How the Sharks got here:
The Sharks must've heard the rumblings after losing Game 3 on home ice after taking a 2-0 lead. "The Sharks are going to choke again," they said. "The Kings aren't just going to go away," they said. But, sure enough, with a new goalie, a new coach, and straying from a "just survive" mantra that has dominated the teams psyche in years past, the Sharks exorcised their demons and look like they could be on their way to another lengthy playoff run. San Jose's big guns, oft criticized for becoming shrinking violets when the team needed them most, delivered: Brent Burns led with eight points in five games while Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, who was probably the best forward of the series, had six points each. The most underrated member of the Sharks offense, however, was probably Tomas Hertl, whose first healthy season since a serious knee injury has provided a much-needed element of speed to the top line.
How the Predators got here:
Some skill, some tenacity and certainly some luck. After going up 2-0 in the series, then losing the next two games at home, the Preds looked like they were on their way to another first-round exit, this one more painful than the previous one with a blown series lead. Once again, it was Nashville's blue line and goaltending that pulled through, with Mattias Ekholm and Shea Weber scoring two goals each, and Pekka Rinne keeping it together for most of the series. The other thing that really helped: Bruce Boudreau's inability to win in the playoffs, which eventually led to another Game 7 loss for the Ducks and ultimately cost him his job. The Ducks' big guns just didn't show up when they were needed.
The best player in this series is:
Joe Pavelski, the Sharks captain, though Weber may have a thing or two to say about that. Joe Thornton is having an MVP-caliber season, but Pavelski's the guy the Sharks turn in dire straits, and he's delivered so far. Of course, given that the two teams are fairly balanced, simply having the best player (arguably) won't be enough to win.
The best defenseman in this series is:
Weber, with a hat tip to both Roman Josi and Brent Burns. One thing that hurts Burns' case is that he doesn't play on the penalty kill as much as Weber and Josi, and isn't known to be as effective playing in his own end. While Josi has emerged as a spectacular defenseman, and together with Weber form the best pair in the league, he doesn't quite play with the intimidation or physical edge Weber does. Sure, Weber will take the odd penalty, but if that means someone like Corey Perry will think twice before crossing the blue line, then so be it. The Sharks aren't particularly big, and their big forwards aren't the most physical, which means going against Weber may present a problem.
The best goalie in the series is:
When he's on his game, he's one of the league's best, and that's Rinne. Credit to Martin Jones for doing his part in eliminating the Kings, but the Sharks were an excellent shot-blocking team, averaging a playoff-best 23 blocks per game. Rinne, on the other hand, saw more shots and still edged Jones in save percentage, .915 to .912. On any given night, however, it's debatable which goalie is better. Since this series is unlikely to be short, in the long run the advantage goes to Rinne.
How the Sharks will win:
The Sharks will go deep if they can keep ignoring their critics and putting their blinders on. Too often in the past they've cared too much about what other people say about them and worried about what other teams will do to them. Peter DeBoer, Paul Martin and Jones, all three as cool as cucumbers when the pressures mount, have provided a calming presence to a team that can implode. It remains to be seen exactly how good Jones is, but offense remains the Sharks' greatest strength, which means Burns, Pavelski, Thornton, Couture and Patrick Marleau all have to pitch in. Only two Sharks forwards failed to find the score sheet against the Kings.
The Sharks' X-factor:
With Pavelski and Thornton likely drawing Weber and Josi, it's on Couture to exploit Nashville's other defensive pairs. Couture, along with Joonas Donskoi, has to continue to be a difference maker. Should the wheels come off the train, DeBoer will have the option of moving Pavelski back to center and have Pavelski, Thornton and Couture down the middle, but that should be a last resort.
How the Predators will reach new heights:
Despite making the playoffs in nine of the past 12 seasons, Nashville has never made it past the semis. This must gnaw at Weber, whose Team Canada friends and teammates have Stanley Cup rings to go along with their gold medals. A lot needs to go right for the Preds; for one thing, they can't afford to go up two games in the series and then nearly blow it. What happened to the Ducks won't happen to the Sharks. Rinne has to be on his game, Ekholm and Ellis need to provide reliable minutes, and Filip Forsberg and James Neal have to start peppering Jones with a lot of shots. The two snipers and Ryan Johansen have just four goals between them, and the team's power play is ranked dead last after the first round with a 3.8 percent (!!!) conversion rate. FYI, that's worse than the Flyers power play, one that was routinely criticized for failing to score against Washington.
The Predators' X-factor:
Mike Fisher. It's funny since this series features no less than four very, very good centers (Couture, Pavelski, Thornton and Johansen), the Preds and Sharks are the two worst faceoff teams in the playoffs. Fisher, in particular, was surprisingly ineffective, winning just 49 percent of his faceoffs despite winning 53 percent during the season. Particularly concerning: he won just 43 percent of his defensive zone faceoffs. Obviously going against Ryan Getzlaf and Selke nominee Ryan Kesler has its unique challenges, but winning faceoffs helps drive puck possession, and Fisher needs to be dominant in the circle.
The Sharks seem steadier this year than in years past and the Predators win against the Ducks in Game 7 wasn't particularly convincing, especially for a team that nearly blew a 2-0 series lead and then failed to establish that kind of dominance again. The Sharks, meanwhile, held a 2-0 series lead and never relinquished, finishing off the Kings in five games. Here's hoping 2016 will yield better results for the Sharks in 2011. Sharks in 6.