With a mere six games left in the regular season, San Jose is in the driver’s seat for the Pacific division title and a possible/probable 2nd seed in the Western conference playoffs. Having said that, every single team in the division still has a chance to usurp the fish (superorder: Selachimorpha), and it’s even possible they miss the playoffs altogether. It’s also hypothetically possible that I spontaneously regrow a few million hair follicles overnight like Homer Simpson did after topical application of the fictitious drug “Dimoxinil”, but whatever. By the way, doesn’t Homer look eerily like :
Frightening. All right, enough with the non-sequitur blather. Time to talk likely first-round opponents.
As of this writing, San Jose would secure the third seed and face the Anaheim Ducks in the Western conference quarterfinals. For the moment, let’s assume this is indeed the matchup they face. How did they fare against the Quacks this season?
Pretty well, actually, although they still have two more games against the mallards – one home, one away. They went 2-1-1 in the previous four, outscoring Anaheim 11-9. Dany Heatley led the way for San Jose with three markers, and Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki each picked up a win. Man, that is one heck of a lot of n’s, i’s and t’s in that goalie tandem, isn’t it?
If it’s Anaheim: Expect a track meet between two similar-style clubs. San Jose has the edge, as their offense equals Anaheim’s, and yet their defense is clearly superior. Niemi and Hiller appear to be a remarkably even matchup, both with previous postseason successes. With the playoff monkey officially slain and the likely home ice advantage, the Sharks should be able to issue a two-word directive to the Ducks, and as this is a family-friendly web site, it’s not the one you’re thinking of: bite me. San Jose wins this series, 4-2.
Given that there are seemingly fifteen or so West teams within a point or two of the top eight, the opponent could certainly be someone else besides Anaheim. Next in line would be the Nashville Predators. Against Nashville, the Sharks started out shakily, losing the first two games of the series by 3-2 and 2-1 margins. They then pulled a statistical palindrome by winning the next two games 2-1 and 3-2. San Jose managed balanced scoring throughout, with Patrick Marleau leading the way with two goals. Antti Niemi and his five vowels played in every minute of all four games.
If it’s Nashville: The banjo-strummers play a tight, annoyingly close defensive style. Only Vancouver has given up fewer goals per game in the West this year. This is the type of series that could give San Jose’s snipers fits. The Sharks should still win, based on the strength of a far superior offense, but Pekka Rinne can match Niemi save for save, and if the tips, bounces and breaks (sounds like a Brittany Spears concert) don’t go their way, things could turn on a dime. San Jose barely outlasts the Predators, 4-3, and after a long, draining series, are too tired to issue two-word directives to anyone.
Next up: the Chicago Blackhawks. Nobody wants to face the defending Stanley Cup champs in the first round with the lower seed in their back pockets and playing as the underdog. The most interesting subplot of this hypothetical series would be Antti Niemi versus his former Chicago teammates – or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, given all the turnover the Hawks had to engineer after winning the Cup. Having said that, the Sharks owned the Hawks this year, winning the season series 3-1 and outscoring Chicago 15-12. Ryan Clowe notched three of those goals, and Niemi earned all three wins. The final matchup of the year, however, saw Chicago chase Niemi to the bench and win going away, 6-3.
If it’s Chicago: Watch out! Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith, Marcus Kruger. Ok, maybe not so much the Swedish rookie, but the rest can give any team fits. And that’s not even including Patrick Sharp, who’s out with the vague, de-anthropomorphized “lower body injury” but may be back for the playoffs. Has anyone seen Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi in the same room at the same time? They seem to have similar rookie-from-nowhere DNA. Regardless, Crawford is decidedly untested in the playoffs, and with the other uncertainties the Hawks face, this is a series San Jose should dominate. San Jose wins 4-2 and hears a few thousand two-word directives from the bellicose denizens of the Windy City sitting in the United Center during game six.
Last but not least, let’s talk Dallas Stars. Before the series begins, Sharks players should consider renegotiating their contracts to be paid on an hourly basis, as three out of the five regular-season games played so far have gone to overtime. They meet tonight for the final time, and so far the Sharks have struggled a weensy bit, going 2-1-2. San Jose has outscored Dallas by a hair, 18-17, with Devin Setoguchi, Logan Coture, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatly dominating the attack with two goals apiece. Niemi played in all but one game, but appeared eminently solvable by the otherwise-mediocre Dallas offense.
If it’s Dallas: It’s tempting to predict upset if this pairing comes to fruition, but Kari Lehtonen has a rather – *ahem* – androgynous first name, which might mean a few tears if the Sharks get to him early. It appears San Jose just has the better overall team, even if Dallas has had their number to some degree this year. It’ll be a close series, and I might hear a few two-word directives for the comment I made about Lehtonen’s name, but in the end the Sharks edge the Stars, 4-3.
It is entirely possible that San Jose does not play any of these teams in the first round, although they do appear the most likely. However, one thing is clear: San Jose should match up reasonably well in the first round with whomever they face. They will need to build upon last season’s successes to shake the clutched-throat stigma they had in prior years. Without a doubt, they’d be more than happy to issue a two-word directive to their detractors once again this postseason.