The opening round for the San Jose Sharks could not have gone any better. The Sharks eliminated the Los Angeles Kings in five games, using a variety of approaches to beat them. It allowed the Sharks to get rid of some demons from the reverse sweep of 2014 (Logan’s Couture’s comments after the series ended showed just how much the Kings were under his skin).
The Sharks use four players who are at least 35 years old. The extra time between series, especially the heavy games played against the Kings, allows bumps and bruises to heal. The Sharks were the league’s most traveled team in the regular season, at one point spending 19 of 20 games in a different venue than the prior game. By the time they step on the plane to Nashville for Game 3, the Sharks will have spent nearly an entire month without leaving California.
The Sharks have reason to be confident. The opening round series gave several younger Sharks the opportunity to find their playoff legs. Goalie Martin Jones made his debut as a playoff starter. It went well. A few odd bounces took Jones stat line down a peg, but he was solid in every respect. The Sharks younger skaters were effective, though they stayed off the scoreboard until the series finale. In that game, three young Sharks scored their first postseason goal: Melker Karlsson, Joonas, Donskoi and Chris Tierney. Matt Nieto, another young player, collected a goal as well.
All in all, the Sharks got what they needed from Rd. 1. Younger players had some success, older players got some rest and those that experienced the reverse sweep against the Kings can leave that memory behind.
Round 2: Nashville
With Nashville, the Sharks face a tricky opponent. My father watched boxing matches when he was young. He described those involving left handed-boxers as confusing and challenging for their opponents. In his day, there were few left-handers to spar against. Right-handed boxers had to figure out an opponent who was different from everyone else, often in ‘real time’.
The Nashville Predators are the modern NHL equivalent of the left-handed boxer. The Predators are a different sort of team. Last season, they lost in the playoffs to the Chicago Blackhawks, despite outscoring the Blackhawks in the series. This year, they beat the Anaheim Ducks in their series, despite being outscored. The Predators can win when they’re being beaten and lose when they’re winning.
As my colleague Dan Mount showed, the Predators are both strong and deep defensively. They make it tough to advance the puck cleanly in every zone transition. A team that needs to get into an offensive flow will have fits against the Predators.
The Predators offense can be confounding. In their seven game series against the Ducks, the Predators top scorers were defenseman Shea Weber and lower line forward Colin Wilson. Their top offensive forwards each had three points or less. Ten different players scored their 14 goals. In the three games between San Jose and Nashville during the regular season, the top goal scorer for Nashville was another lower line forward, Calle Jarnkrok, who had a goal in each game. Yet he managed only a single assist against Anaheim in the seven game series.
Nashville forces their opponents to stay poised and disciplined. In the second half of the season, the Sharks have been poised and disciplined. In the series clinching 2-1 win against Anaheim, an undisciplined moment from Anaheim’s defensemen resulted in the Predators first goal. The Predators are backstopped by one of the league’s better goalies in Pekka Rinne. This season, Rinne hasn’t been the Vezina-worthy version of recent years. However, he can still steal a game and given how close the Predators play, that could mean a series. That is what happened in Game 7 against the Ducks. Rinne stole the game and with it came the series.
I expect the first two games to be critical for the Sharks. They will be rusty after a lengthy layoff. How quickly they get past the rust, whether it takes one period or two games, is important. I can’t think of a worse matchup for shaking off the rust than Nashville.
The Predators will have the challenge of coming off an intense, physical series against Anaheim. On the upside, they won’t have to find their game, a meaningful advantage early in the series. They are more likely to wear down as the series goes on. Should this series go at least six games, Nashville will have played every other day for 12 consecutive games while clocking 16,000 air miles in the process. The first two games are played in San Jose and the Sharks need to capture an early game before they head to Nashville. Going down 2-0 in the series would present a huge challenge. Going into Nashville even in the series would give the Sharks a clear advantage for the rest of the series.
My father described the challenge with facing a left-handed boxer. The key to overcoming the challenge was to adapt quickly to the opponent. The Sharks must adapt quickly to Nashville. If they can, the series should go their way.