Ducks vs. Sharks: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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This all-California battle seems to be flying under the radar, but this one should be a physical, back-and-forth series between two good teams.

After dropping three games in a row to Nashville, Dallas and St. Louis in early March, the Ducks managed to turn their game and their season around. That loss to the Blues came on Mar. 12, but they responded by winning five of their next six contests (5-0-1). The Ducks had a let-down game against a horrible Vancouver team on Mar. 27, but again, they were able to rattle off five wins in a row to close out the year.

Anaheim ended up finishing the season with fewer wins than San Jose, but their 44-25-13 record (101 points) was good enough to put them in second place in the Pacific Division, which means they’ll have home-ice advantage in the series. That’s good news for the Ducks, as they had a solid 26-10-5 record at the Honda Center.

Even though the Ducks finished with one more point than the Sharks, who had a 45-27-10 record (100 points), Anaheim came away with just one win during the four games between these two teams in 2017-18. San Jose may have won three of the four clashes, but most of these games were extremely close. Three of those four games were decided in a shootout. Only once did a team get blown out, and that was Anaheim when they fell 6-2 at home on Jan. 21.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

A few of San Jose’s top players got off to really rocky starts this season. Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Martin Jones struggled early on. Pavelski had just four goals and eight points in his first 19 games, but the 33-year-old still managed to finish with 22 goals and 66 points. Burns failed to score in his first 20 games and he racked up only seven points in his first 19 outings. Like Pavelski, Burns finished strong, as he had 67 points when it was all said and done. As for Jones, he lost his starting gig to Aaron Dell for a while, but he managed to get his game back together.

SCHEDULE:

FORWARDS: 

Anaheim: Rickard Rakell led the Ducks in scoring this season, as he had 34 goals and 69 points in 77 games. He had a great year, but the biggest reason why he led the team in the points department is because Ryan Getzlaf missed time due to injury. The Ducks captain had 61 points in just 56 contests. It was another disappointing season for Corey Perry, who failed to hit the 20-goal mark for the second year in a row (17 goals, 49 points in 71 games). Outside of Rakell, the other two Ducks that hit the 20-goal mark were Ondrej Kase and Adam Henrique. You all know about Ryan Kesler and how he’s capable of getting under the opposition’s skin. He has to stay healthy.

San Jose: Pavelski and Logan Couture (34 goals and 61 points) were the Sharks forwards that finished with the highest amount of points in 2017-18. San Jose also got valuable contributions from Tomas Hertl (22 goals and 46 points), Timo Meier (21 goals and 36 points) and Joonas Donskoi (32 points in 66 games). But the deadline acquisition of Evander Kane changed the game for them. Kane had nine goals and 14 points in 17 games after being traded from Buffalo on Feb. 26.

Advantage: A slight edge to the Sharks. The forward depth these two teams possess is fairly close. Getzlaf is probably the best forward on either side, but the Sharks have slightly more high-end options in Pavelski, Couture and Kane.

DEFENSE:

Anaheim: The Ducks have one of the deepest blue lines in the NHL, but they’re currently dealing with a significant injury. Cam Fowler suffered a shoulder injury earlier this moth. He’s expected to miss anywhere between two-to-six weeks, so it’s entirely possible that he misses the entire first round. Even without Fowler, Anaheim still has Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Brandon Montour. Veteran Kevin Bieksa, who isn’t as effective as he once was, is considered questionable with a hand injury.

San Jose: Burns is obviously the key piece of the blue line for the Sharks. He led the team in points and he averaged over 25 minutes of ice time per game during the regular season. Justin Braun (33 points) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (32 points) are the other important defensemen on the team. San Jose’s group of blue liners have the ability to move the puck as efficiently as any other team in the league.

Advantage: Sharks. If Fowler was healthy, this wouldn’t even be a discussion, but with him sidelined the gap has been closed. Burns, Vlasic and Braun have an edge over Linholm, Manson and Montour, but it isn’t as far as some may think. Again, things change on the blue line because of the Fowler injury.

GOALTENDING: 

Anaheim: John Gibson missed the final three games of the regular season because of an upper-body injury. Veteran backup Ryan Miller stepped in and did a solid job, but there’s no denying that Gibson is the best option for Anaheim. The 24-year-old was really good for the Ducks this season. He didn’t grab as many headlines as some of the other star goalies in the East, but there’s a legitimate argument to be made that he was Anaheim’s MVP in 2017-18 (he had a 31-18-7 record with a 2.43 goals-against-average and a .926 save percentage). It sounds like he could be ready for Game 1.

San Jose: As we mentioned earlier in this story, Jones had a tough start to the year but he bounced back down the stretch. The 28-year-old finished the season with a 30-22-6 record with a 2.55 goals-against-average and a .915 save percentage. He’s capable of playing solid games in the postseason (he had a 1.75 GAA and a .935 save percentage during last year’s playoffs), but that still wasn’t enough to get them out of the first round.

Advantage: Anaheim. Gibson has the ability to be the difference maker in this series. If he stays healthy and he continues to play like he did at times this season, he can propel the Ducks to the second round.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Anaheim: The Ducks weren’t so hot on the man-advantage this season, as they ranked 23rd in the league in that category. Of all the teams in the playoffs, only the Blue Jackets converted on the man-advantage less often than the Ducks. On the PK, things were a lot better for them. Anaheim had the fifth-best penalty-kill at 83.2 percent. Only Los Angeles, San Jose, Boston and Colorado were better in that category.

San Jose: As we just mentioned, the Sharks had the second-best PK unit in the entire NHL at 84.8 percent (they were just 0.2 percent away from matching the Kings). The Sharks were slightly better than the Ducks on the power play, but they still finished with the 16th ranked unit on the man-advantage (20.6 percent). Burns is the straw that stirs the drink on the power play.

Advantage: Sharks. They have a better penalty kill and power play. That’s significant, but there isn’t a huge gap between these two teams when it comes to special teams.

X-FACTOR:

Anaheim: Corey Perry can be a game-changer for the Ducks, but they need him to score more goals than he did during the regular season. If he regains that scoring touch, he could change things for the better. Perry had four goals and 11 points in 17 games during Anaheim’s run to the Western Conference Final last season.

San Jose: As we saw after the trade deadline, Kane made a huge difference for the Sharks. He was engaged, productive and he was one of their better players. He hasn’t played any playoff hockey in the NHL, so it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts to the postseason. The pending unrestricted free agent should be motivated to keep the ball rolling this spring.

PREDICTION:

Ducks in six games. These two teams are as evenly matched as any of the opponents going head-to-head in the first round. San Jose may have a slight edge up front, on defense (with now Fowler) and on special teams, but the Ducks have similar quality. They aren’t too far behind the Sharks in those categories. Anaheim has a net advantage between the pipes and they also have experience on their side. They managed to get to the Western Conference Final last season, and they have the ability to do that again this year.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.