Let me just begin by saying this could be a good series, on a par with the kinds of crazy storylines we saw out of the Hawks-Canucks series this year. Some of last year's playoff lustre has worn off Antti Niemi after the opening round, and frankly Jimmy Howard's performance this year doesn't exactly foretell a shining playoff season. That said, both goaltenders, and both teams, have the talent to put together dominant defensive performances. Like the Hawks-Canucks series, the potential is here for wide-open games or a tense war of attrition; without dwelling on this too much, let's take a look at the numbers.
The San Jose Sharks entered the postseason with an incredibly strong 5-on-5 squad, posting 32 shots-for/60 (only 0.7 below the much-heralded Vancouver offense) to 28.1 shots-against/60, a differential only topped by the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning. They were also the top team out of one of the toughest divisions in the NHL; the Pacific Division sent 4 of its 5 teams to the playoffs, and the lone team to miss out (Dallas Stars) finished 9th in the West. The Canucks might've had the better record, but I think it's almost a wash between San Jose and Vancouver. All of this came with a well-dispersed offense, with no forward scoring 40 goals but 7 scoring 20 or more; their depth carried on into the playoffs, where 6 forwards had 2 goals or more in the 6-game series. The real question mark is defensive, though, where Niemi never played particularly impressive hockey, making a good defense (that only allowed a hair over 28 shots-against per game) look kind of shaky. That said, Niemi is not an 87.2 ESSV% goaltender (almost no NHL goaltender is), so given the chance he will likely right the ship in the second round.
The Detroit Red Wings are a good team that looked great against a Phoenix Coyotes squad that played a terrible series. Though the feeling that the return of Henrik Zetterberg might make this team even better is not completely unmerited, it actually just brings us back to the team we were used to seeing in the regular season (and magnifies how truly bad the Coyotes played). That Detroit team generated even more shots than San Jose at 5-on-5 (32.7/60) but also allowed more (30.3/60). Their powerplay unit also pales in comparison to the rock-solid Sharks' unit, despite the efficiency figures. Like San Jose, goaltending could still be an issue with this team, as Howard did not have the strongest regular season numbers (91.6 ESSV%, tied for 22nd among goalies w/40+ GP). Teams with those kinds of problems need to reduce their opponent's opportunities to score, which the Red Wings have done traditionally by not taking a ton of penalties; that hasn't been the case this year, and the few times the Coyotes did score, it was on the powerplay.
This is a tough series to call, but I have to think that Niemi plays better than he has thus far, and that could be enough to make the difference. Sharks in 7 games. The 2011 NHL postseason is shaping up to be one of the most thrilling in recent memory, and the second round will only add to the excitement.