Sharks Don’t See Themselves As ‘Favorites’ Against Predators
SAN JOSE — Head coach Peter DeBoer chose the right word to describe the feeling in the Sharks locker room after the team learned who its second-round opponent would be on Wednesday: “finally”.
After wrapping up their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Los Angeles Kings on Friday, the Sharks spent five days waiting, waiting, waiting for the Nashville Predators, who advanced to the second round by knocking off the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7.
Suffice to say, the Sharks are looking forward to getting back to action in Game 1 at the SAP Center on Friday after four days of simulating playoff hockey in practice.
“Finally. It’s nice. I think guys are ready to go,” DeBoer said. “You can sense a little bit of nervous energy and [they’re] ready to play. They’ve had enough practices and [they’re] ready to get the series going.”
On the surface, it may appear as though the Sharks caught a break by catching the Predators rather than the Anaheim Ducks in the second round.
The Ducks entered the season as a Stanley Cup favorite and they captured the Pacific Division title on the last day of the schedule by posting a 34-10-5 record after the Christmas break. The Sharks are also getting home-ice advantage in the series by drawing a wild card team instead of a division champion.
But the Sharks aren’t taking the Predators lightly. The Predators finished the season just two points behind the Sharks, producing the NHL’s third-best record down the stretch, going 16-6-6 after Feb. 11.
“I don’t think there’s any home ice or favorites,” DeBoer said. “You’ve got teams that played 82 games that are separated by two points in the standings. We know they’re a very good team and we’ll be ready to play.”
If any team holds a potential kryptonite for the Sharks vaunted forecheck it could be the Predators highly-skilled defensive corps.
In the opening round, the Sharks forward depth feasted off the inexperience on the Los Angeles Kings blue line. Throughout the series, the Sharks used their speed advantage to establish their forecheck by getting behind the Kings defense, which featured three players in Luke Schenn, Brayden McNabb and Jamie McBain who entered the playoffs with just seven combined games of postseason experience,
But with Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis on the backend, puck placement will be key to getting sustained zone time.
“It’s not just their blue line, Pekka Rinne, too, one of the best puck-handling goalies in the league, which obviously helps relieve pressure for them,” DeBoer said.
“They’ve really got a skating, mobile defense. L.A. was more of a mixture of bruising, bigger, heavier guys and some skill. These guys are all skating, puck-moving guys for the most part, so our forecheck outs are going to have to be good. We’re going to have to put the puck in good places to get it back. It’s going to be a challenge to establish our forecheck.”
Forward Tommy Wingels said the Predators defense, which led the NHL in goals this season, can hurt the Sharks in multiple facets of the game.
“All over,” he said. “They break the puck out well. They join the rush well. They shoot the puck very well, so we’ve got to take away certain areas of the ice. We’ve got to be in shooting lanes. We’ve got to stay above, when we get in on the forecheck we can’t let their dmen beat us up the ice. All over the ice, you’ve got to be cognizant of where their guys are because they can hurt you.”
The Predators are also deep down the middle in the wake of their Jan. 6 trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets for center Ryan Johansen.
Prior to the trade, the Predators ranked 17th in goals for with 102 tallies in 40 games. After the trade, they ranked ninth in goals for with 122 in 42 games.
“He’s kind of turned their season around a little bit,” alternate captain Joe Thornton said, referring to Johansen. “He’s big, he’s strong, shoots the puck well. He’s a good playmaker.”
With Johansen, the Predators can potentially match up with the Sharks trio of Thornton, Couture and Patrick Marleau down the middle, an area where the team has held a tremendous advantage since DeBoer introduced the alignment on Jan. 9.
“It allowed them to slot their centermen,” DeBoer said, referring to the Johansen trade. “Now, Ribeiro’s a second line center, Fisher’s a third line center, and all us a sudden, you’re a deep team up the middle of the ice, which is key for anybody this time of year.”
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