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NHL Playoffs 2011 Preview: Red Wings Vs. Sharks

The Red Wings and Sharks will meet in the second round of the NHL playoffs for the second consecutive season. Find out how the two teams match up this time around.

It's been a week since the Red Wings ousted the Phoenix Coyotes in a four-game sweep, but we're just now finding out who the Wings will actually play in the second round. After the Vancouver Canucks eliminated the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, that opponent became the San Jose Sharks. This sets up a rematch of last year's second round series between the two clubs, which San Jose won in five games.

Detroit Red Wings  - 47-25-10, 104 points, 1st place Central Division

Playoff Leaders:

Leading scorer: Pavel Datsyuk (2 goals, 4 assists)
Goaltending: Jimmy Howard (4-0-0, 2.50 GAA, .915 SV%)
Power Play: 26.7 percent (4-for-15, 4th)
Penalty Kill: 66.7 percent (6-for-18, 15th)

San Jose Sharks - 48-25-9, 105 points, 1st place Pacific Division

Playoff Leaders:

Leading scorer: Ryan Clowe (4 goals, 3 assists)
Goaltending: Antti Niemi (3-2-0, 3.99 GAA, .863 SV%)
Power Play: 8.7 percent (2-for-23, 13th)
Penalty Kill: 79.2 percent (5-for-24, 9th)

Season Series

Nov. 30: Detroit 5, San Jose 3
Dec. 6: San Jose 5, Detroit 2
Feb. 22: San Jose 4, Detroit 3
March 3: San Jose 3, Detroit 1

Matchups

Forwards:

These are two incredibly talented squads and the series is going to be decided up front. San Jose and Detroit match up evenly from top to bottom in this category. That said, the Red Wings will be getting a huge boost when Henrik Zetterberg returns to the lineup. He missed the entire first round series with Phoenix and the Red Wings still dismantled a 99-point team in a four-game sweep. The entire series was a testament to the Wings' depth, in which 13 different players scored goals. Johan Franzen also missed Game 4 of that series after being blasted by Shane Doan in Game 2, but he should be back as well.

Joe Thornton may never rid himself of the "playoff choker" label until he wins a Stanley Cup, but he went a long way toward that goal in Game 6 when he scored the series-winner in overtime. Jumbo Joe had five points in the first round series with Los Angeles; only Clowe had more points on the team. Like last year, the Red Wings are going to have to contain Joe Pavelski, who's becoming the Franzen of the Sharks in terms of playoff production.

Advantage: Even

Defense:

Like in the series with the Coyotes, the Red Wings will have a sizable advantage with their defensemen. The Sharks have a very solid defensive core in Ian White, Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray, but they will have a tough task eliminating the offensive edge provided by Nicklas Lidstrom and company. Speaking of Lidstrom, he was nominated for yet another Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman. He's already got six in his back pocket and a seventh would leave him one shy of the legendary Bobby Orr.

Despite giving up six power play goals against Phoenix, Detroit's defense improved substantially once the postseason started. The Red Wings gave up 2.5 goals per game in the first round, dropping nearly half a goal from their 2.9 average in the regular season, good for sixth among the 16 playoff teams. It's a substantial improvement from a defense that struggled most of the season. 

San Jose, on the other hand, played hardly any defense against the Anze Kopitar-less Kings. They gave up a total of 20 goals in the six games; only Anaheim, Buffalo, Vancouver and Pittsburgh (who all gave up 22) let in more. San Jose gave up at least three goals in five of the six games, and that doesn't bode well going up against a team in Detroit that scored more goals on average than any team in the first round. 

Advantage: Red Wings

Goalies:

Since I already discussed Jimmy Howard's subpar regular season in my preview of the Coyotes-Red Wings series I won't go into too much detail about it. Howard seemed to struggle a bit in his second season and was a big question mark heading into the Phoenix series. However, Howard (and the rest of the team for that matter) went into playoff mode immediately and he outplayed Ilya Bryzgalov in all four games. Howard's goals against dropped to a respectable 2.50 in the first round and he had a decent .915 save percentage. He wasn't spectacular, but he was solid when the team needed him to be and that's usually good enough to win in Detroit.

Antti Niemi didn't seem to have a Stanley Cup hangover despite the change of scenery from Chicago to the Bay Area, winning 35 games and posting a 2.38 GAA in the regular season for the Sharks. As we all know, the playoffs are a completely different monster, and unfortunately for the Sharks, so was Niemi. He had an absolutely horrid first round series against the Kings, finishing with a gaudy 3.99 GAA and a .863 save percentage. Of the 24 goaltenders to play in these playoffs, Niemi's save percentage and GAA are both ranked 21st. If the Sharks plan on another trip to the conference finals, that will have to change.

Advantage: Red Wings

Special Teams:

Not much to report here other than that the special teams in the first round were something both teams would like to forget. While the Red Wings connected on four of their 15 power plays in the first round, they allowed one of the worst power plays in the regular season to pot six goals on the man advantage against their penalty kill. 

San Jose didn't have much to brag about with their penalty kill during the regular season (79.4 percent, 24th in the NHL), but their power play was a different story. The Sharks were second in the league with the man advantage, connecting at a 23.5 percent clip. However, that advantage completely disappeared in the first round against the Kings, as they scored just twice in 23 chances.

Advantage: Red Wings

Prediction

I thought the Red Wings would have at least a tough six-game series with the Coyotes, so put as much stock into my predictions as you see fit. The Sharks are going to be a much tougher out than the Coyotes; they're more talented up front and despite his numbers I believe Niemi will be much tougher to beat than he was in the first round. They won't roll over the Sharks like they did Phoenix, but I still think the Red Wings take the series.

Red Wings in six.