<
>

Second-round preview: Sharks-Wings

You should be penalized for going seven games, but the Detroit Red Wings certainly won't get a break in the second round. They play their conference semifinals opener less than 48 hours after disposing of the Phoenix Coyotes.

But, hey, at least they didn't have to adjust their watches.

Bring on the San Jose Sharks, the top seed in name only when you consider how many people will pick the veteran Red Wings to win this series.

The Sharks are on a quest to shed their ghosts of playoffs past, and got off to a good start by erasing a 2-1 series deficit to knock off the youthful Colorado Avalanche in six games. Especially impressive was San Jose's resolve after Dan Boyle's own goal decided Game 3 in overtime, the kind of adversity past San Jose teams might not have rebounded from. Not this time.

But let's also be honest: The young Avs aren't the Red Wings, a team that has made deep playoff runs and championship rings a rite of spring in the past 15 years. The Wings and Sharks last hooked up in the playoffs in 2007, a beauty of a series that some believe Detroit was fortunate to win. The Sharks went 1-2-1 versus the Wings this regular season.

So, what will it be: a Sharks team that finally breaks through or a savvy Wings squad just notching another check mark en route to yet another conference final?

1. "The Big Pavelski": Little Joe was anything but in the first round. He carried the Sharks with five goals and three assists, including a late tying goal in Game 2 and an overtime goal in Game 4 that was the turning point in the series. His line with Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe combined for 22 points (9-13) in six games, the No. 1 reason San Jose survived the upset challenge from the Avs.

2. Top line must produce for San Jose: The Sharks got little from the big boys in the first round -- Patrick Marleau (1-2) and Joe Thornton (0-3), in particular. Dany Heatley gets a pass because he wasn't 100 percent; his skating has been hampered by some sort of undisclosed injury. He got four assists and didn't play the whole series on the top line. His health is a major factor in the second round. The Sharks made the big trade for him this past summer with this time of year in mind. They need the former 50-goal scorer to step up big in this series if he's healthy. And that goes for the core of the the top line, as well; Marleau and Thornton must snap out of it for the Sharks to have any chance.

3. Goaltending: Red Wings rookie Jimmy Howard struggled in Games 2 and 3 against Phoenix, but rebounded nicely to close out the series in style, looking confident while posting a 2.59 GAA and .919 save percentage. He'll be tested even more now in the second round, as the Sharks' offense is a step above that of the blue-collar Coyotes. Can Howard handle it?

At the other end of the ice, veteran Evgeni Nabokov, in a contract year, posted rock-solid numbers in the opening round (1.76 GAA and .926 save percentage), and that's despite giving up five goals in Game 2. If there were any concerns of an Olympic hangover after his six-goal barrage in the quarterfinals against Team Canada, it didn't show in the first round. Interesting to note that despite the Sharks' playoff loss to the Wings in 2007, Nabokov posted a 1.90 GAA and .932 save percentage in that series.

4. Two old buddies, now foes: Coaches Mike Babcock (Detroit) and Todd McLellan (San Jose) know each other well. McLellan was an assistant coach on Babcock's staff in Detroit before taking the top job in San Jose two seasons ago. In San Jose, McLellan brought over the puck-possession style that has made the Red Wings so successful in the past decade. Because of their familiarity, there won't be many secrets between the two coaches in terms of strategy. They are also well-spoken and adept at sometimes using the media to get a message out. Should be an entertaining series from that standpoint alone.

5. The two old goats on defense: Is this the final season for surefire Hall of Famers Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit and Rob Blake of San Jose? The two 40-year-old captains would love a chance to go out with a Cup victory. Of course, who says this is their last season, right? Both men ooze character and leadership, and that will be in demand in this potentially grueling series.

Detroit's top defense pairing of Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski against San Jose's top line: But, wait a second, which Sharks line will the Wings' coaching staff determine as the No. 1 priority? It will be interesting to see whether Babcock wants his top defensive pairing out against the normal top line centered by Thornton or decides he must counter the red-hot second line centered by Pavelski. Then again, with a second defensive pairing of Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart, does it really matter?

San Jose: Boyle shook off his own goal and produced six points (2-4) while averaging a team-high 26:52 minutes per game. Marleau, who led the team in goals in the regular season, had only one goal in six games in the first round.

Detroit: Henrik Zetterberg sizzled in the first round with 11 points (6-5) in six games; Daniel Cleary went pointless.

• Having personally witnessed the Game 7 carnage in Phoenix, this reporter just can't go against these Red Wings, who are 20-6-2 since the Olympic break. But it won't be easy. We also believe the Sharks are ready to show the hockey world they're not the same team as in the past. Red Wings in seven games … in triple overtime.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.