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Let The Battle Begin: WCSF: Red Wings at Sharks (Game 1)

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Take a note: this is what he looks like BEFORE he gets high-sticked by Doug Murray.
Take a note: this is what he looks like BEFORE he gets high-sticked by Doug Murray.

Hey, remember that time the Wings played an actual NHL playoff game?

Me either, mostly because I am getting older and the memory is not quite what it used to be. For those that can't recall, it has been exactly 9 days since the Wings dispatched the Phoenix Coyotes to the golf course, and a lot has changed in that time. Here's what we've seen occur since the Wings last played a game:

  • Gas was less than $4.00 a gallon (at least in my area)
  • No one outside of Hawaii State Government employees had ever seen a copy of President Obama's birth certificate.
  • Steve Carrell was still a cast member of The Office.
  • The Blackhawks were still the "defending Stanley Cup Champions" in more than name.
  • Prince William was still a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky bachelor.

Crazy, eh? It's to the point that I am going to call the first round for the Wings "the good ol' days". However, after a long, long layoff, the Wings are back in action and ready to take the next step towards #12.

Follow the jump for the preview, questions on the series and prediction form.

There are previews upon previews out there, and if you're like me, you know the stats. You know what happened last year between these teams, and you know what these teams did against each other in the regular season. Rather than bore you with regurgitated numbers before this series, let's look at 5 Burning Questions that I think will determine whether the Wings win or lose. 

1. Can the Wings contain Joe Thornton?

I know what you're thinking: the Wings have to worry about Jumbo Joe as a threat even though the calendar reads April/soon to be May? Normally I'd say "no", but looking back at what he's done against the Wings in the last year, he's a genuine concern. Dating back to the beginning of last year, Thornton has 18 points in 13 games against the Wings, including 8 in the 5 playoff games last year. While we laugh at his lack of playoff success, he's been a big reason why the Sharks have beaten the Wings 7 out of the last 9 meetings. He's a big body who is skilled, and the Wings will look to keep him in check. Keep in mind, shutting down Thornton also means that Heatley is nullified, so it's like killing 2 birds with 1 stone (but not with a car, just so we're clear).

2. Can the Wings solve Antti Niemi?

Headed into Game 7 between the Blackhawks and Canucks, Wing fans knew that they were going to see either the Sharks or Predators. Those are two vastly different teams, but what they both have is a Finnish goalie who seems to play his best against the Wings. Antti Niemi did not have a stellar first round against the Kings, but if history is any indication, he's going to be very good against the Wings. In his career, he is 5-1-1 against the Wings with a 2.05 GAA and .932 SV%. However, he gave up about 4 goals per game and his SV% was .863 against the Kings. From my own observations and from speaking to Sharks fans, a big issue with Niemi is rebound control (sound familiar?). The Wings made one of the top goalies in the NHL look pretty bad in the last series by pouncing on rebounds and getting (legal) traffic in front. Niemi may have enjoyed some success against the Wings in the past, but as Ilya Bryzgalov found out, regular season Detroit is a very different animal than playoff Detroit.

3. Will the rest help or hurt the Wings?

The old "rest vs rust" factor. Personally, I think the rest was crucial to the Wings having a sustained playoff run. If this were an inexperienced, young team, I'd be concerned with the time off because of the potential loss of momentum. However, the Wings know that at this time of year, anytime you can get some time to rest the bumps and bruises that have accumulated over the course of an 82 game regular season and first round of the playoffs, you take it. We may see the Wings need a few minutes of Game 1 to get their legs under them, but one of the biggest reasons why they lost last year was because they had no downtime after their series against the Coyotes.

4. Will the Wings improve their penalty killing?

If there was one area where the Wings were lacking in their first round series, it was their penalty kill. Of the 10 goals they gave up, 6 were on the PK, and if the refs are going to call the series the way they did last year (dear God I hope not) then the Wings will have to be better when down a man. While we like to complain about the refs around here, some of the penalties the Wings took in the first round were either lazy or dumb, and against a team that is as talented offensively as the Sharks are, the Wings can not afford to give them any free opportunities.

5. How big is the return of Henrik Zetterberg?

Huge. The fact the Wings were able to sweep a good Phoenix team without the services of their team MVP this year should have served notice to the rest of the NHL that the Wings are a team that is a legitimate contender for the Cup yet again. His return takes a ton of pressure off of Pavel Datsyuk both offensively and defensively, as the Wings now have their 1A/1B set of centers to go against either of the Sharks' top two lines. Of course, Mike Babcock could completely throw us all off and put the Euro Twins back together, as was the case at practice yesterday. Regardless of who Zetterberg plays with, his presence in the lineup gives the Sharks a big problem in that they have one more superstar to gameplan for. Combine this with the return to almost full health of Johan Franzen and the Wings are about as healthy as they've been since the season began.

We'll have more info on the lines as we get updates from practice. As of this writing, it looks like Mike Modano and Kris Draper are the two healthy scratches, but you never know. Question for the group: which of the 5 questions is the one you think is most important to a Wings' series victory? Or is it something else?