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Colorado Has San Jose Asking, 'What's My Line?'

Apr 18, 2010 – 10:00 AM
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Susan Slusser

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SAN JOSE – The Sharks and the Avalanche are the poster boys for a postseason in which most of the games are decided by a goal and top seeds are vulnerable.

Both games of this first-round Western Conference series have been one-goal affairs, with top-seeded San Jose needing overtime on Friday to avoid an 0-2 deficit in the series.

Now, the Sharks are getting a reputation for falling to lesser seeds early in the postseason, but getting Colorado as the eighth seed was supposed to be a favorable matchup for San Jose. The Sharks are bigger and more experienced than the Avalanche.

And yet, Colorado has its own strengths. The Avs are younger, faster, and they have the superior goalie, at least judging by the first two games.

Is speed better than size in the modern NHL? Colorado forward Matt Duchene said that might be the case with the post-lockout rules, and Avs forward T.J. Galiardi, asked to take a side on speed vs. size, answered, "I'd say speed, but they have speed, too. We have to contain them as much as we can, keep them to the outside, especially their top line. They have a lot of talent.

"But our main thing is our speed and if we use it, we're hard to contain."

Sharks vs. Avalanche: Series Page | Full NHL Playoffs Coverage

The Avalanche has been able to slow that San Jose top line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, to the point that when Sharks coach Todd McLellan was asked if the team's clutch second line is still considered the second line, he responded, "Yes. We just don't know their names."

"We're seeing that if you're on top of your game right now, it doesn't matter what seed you are. It's made for some entertaining hockey."
-- Joe Sacco
A dig at the top line? Perhaps not: McLellan clarified his comments on Sunday, telling reporters that he doesn't put numbers on the lines, that's a media thing. Some nights, the team's No. 1 line is one line, some nights another. Somewhat disingenuous, because, well, media construct or not, everyone knows which players are on the Sharks' top line. The Sharks players refer to the top line, even if the coaching staff doesn't.

At any rate, San Jose's "second," "third" and "fourth" lines – the non-Thornton lines – played well enough to make up for a "top" line that was well-defended and clearly the Avalanche's primary target to stop. And No. 1 lines are often neutralized during playoff series – or at least that's the opposition's goal, so perhaps too much is made of that line's lack of noise.

(Or maybe not. Ex-Shark Jeremy Roenick -- part of the San Jose team that lost to No. 8 Anaheim last year -- called out Marleau in particular on a Toronto radio show on Friday, asking when Marleau is going to come out and hit someone and adding, "I would not sign Patrick Marleau again if they did not get past this round and he falls short of being anything but spectacular. He's been there too long and they have not won with him there. They need to go out and try to do something different.")

The bigger issue for the Sharks might be the difference in goaltenders. Craig Anderson bloomed into one of the better net-minders in the league this season and he's looked tough again in the postseason, while Nabokov continues to be a big-game mystery. On Friday, one of the more striking distinctions was in puck-handling: Anderson made great decisions with the puck, and some terrific passes – including one to Chris Stewart wheeling down the middle alone for a goal on the other end. Assist, Anderson, goal allowed, Nabokov. Anderson allowed six goals, sure, but he faced 52 shots. Nabokov five on 22 shots. Yikes.

When it came to handling the puck, Nabokov sometimes looked unsure of himself. He covered up occasionally when he didn't need to, halting his team's momentum. He made a few iffy passes, including one up the boards on the right side that wound up corralled by Duchene, who zipped it to Milan Hejduk in the slot for the score.

Has Nabokov's shaky play and the top line's suppression turned this into a series of equals? Or has speed canceled out size? Whatever the case, this tight affair is the norm rather than the exception this postseason.

"It shows how many good teams are in the league," Sharks defenseman Rob Blake said before Game 2. "The league has changed a lot in 20 years -- every game is a battle. Everyone has good goaltenders. You have to execute a little better ... We do, anyway."

"Everyone gets a number attached to them when the playoffs start, but in my opinion, there are 16 quality teams playing," McLellan said. "There is sometimes a disparity, but for the most part, all the games are tight. It's a break here, a call there, an extra effort there. I don't think that will change all the way to the finals."

The Avalanche is counting on that.

"We're seeing that if you're on top of your game right now, it doesn't matter what seed you are," Colorado coach Joe Sacco said. "It's made for some entertaining hockey."
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