Sam Kelly The Hockey Writers
San Jose Sharks Face New Challenge in Nashville
The San Jose Sharks exorcised some postseason demons by eliminating the rival Los Angeles Kings in five games during the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Beginning with Game 1 on Friday night, San Jose will face a new test in round two against the Nashville Predators, who shocked the hockey world by besting the Pacific champion Anaheim Ducks in seven games to advance.
Having flown under the radar in a tightly-contested Central Division all season, Nashville isn’t your average wildcard club. The Predators boast an elite defense corps headlined by Shea Weber and bolstered by Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. Together, they form a top-four that rivals any in the league.
It’s a far cry from the depleted, banged-up group of rearguards San Jose faced in L.A. in the first round. In fact, Nashville’s blue line may be deeper than the elite Kings’ unit that reverse-swept the Sharks in 2014.
Weber and company pose a new challenge, and San Jose will need to be up to the task in order to advance to the Conference Finals.
Anaheim’s Corey Perry is a six-time 30-goal scorer who has amassed 32 playoff goals in his career. Against the Predator in round one, Perry failed to find the back of the net.
Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf has scored above a point-per-game pace in each of the last two postseasons. The 30-year-old pivot managed just five points in seven games against Nashville and was held off the score sheet entirely in games six and seven.
The Predators held Anaheim’s elite offense to 17 goals in seven games and neutralized the league’s top power play, surrendering four goals on 25 attempts. Nashville wrapped up the first round with the sixth-ranked penalty kill.
San Jose averaged 3.2 goals per game in the opening round and converted on 23.8 percent of its opportunities with the man advantage. That was against a shaky Jonathan Quick and a blueline featuring Luke Schenn, Rob Scueri, Jamie McBain and Brayden McNabb. The Sharks won’t have it as easy against Nashville.
Production From the Point
Shutting down the opposition is just part of what the Predators’ defense is able to do so well; it’s also a group capable of contributing offensively.
Weber tallied 51 points in the regular season and chipped in with five points in the first round against Anaheim, tying with forward Colin Wilson for the team lead. Josi registered a career-high 61 points this season and picked up three assists in round one.
Meanwhile, Ekholm also enjoyed a career year with 35 points and potted two goals in the opening round, tying with Weber, Wilson and winger James Neal for the team lead.
That kind of two-way ability from the back end is what makes the Predators so difficult to counter. Just ask Bruce Boudreau and his Ducks.
Key to Success
If the Sharks are to get past Nashville, they’ll need production from every line. San Jose’s top unit of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl combined for 11 points in five games against Los Angeles, with Pavelski leading the team in goals with five.
Logan Couture tallied six points and Joel Ward chipped in as well with four assists. Rookie winger Joonas Donskoi, who rounds out the second line, managed a modest three points but came up big in San Jose’s series-clinching victory in Game 5 with two goals.
Veteran center Patrick Marleau, now anchoring the third line, registered a goal and three assists, while defenseman Brent Burns led the team with eight points.
The Sharks relied on a balanced attack to pave the way to victory over L.A. They’ll need to utilize the same strategy against the stifling Predators, but have to get more production from their bottom two lines. Weber and Josi will be glued to the Thornton line, while Ekholm and Ellis defend Couture’s unit.
Melker Karlsson and Matt Nieto each had just one point in the opening round, while Tommy Wingels and former Predator Nick Spaling were held off the score sheet entirely. Marc-Edouard Vlasic put up a career-high 39 points in the regular season but managed zero goals and one assist in round one.
San Jose’s big guns aren’t likely to get the same high-quality chances they got against the Kings in this series. Secondary scoring will be the key to success for the Sharks against a Nashville defense corps capable of doing some serious damage on both ends of the ice.
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