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1st round comparisons
Sizing up the Sharks - Predators series
4/10/07 - By Mike Lee

The San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators square off for the second consecutive year in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, starting Wednesday in Nashville. You can forget last year, if you're looking for comparisons. Tomas Vokoun is healthy and the Predators add Peter Forsberg, J.P. Dumont and Jason Arnott to the mix. San Jose counters with the best goaltending tandem in the NHL and additions Bill Guerin and Craig Rivet.

We take a look at the match-ups going into Wednesday night's opener.

Size: Advantage San Jose
There's no doubt who the bigger team is here, and San Jose intends on using that size to ear down the Predators. Joe Thornton started to pick up the physical play as the regular season wound down in preparation for the NHL season. The Sharks have plenty of big bodies to throw around.

Speed: Advantage Nashville
Nashville holds a slight edge in the speed game, but the Sharks have plenty of guys that can skate. Paul Kariya, Steve Sullivan, Marin Erat and Alexander Radulov all have wheels. Throw in Arnott and Forsberg and you have a pretty quick set of forwards. The Sharks will need to counter Nashville's advantage with speed on the defensive side the lineup. Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Matt Carle have the ability to keep pace with Nashville's rabbits.

Balance: Advantage Nashville
The Predators had 7 players record more than 50 points this season. San Jose only had 4. The Sharks need more production for their 3rd and 4th lines on offense, especially if the Predators focus their defensive attention on Thornton, Cheechoo, Marleau and Michalek.

Special Teams: Advantage San Jose
The Sharks will need to exploit Nashville's mediocre power play. The Predators 17.4% power play ranked them 18th in the league. The Sharks faltered late in the season, slipping from the top spot to 2nd in the league with their 22.4% efficiency on the man advantage. San Jose will get to put their power play up against the 3rd ranked penalty kill in the regular season. San Jose's 14th ranked penalty kill gave up several power play goals in the last three games to drop them lower in the rankings.

Goaltending: Draw
Unlike last season's series, the Predators have two healthy goaltenders, including Vokoun, who missed the entire playoffs last year after he was diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg. Chris Mason returns with a year of playoff experience under his belt and a healthy 24-22-4 regular season record. Mason's 2.38 GAA and .925 save percentage were actually better than Vokoun's this past season. The Sharks will ride Evgeni Nabokov's hot hand into the first round, and lean on Vesa Toskala if Nabokov gets in trouble. Toskala has been nursing a sore groin the past three weeks, but should be ready if called upon. Rust would be the only concern for Toskala, who hasn't faced an opponent in several weeks.

Experience: Advantage San Jose
The Sharks hold a slight advantage in the playoff experience, even though they're one of the youngest teams in the league. Peter Forsberg and Jason Arnott both have their names etched on Lord Stanley's Cup, but the Sharks upgraded in the veteran leadership department with the addition of Guerin, Rivet at the trade deadline, and Mike Grier and Curtis Brown in the off season. The Sharks also bring four rookies to the dance (left wing Ryane Clowe; center Joe Pavelski, and defensemen Matt Carle & Marc-Edouard Vlasic), which could serve as the catalyst for an interesting series. All four youngsters are technically rookies, even though Clowe and Carle skated in the 2006 playoffs for San Jose. In 2006, San Jose had 8 rookies skate at least one shift in the playoffs (Steve Bernier, Milan Michalek, Patrick Rissmiller, Marcek Goc, Carle, Josh Gorges, Clowe and Grant Stevenson)

Intangibles: Draw
The Predators have home ice advantage in the series, but the Sharks had the best road record in the NHL during the regular season. Nashville won the season series between the two teams (2-1-1), but the Sharks have been on a ear, going 13-2-3 over the last 18 games of the season, which included two overtime losses to the Vancouver Canucks. The Sharks have the mental advantage of last season's playoff victory, but the return of Vokoun could be the variable that gets Nashville over the hump.

Potential Sleepers - Nashville
Steve Sullivan loves playing against the Sharks. If he plays against them in the playoffs like he has in the regular season, the Predators could romp.

Potential Sleepers - Mark Bell
The Sharks acquired Bell in a move last Summer to bolster their grit. Bell led the Sharks in penalty minutes during the regular season and can focus attention away from guys like Thornton and Marleau if he steps up his physical play in the series.
Predictions: Nashville wins if…
This series matches the 4 and 5 seeds from the West, and you couldn't find two teams that are more evenly matched. Nashville can take this series if they jump out to a quick lead at home and take the first two games. Playoff games tend to be called tighter then regular season games, which favors the Predators, who have a great penalty kill, and so-so power play. Low scoring games favor the Predators.

Predictions: San Jose wins if…
If San Jose wins one of the first two games in Nashville, they will gain the same advantage that carried them last year. The Sharks need to get to Vokoun early and often if they want to win this series. Paul Kariya was a non-factor in last year's playoffs because the Sharks neutralized him after Game 1. They'll need to do the same thing this time around, only they'll also have to deal with Forsberg and Arnott. Both of those players know what it takes to win a Stanley Cup, so the Sharks need to control the flow and keep those two off the scoring sheet.

>> TheFeeder 2007 Playoff Center

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