The Avalanche will take on the San Jose Sharks in one of those best of seven playoff doohickeys beginning Wednesday night. And I'll be honest: on paper, it looks like we could be in trouble. Then again, our opponent is proof positive that these things aren't played on paper. If they were, San Jose might have something more than zero Cup appearances to show for averaging 108 points over the last 6 regular seasons.
I'm not afraid to type the next sentence. The San Jose Sharks are a better team than the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs' best 20-game stretch this season was their first 20 games, when they earned 27 points (12-5-3). The Sharks' worst 20-game stretch this season was their last 20, when they scored 24 (11-7-2). We're going to take a look at the way the two teams compare statistically. Then, we're going to talk about what's REALLY important: what the Avalanche need to do to beat Sharks.
Goals per Game
San Jose ranked 4th in the league, averaging 3.13 goals per gamed. Colorado was right behind them in 6th with 2.89. Clearly, both teams can score.
Goals against per Game
With so much press going to Thornton, Marleau and The Quitter, I think one of the more underrated aspect of the Sharks game is the play of Evgeni Nabokov. Nabby just finished what may be his best NHL season - he was 2nd in the league in wins (44), 6th in save percentage (.922) and 10th in GAA (2.43). Overall, the Sharks were 5th best in the league in this area, with a 2.55 average per game.
Conversely, I think one of the most overrated aspects of the Avs' game was the play of Craig Anderson. Yes, I said it. Anderson had a very good season and he's one of the reasons that the Avalanche have made the postseason. He's not the ONLY reason, though, and I think too many people forget that.
For my money, the Sharks have the best special teams in the NHL. They have the 4th ranked power play and the 5th-best penalty kill. That's a potent combo in the regular season and is even more potent in the playoffs. The Avalanche we're mediocre in both categories - 15th on the power play and 21st on the kill. That's a combo that is...uh, whatever the opposite of potent is. I do think the Avs' kill has been better lately, and their power play was gathering steam before Gentleman Rob decided to resurrect the Save Ferris campaign.
The Sharks are the best faceoff team in the league, averaging 55.6% at draws. The Avs 47.7% ranks them 29th in the league. That's a disparity. The Avs' best at draws this year was Paul Stastny, who was dead even at 50%. The Sharks have 4 pivotmen who averaged 53% or above and 3 who averaged 58%. That gives the Sharks a great deal of flexibility. Head to head, the Sharks won the faceoff battle in 3 of the 4 games played, including a whopping 71-29% shellacking in the first game of the season. Let's quickly move on.
Penalties per game
The one bit of good news is that the Sharks take a fair number of penalties - they were 24th worst in the league in the number of minor penalties taken. The Avs were 8th.
The Sharks ranked 11th in the league in hits. The Avs ranked 23rd.
The Avs were 6th in the league in blocked shots (and Craig Anderson STILL lead the league in shots faced). San Jose ranked 19th.
So, there's the numbers. You can't spin this in any other way - the Sharks are better than the Avs in most areas. But, the Avalanche can win this, even though pretty much no one is giving the Avs much of a chance in the series. To do that, though, the Avalanche will need to play a more or less perfect series. Here are the keys to the series, as I see them:
Stay out of the box. The Avalanche can't take penalties. The best way to stop that potent power play is to keep it off the ice entirely. The Avalanche have been very good all year at keeping the penalties down, but they still have been prone to taking some bad ones, especially of late (T.J. Galiardi, I hope you are reading this). That trend needs to reverse.
Craig Anderson needs to be better. I was going to type that Anderson needs to be better than Nabokov, which is completely true. But Craig Anderson also needs to be better than Craig Anderson. Andy has struggled of late, and he needs to regain his form. He was brilliant in the playoff-clinching shootout against Vancouver and solid again in his next start. That trend will need to continue, as he's probably going to need to steal 2 games in this series for the Avalanche to have any chance. It certainly is something he is capable of. Jose Theodore did it against Minnesota two years ago, and Anderson is a better goalie than Theo.
Chris Goddamn Stewart. Chris Stewart had a marvelous season with 28-goals. But he had just 4 points and no goals over the final 10 games. The Avs have Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk, but I think Stewart is a big key. He has the size to hold his own against the large San Jose defensive corp (who are, on average, 6'2" and 215 lbs) and I think he's got the speed to create chances. Having him at the top of his game would be a huge boon to the Avs. Having him skate around Rob Blake at the blueline on his way to a goal would kick all sorts of ass.
Limit the Sharks' secondary scoring. I don't believe the Avalanche will be able to completely shut down that potent first line of Marleau, Thornton and Douchebag, each with 80+ points this season. The Avalanche have not been able to keep #1 guys in check all year (Gaborik, Sedin, Marleau, et al). They Avs just don't have those shutdown guys to stop them. That's okay. But, the Avs have to keep the bleeding to a minimum. The Sharks are kind of thin after the Thornton line. If the Avs can keep the other players off the scoresheet, they may have a chance.
Control the neutral zone. When the Avalanche are at their best, they are swarming to the puck in the neutral zone. When the Sharks have the puck, they need to force a turnover and send it back up the ice quickly. When the Sharks get it into the zone, the Avs are vulnerable and the normal practice of steering shots to the perimeter is dangerous with the likes of Blake and Dan Boyle patrolling the blueline (and the Sharks excel at getting people to the net). If the Avs can control the neutral zone - hustling to lose pucks, forcing turnovers, etc - then they may just be able to win this thing.
Those are my keys. It won't be easy, but the Avs CAN pull this off.
Prediction: I still believe. I'm picking the Avs in 7. But don't just take my word for it. Here's some predictions from the rest of the Mile High staff.
Dustin: I think that the Avs can win in six or seven games but it going to come down to goaltending (This may be a shock, but stick with me here). I think the offense matches up pretty well, the Avs do not (yet) have any offensive juggernauts like Heatley, Marleau, or Thornton but I think the Avs are a little deeper, especially if Jones and Mueller return. The Avs defense is mediocre but San Jose's is overrated. That leaves the goalies. We all know how good Anderson can be and if he can frustrate the San Jose forwards, the Avs will win this series. Because Nabby is not a clutch goalie. Yeah, he had a good season, but don't forget that he was awful in the Russia/Canada game. Don't get me wrong, if this turns into Andy vs the Sharks, the Avs eventually will lose (see Lundqvist vs Capitals from last year's playoffs) but I think the Avs and the Sharks match up well on the ice, so it will be up to the goalies to tip the odds one way or another.
Paul: The Avs will win in 6 games if they use their speed, and if Maxim is wrong and 'size doesn't matter'. The Sharks like to dominate opponents physically before unleashing their potent top line to finish off the kill (or vice-a-versa). If the Avs can stick to Sacco's system of "playing on their toes", they will frustrate the bigger Sharks and negate their size advantage. The Avs will have serious trouble with the Sharks top line (and Joe Pavelski), but the Sharks could severely struggle against the Avs bottom three lines.
Game changers: First, special teams are all the more vital in the post season and I'm afraid that without Mueller our PP is extremely suspect. Second, Nabokov could play just OK and the Sharks still win, but Andy has to play the best hockey of his career (circa October 2009) for the Avs to upset the highly favored #1 seed.
Cards: If Jones, Yip and Mueller can play at their pre-injury levels, The Young Guns will ship the Sharks back to Choke-lahoma in six games. If not....San Jose in 7.
Derek: I'm predicting the Avs in 6 games. Andy is absolutely going to stand on his head and steal this series for the Avs. Dutchy is going to mature even more right before our eyes, starting in game 1. Getting Peter Mueller and David Jones back in game 3 (my boldest prediction to date) is going to light a fire under this team. What better way to welcome them back than with 18,007 screaming fans at Pepsi Center? I can think of none. Nabokov is going to pick up where he left off in the Olympics and not be able to handle the pressure of the playoffs. Thus ending San Jose's playoff dreams early...again.
Mike: I wish I was as optimistic about Colorado's chances in this playoff series, but I'm not. I think the Avs could force it to a game 6 or 7, but the overall team size, skill, and system that San Jose rolls is more than the mediocre (at best) Colorado defense can handle. I think the Avs match up better against the Sharks than the other wished-for first-round matchup, Chicago (I'd rather be putting Avalanche speed against San Jose size than against Chicago speed and depth, in other words). Still at the end of the day, when you look at the weakest link on each team (San Jose's propensity to take penalties, Colorado's D), I think the Sharks come out WAY ahead on that trade-off, especially if the Avalanche "power" play remains more stale than Jay Leno's humor. All that being said, I hope for some great individual performances from Stastny, Anderson and the Young Guns, namely Galiardi, Duchene, Radar O'Reilly, and Wilson. If Yip or Cumiskey can surprise and Rob Blake can taste glass early and often, I'd be super excited. Long story short: Sharks in 7.