Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
With the Vancouver Canucks’ defeat of the Nashville Predators on Monday night, the only game left in town in the NHL playoffs is the series between San Jose and Detroit. These two long-time rivals have battled hard in this postseason, with the Sharks winning the first three games and the Red Wings storming back and winning the last two. It has been an interesting series to say the least, and headed into Game Six in Motown this evening, there are five items to keep an eye on in a series that is constantly changing.
Ryane Clowe Out: Are the Sharks Doomed?
Clowe has been a force for the Sharks all postseason, scoring four goals and dishing out nine assists in San Jose’s 11 games. This offensive production has been especially valuable against the Wings, as he has six assists in the series, including four in the last two contests. When you factor in his physical play, you can easily see why he has arguably been the Sharks’ MVP so far in the playoffs.
We’re going to find out just how important Clowe is to San Jose’s chances on Tuesday night, as he reportedly did not make the trip to the Motor City for Game Six. Not having him in the lineup will certainly be a blow to the Sharks’ offense, but the question is if his absence is enough to doom the Sharks?
The short answer to the question is no. One player, no matter how much of an impact he has made in a series, is not enough to swing the tide because of his absence, and on a roster like San Jose’s, Clowe’s absence isn’t enough to derail them. They will need other players like Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski (who had four assists in Game Five) to help shoulder the burden, but that isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
The longer answer is that while Clowe’s absence doesn’t necessarily doom San Jose, it definitely doesn’t help them. The Sharks’ offense has been relied upon quite a bit in these playoffs with the inconsistent play of Antti Niemi (more on him later), and Clowe has been one of the biggest catalysts for that bunch.
His physicality has been a tremendous help against the Wings as well. Having a guy who can go toe to toe with some of Detroit’s big boppers is an invaluable asset, and it also helps when you have a guy who can keep playmakers like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg from having free reign on the ice. Losing all of these facets of Clowe’s game are certainly detrimental to San Jose’s cause, but it isn’t enough to doom them.
Johan Franzen Out: How Badly Does This Hurt the Red Wings?
With the Sharks’ having arguably their best playoff performer back in California for Game Six, the Wings seemed poised to take advantage, but they were dealt a blow on Tuesday morning as well when it was revealed that Johan Franzen will also miss the pivotal game. He has been dealing with health issues throughout the postseason, but to lose him is still a blow in such a big contest.
Looking at stats alone, it’s clear that the Sharks suffered the bigger blow here. Franzen has only scored twice in these playoffs, and in the first five games of the San Jose series, he is a negative-3 with zero points, 11 shots, and he’s done all of this while playing nearly 80 minutes in the series. Needless to say, he has not exactly been a stalwart offensive asset for the Wings this postseason.
Replacing Franzen will be Mike Modano, who has only played one game so far this postseason. In that contest, he picked up an assist in Detroit’s series clinching victory over the Coyotes. He only had 11:25 of ice time in the game, but for the most part he looked like he picked up the pace of the game well, and with his huge amount of playoff experience, he makes for a good fill-in for Detroit.
To be frank, the loss of Franzen is barely a blip on the radar for this Wings team. He has essentially been a non-entity in these playoffs, and watching him skate around on one leg for a good chunk of this series, it’s a small wonder that Mike Babcock has waited until now to pull the trigger on removing him from the lineup. His absence barely registers on the Richter Scale of this series, and the team has plenty of other players who are going to pick up the slack.
Which San Jose Squad Will Show Up: The Clutch or Non-Clutch Bunch?
The biggest knock on these Sharks going into the playoffs has been that they don’t come through in the clutch. Time and again in these playoffs, however, they have shown that they can get the job done in crunch time, winning all five of their games that have gone to overtime. They also won a tight game in Game 2 of this series, holding off a furious Wings charge at the end of the game to take a 2-0 series lead.
The last two games have nearly undone all of that solid play in crunch time, however, as the Sharks have lost two one-goal decisions in a row, including blowing a 3-1 lead in the third period by allowing three unanswered goals to Detroit over a ten minute stretch. Their defense fell asleep, their offense lost all of its burst, and in general they looked more like the Sharks team that started out the season in lackluster fashion, instead of the hot team that has been on display since late December.
So the question going into Game Six is this: which Sharks team will show up at the Joe? Will it be the team that has won a slew of tight games in these playoffs, or will it be the group of no-shows that has been on display in the past two contests? Of course, if anyone actually knew the answer to this, they would be a rich man, but judging by their recent performance, the Sharks definitely need to prove themselves in Detroit tonight if their reputation for choking is to be further dashed.
Can the Detroit Defense Better Protect Jimmy Howard?
Arguably the most important player for the Wings in this series, Jimmy Howard has stood on his head while taking on a barrage of San Jose shots. In the first five games of this series, Howard has had to deal with 38 shots a contest against the Sharks, and for a guy who gave up nearly 2.8 goals a game during the regular season, that’s quite a burden to deal with for a kid in his second full year in the NHL. Those chances have also been high-quality for the most part, so he is having to make saves to keep his team in games, and doing so in a very high-pressure situation.
To better protect Howard from this barrage of rubber that has been headed his way, the onus certainly falls on guys like Nicklas Lidstrom to step up their game on the blue line. Niklas Kronwall has been good from a physical perspective, so he needs to continue forcing the Sharks off the puck on the rush, and lower-tier guys like Jonathan Ericsson will also need to step up their defensive games.
The Wings also need to give up fewer penalties, as they have given the Sharks 21 power plays so far in the five games of this series. They have gone a perfect 6-for-6 in their last two victories, but if they want to extend the series, they need to cut back on San Jose’s man-advantages.
It will be difficult for Detroit to keep the Sharks’ offense at bay, as teams tend to play offense that focuses on rushing the net and putting pucks on goal when they are playing at an enemy rink, but if they can get solid performances from the aforementioned players, they will at least give Howard a fighting chance to help Detroit force a Game Seven in San Jose.
Who is the Key Player for Each Team in Game Six?
Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks
Niemi has looked shaky at times in this series, and never more so than in Game Five. He gave up four goals on only 22 shots in that contest, and he displayed some of the lack of rebound control that has plagued him in his two full NHL seasons. He has to be able to take advantage of San Jose keeping shots from reaching him, because if he isn’t at least serviceable, there is no way that this series doesn’t head back to California.
Mike Modano, Detroit Red Wings
This distinction could have been given to several Wings, including Kronwall, Datsyuk, or Howard, but it will be interesting to see how Modano reacts to being back in the playoffs after having five games off. At 40 years old, it would not be surprising to see Modano struggle to get up to game speed in Game Six, but with his veteran know-how, and with his performance in Game Four against Phoenix in the first round, he could be a huge key in Detroit’s efforts to extend the series.
James started out for The Hockey Writers covering the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, and has also covered the Chicago Blackhawks, served as NHL Correspondent, and is now a Managing Editor and the site’s NHL Central Blogger. He also writes for The Golf Writers.