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Sharks-Avalanche series breakdown
Lots of changes since the last semifinal meeting
4/21/04 - by John Cook

It has been almost two years since the Sharks and Avalanche played in one of the more exciting playoff series in Team Teal's brief history. In a series that went the distance, you can say it had all its moments. Patrick Marleau, and his wrister from the blueline that eluded Patrick Roy in Game 1. The eight-goal barrage by the Avs in Game 2. A crazy Game 3, where the lead changed hands four different times. An earthquake-rattled Game 6, where the Sharks had the opportunity to close it out and send San Jose into bedlam, but a player by the name of Forsberg had other ideas. And then you had Selanne and the gaping, open net in Game 7.

That was 2002. This is 2004. So what has changed? Well, a lot actually. We'll start with the coaches. Bob Hartley was fired midway through the 2002-03 season and was replaced by assistant coach, and former Shark, Tony Granato.

Granato lead the struggling Colorado club into the post-season for a meeting with the surprising Minnesota Wild, where the underdogs would erase a 3-1 series deficit to win the decisive game in dramatic fashion.

For San Jose, Darryl Sutter, the mastermind of turning the franchise around in 1997, was fired around the same time as Hartley. Sutter was replaced by Ron Wilson, who has implemented his own style of coaching in a very successful manner. The players have adapted to his style and the Sharks record speaks for itself.

When you look at the Colorado hockey club, you can't help but acknowledge the star-studded lineup that they possess. Joe Sakic. Peter Forsberg. Teemu Selanne. Paul Kariya. Milan Hedjuk. Alex Tanguay. Rob Blake. The list goes on and on. There is danger on every line. Patrick Roy's predecessor, David Aebischer, hasn't done a bad job in net, considering the way he handled the Dallas Stars in the quarterfinals. Is this going to scare the Sharks going into round 2? Not likely.

San Jose's squad is a lot different than the one that missed the conference finals by a botched wrap-around opportunity. After the Sutter firing, the Sharks unloaded much of the core of the team. Owen Nolan, the team's captain since 1998, was traded to Toronto for Alyn McCauley. Bryan Marchment was shipped to Colorado. Matt Bradley was swapped for Pittsburgh's Wayne Primeau. Vincent Damphousse was nearly traded to the Avalanche in a deadline deal, but due to salary issues, the deal fell through. Selanne declined his option for 2003-04, making himself a free agent, where he would find himself joining the Avs with longtime friend, Paul Kariya, in a package deal. This move, on paper, made Colorado the early favorite to win the Cup.

This playoff series is a little different than the 1999 and '02 tilts. For starters, San Jose has the home-ice advantage. In 2002, the Sharks and the Avs both finished with 99 points, but Colorado had one more win in the standings, thus giving them the tie-breaker. Just how much will home ice play a factor? It's no secret that the Shark Tank is among the loudest buildings during the playoffs, so you can bet the players will be feeding off the energy. However, the Sharks only lost eight times at home in regulation, while the Avalanche lost eight times in regulation on the road, so it is going to be a tough battle in that aspect. If you look at Colorado's home record, it almost mirrors the Sharks road record.

So who has the edge? Most will put their money on the mighty Avalanche. With the amazingly talented lineup, there should be no reason for Colorado not to win the series, right? Not so fast. The Sharks had five 20-goal scorers (nearly six, Alex Korolyuk had 19) and a few even had career years. Alyn McCauley, who many questioned following the Nolan trade, was third in team scoring and established new career highs in goals and points. McCauley nearly doubled his best season in points, prior to this year. Players who burst on the scene like Nils Ekman, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Niko Dimitrakos, played key roles in the Sharks franchise-best 104 point season. Ekman finished just two points behind Marleau for the team lead in points. Cheechoo was tied with McCauley for third in points. Dimitrakos contributed more toward season's end and into the playoffs, scoring the overtime goal in the playoff opener versus the Blues.

You can't brush off the Avalanche very easily. The last time these two teams played each other in the post-season, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg pretty much, single-handedly, beat the Sharks. Forsberg, who played in zero regular season games, scored 12 points in seven games, while Sakic scored 10. Even though Teemu Selanne has had a sub par season, he is always a sniper threat. Milan Hedjuk is a Shark killer, especially if the game goes into overtime. The Sharks have lost all three overtime games to Colorado in their playoff history and Hedjuk has been apart of all three goals, scoring two (Games 2 and 6 in 1999) and assisting on one (Game 6 in 2002).

It's clear that this series takes place in a whole new era for both teams. New coaches. New Players, young and old. Will the Avalanche playoff experience lead them, or will the Sharks to defy the critics and move farther into the Stanley Cup playoffs than ever before?

Only time will tell.

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