2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs – Semifinals Preview
Western Conference Semifinals - (3) Detroit Red Wings vs. (2) San Jose Sharks
The five-star throwdown in the second round of the NHL postseason is personal, potent and passionate. There’s no shortage of storylines in the series that’s clearly the best of the four conference semifinal confrontations.
The first thing to realize about a second-round rematch between the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks, which starts tonight at HP Pavilion in San Jose, is that it matches a mentor against a protégé. Detroit coach Mike Babcock brought aboard Todd McLellan as an assistant before McLellan sprang for the top spot in San Jose. Babcock, thanks to his body of work with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and then with the Wings, has established himself as one of the elite coaches in the league. McLellan, though, beat Babcock last year when the Sharks ushered the Wings out of the playoffs with a five-game demolition of Detroit. Yes, Detroit was a team just beginning to recover from a boatload of injuries, but the fact remained that San Jose brushed aside past playoff failures and took the fight to the Winged Wheel. McLellan found the right answers and took advantage of a very favorable situation for his team.
Now, as a healthier and more rested Detroit club gears up for another run at the Sharks, the opportunity exists for McLellan to register a second consecutive triumph over his teacher. If the Sharks are able to once again topple the Wings – by far the most consistent and envied franchise in the Western Conference over the past decade – San Jose’s negative playoff reputation won’t hold so much currency anymore. McLellan will rise in the estimation of his colleagues, and the San Francisco Bay Area’s hockey club will find itself in the Western Conference finals in back-to-back seasons. If hockey pundits felt that injuries disproportionately affected last year’s meeting between these two big-name squads, this year represents a much more legitimate measurement of their merits. Detroit can’t hide behind excuses, and Babcock is chomping at the bit, waiting to outmaneuver McLellan on the road to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Wings will be fueled by revenge and the desire to set things right. This applies to the coaches who know each other well. It also applies to both rosters, which – in their own ways – have a lot to prove.
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Detroit had at least eight of its core performers out of the lineup for extended stretches in the 2010 season, making it hard for the Wings to be fluid and seamless when they took on the Sharks in last year’s playoffs. The Wings are intent on showing that, with most of their parts in working order, they’re fundamentally better than San Jose. Last year, Detroit couldn’t catch a break, so in 2011, the Wings know that if they want to remain an elite team, they have to come through over the next two weeks in this cross-country clash.
The Sharks’ level of motivation is much simpler: This team has never made the Cup finals, falling short of hockey’s biggest series each and every year despite having loaded rosters brimming with open-ice skill and pronounced physicality. San Jose played quite poorly in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings, but the Sharks received just enough timely plays to skate by the Kings and advance. San Jose probably banked on being able to play less than its best brand of hockey over the past few weeks. Now, though, the Sharks know that they must attain and sustain a Mount Olympus perch if they want to knock out Detroit. San Jose can’t give up the five-minute major penalties it ceded to the Kings; it can’t get a shaky series in net from Antti Niemi, a Stanley Cup champion last season with the Chicago Blackhawks. A first-round survival act must lead to mental relaxation and a substantially improved degree of discipline if the Sharks are to reach the NHL’s final four.
The Wings have a reputation to defend; the Sharks have a new reputation to make. Mike Babcock has territory he wants to re-claim, while Todd McLellan wants to show that last year’s second-round victory wasn’t an aberration.
All that’s left is to drop the puck in Silicon Valley. Let’s get ready to rumble in this heavyweight confrontation.
By: Matt Zemek
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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