The San Jose Sharks began selling tickets to their Western Conference semi-finals clash Friday, May 10. They do not know dates or the opponent yet, but after the Chicago Blackhawks won their first-round Stanley Cup playoffs series over the Minnesota Wild Thursday, they know they cannot open at home.
As the President’s trophy winner, Chicago is the top seed in any match-up. The winner between the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings will also be higher-seeded than San Jose. That winner will play the Anaheim Ducks unless they drop the next two to the Detroit Red Wings, in which case they come to the Bay Area for up to three games.
Statistically, the quick ending to the first round is neither a positive nor a negative for the second round. As outlined by CSN Bay Area Insider Ray Ratto Wednesday, exactly half of the last 24 teams to sweep the first round won the second. But in the physical NHL, always take the rest.
Unfortunately, San Jose only got two more days of rest than Chicago, the likely next match-up. After four days off, an extra two might dull the edge and will only help those with real injuries, not just what coach Todd McLellan likes to call “bumps and bruises.”
Furthermore, the Sharks will know their opponent will have enough rest between rounds if the Kings win Friday night. But if that series goes to Sunday and the Ducks are taken down, the Western Conference semi-finals will be feature rested teams against banged-up teams.
If so, the smart money is on the sharp teams that got the time off. A little rust that can hurt a team in the series-opener is worth recovering from the wear and tear of the Stanley Cup playoffs. By the end of the series, the rested team has more to give. By the end of the playoffs, they have fewer parts breaking down.
Perhaps the most notable place it helps is in net. Starting goalies often finish the season with the kind of heavy workload that Antti Niemi has had for the Sharks: 25 of San Jose’s last 26 games in the final 50 days of the condensed 2013 NHL regular season.
San Jose’s killer instinct to finish off the Vancouver Canucks in four games ensures their workhorse will a six-day stretch of rest shortly after two three-day stretches. Now his workload over the long haul is almost light: 30 games in maybe 67 days is a standard schedule for a starting goalie, and because of the lockout he will have barely over 60 in 13 months by the time the second round is over.
So much for the rest of the NHL’s hope that the best goalie in the world will be worn down by the Western Conference finals. He will be able to handle whatever he must the rest of the way.
As for concerns that too much time off could cost Niemi his edge, history says otherwise. This season he is just 2-2-1 after getting at least three days off, but he has an astonishing .939 save percentage and 1.66 goals against average. Despite three brutal February starts last year, those numbers were 7-3-1, .917 and 2.34 in the 2011-12 NHL season.
Of course, six days off and three days off are very different, right? In the small sample size of the two times that he went a week between starts last season, he turned away 70 of 72 (.972) for two wins.
Niemi played like a Vezina Trophy finalist in the Western Conference quarterfinals, turning away 119 of 127 shots over almost 13 periods. Considering the most likely advantage the Sharks are going to have against any opponent will be in net, they could not do better than having Niemi at his best.
And the extra time off resulted in two days completely off and full week without games for the rest of the Sharks to recuperate from playing 37 games in 75 days through Tuesday. That will be big if they make the Stanley Cup finals, and in the immediate they can sharpen their skills in practices that McLellan has been pining for all season.
The Sharks will still face a very tough and likely higher-seeded opponent in every round on the road to the Stanley Cup. But because of their ability to finish off the Canucks quickly, they should be at their best for them.