been more successful at imposing their game plan on the proceedings. They are pushing the play along the boards in the offensive zone when the teams are at full strength and grinding out wins. They're keeping Detroit out of open ice, where the Wings can be magnificent. When Detroit gets chances, the Sharks have been very good at preventing the Wings from following up and getting sustained pressure. There's been lots of one-and-dones.
And Detroit is killing itself by taking penalties, which is unusual. A disciplined team, the Wings gave San Jose 15 power play chances in the first three games, four of which resulted in goals. But even those that weren't converted robbed Detroit of momentum and put the Wings on the defensive, where they are unable to play their game.
The only game between these teams last spring that wasn't decided by one goal was Game 4, which the Red Wings won 7-1 after grabbing a 5-0 lead in the first period with Johan Franzen scoring a natural hat trick. The Sharks' mindset going into Game 4 is that they want to prove they've grown as a club compared to last year and finish off Detroit.
"It's almost déjà vu-like, and I know I want to separate last year from this year, but I believe we learned a very valuable lesson last year in Game 4," Sharks Coach Todd McLellan said (quoted by David Pollak in The San Jose Mercury News). "We have to show some growth as far as responding better than we did last time.
"We just talked that we've been in this situation before, and we should have learned some lessons, and we should show some signs of growth."
In the other potential sweep, it's the Bruins who want to absorb last year's lesson and make sure that the Flyers don't come back from down 0-3. In Boston's favor is the fact that the Flyers don't look like a team that is ready to mount another historic comeback. In two of the three games in this series, Philadelphia didn't come out ready to play from the opening puck drop, and in Game 2 -- when they came out on fire and led 2-0 early -- they allowed the B's to creep back in and tie the score before the period ended. Their strong performance the rest of the way was thwarted by Tim Thomas and you'd be hard pressed to come up with a better early candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy than the Boston goalie.
“We learned last year that the fourth win is the hardest,’’ said Thomas (quoted by John Powers in The Boston Globe), who was on the bench last year, playing behind Tuukka Rask. “One game at a time, one period at a time, one shift at a time."
The Boston power play, which had gone almost 10 complete games and 30 chances without converting in the postseason, finally scored toward the end of Game 3 when Zdeno Chara tallied on a 5-on-3 with less than two minutes left in the contest.
A powerless power play in the series was one clean sweep that the Bruins didn't want.