Last chance for Sharks, Red Wings to make statement before playoffs
While I was focused on coaching changes, mob connections and multiple trade rumors, something snuck up on me.
Tonight, the Western Conference's top two clubs -- the Sharks and Red Wings -- meet for the fourth and final time this regular season. It's the last chance for the rivals -- who seem on a collision course for a West finals showdown -- to make a direct statement to one another before the playoffs.
San Jose leads the season series 2-1, winning both games at home. On Jan. 17, the last time the two teams met, the Sharks rallied for a 6-5 win over the Wings in a seesaw tilt at the Shark Tank. In that wildly entertaining affair, six different Sharks lit the lamp, while rugged winger Ryane Clowe dished out four assists. Marian Hossa had a goal and two assists in a losing effort.
While the Sharks continue to hold the inside track on the conference's No. 1 seed (a five-point lead over the Wings with two games in hand), the two teams aren't separated by much. The Sharks have been better defensively. On average, they allow just 2.34 goals per game. The Bruins and Wild are the only teams that have been better at keeping pucks out of the net.
San Jose excels in most categories that indicate a strong defensive effort. The Sharks and Kings allow 27.3 shots per game, the fewest in the league. The Sharks also have the league's fourth-best penalty-killing unit (84.1 percent).
The Wings, meanwhile, are giving up 2.92 GPG, ranking them in the bottom half of the league. That's a significant drop-off from last season, when they were league's best defensive team, surrendering just 2.18 GPG. The most obvious reason for the increase in goals against has been inconsistent, sometimes poor goaltending from incumbent starter Chris Osgood, who has an unsightly .879 save percentage. Osgood's slide has been so dramatic that team management sent him on a 10-day "mental breather." He won't be in goal against the Sharks, but Osgood is scheduled to return against the Kings on Friday.
Fortunately, Mike Babcock has been able to lean on free-agent pickup Ty Conklin, who has a .915 save percentage and six shutouts. Among Conklin's most memorable efforts was a 6-0 win over the Sharks on Dec. 18.
The defending champions have made up for some of their defensive shortcomings by filling the net themselves. Detroit is averaging a league-best 3.7 GPG. Pavel Datsyuk, the circuit's most unheralded superstar, leads the club with 74 points and 49 assists and is a strong plus-30. Like fellow ex-Penguins teammate Conklin, Hossa has been a good fit in Hockeytown. He sits among the league leaders with 33 goals. The Wings have a lot of guys who can beat you; their balanced offense includes 12 players with 30 or more points and a power-play unit clicking at a league-high 27.8 percent.
The Sharks' attack has been nearly as good, averaging 3.4 GPG. While center Joe Thornton again leads the club with 68 points, Patrick Marleau's return to form continues to energize San Jose's offense. Marleau has adjusted nicely to full-time duty on left wing alongside Thornton and right winger Devin Setoguchi. Healthy after an injury-plagued campaign in 2007-08, Marleau clearly enjoys playing for first-year coach Todd McLellan, who has rewarded his captain with 21:33 of ice time (the most among San Jose's forwards). The Sharks' power play ranks second in the league (24.1 percent).
If San Jose had one decided statistical matchup advantage, it would be its power play against Detroit's penalty-killing unit; the Wings' 77.5 percent success rate places them within the league's bottom five. In a close game, this special-teams battle could be the difference.
Behind all the numbers, this important game includes an interesting sidebar. Sharks comeback kid (well, not really a kid) Claude Lemieux returns to Joe Louis Arena for the first time since coming back to the NHL after a five-year retirement. As you probably remember, Lemieux isn't well-liked in Detroit. He was a lightning rod during the great Wings-Avalanche rivalry in the late 1990s. If you're old enough, you certainly recall Lemieux's nasty/dirty hit on Wings center Kris Draper. I'm sure Detroit fans recall it, and will give their old hate-buddy a not-so-warm welcome back.
Personally, I'm looking forward to watching these clubs test each other again. It'll be a nice break from the coaching changes, mob tales and crazy trade rumors. I can get back to that stuff on Thursday.