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I have never ever thought of Avs-Sharks as having much of a rivalry, but the Avs and Sharks do have a little bit of a playoff history. The Avs took the first two series ('99, '02) including a classic in '02. Peter Forsberg scored the last two goals of the series (OT winner in game 6, only goal in game 7) and Roy got a 1-0 game 7 shutout to bring the Avs back from down 3-2 and break the Sharks hearts. The Sharks finally got on the board in the series with a 4-2 series win in  '04 that had five 1-goal games (and game 6 was 3-1). So the Avs and sharks actually have some exciting series under their belt.

For the Sharks, that '04 team was the beginning of their current run of success. They had Patrick Marleau and Evgeny Nabokov, but hadn't yet acquired Joe Thornton. The Avs were at the tail end of their run of dominance, with all the Avs greats (Sakic, Forsberg, etc) still on the roster save Roy and Blake. Strangely enough also playing for the Sharks in that '04 series: Scott Hannan and Tom Preissing.

There's a lot of previews that breaks down the Avs and Sharks different positions and situations, so I'm going to do something a little different. I'm going to look at 5 questions I think are important for this series. Before checking my preview out I recommend you taking a look at some of the other previews out there:

Avs-centric: Mile High Hockey, Anyone but Detroit, Denver Post, Aaron Musick and this apparently new blog called "Avs Talk"

Sharks-centric: Fear the Fin, Couch Tarts, Sharkspage (not an Avs preview, but he once gave me a ride home when I had a little too many beers at the game, so I'll link to his page)

Neutral: Puck Daddy, Behind the Net, TSN

More after the jump

Who do the Avs matchup against Heatley-Thornton-Marleau?

Frankly, the answer is I don't know. It's going to take more than a defensive pair to slow that line, probably the best line in hockey, down. And frankly the Avs don't have a true shut-down forward line to compliment their defense, which doesn't have a true shutdown pair.

The closest thing the Avs do have to a shutdown pair would be a Foote-Hannan line, but the lack of speed there could be disastrous. The Avs best bet is to throw a Hannan-Quincey pair out there to start, and change it up if that doesn't work.The Avs don't have that shutdown defensive forward line to matchup well, so it may just be best to throw the Galiardi-Stastny-Stewart line out there aginst SJ's big line. If nothing else that line has a better chance to control the puck and maybe exploit Danny Heatley's defensive deficiencies. Of course Patrick Marleau is a Selke candidate, which makes up for a lot of Heatley's deficiencies, but if Sacco can get the Stastny line out there against the Thornton line they have a chance to keep Thornton & co. in their own zone.

What is the key to the series from the Sharks perspective?

The key to the Sharks, in this series and in their entire playoff run, lies on the Setoguchi-Pavelski-Clowe line. Setoguchi had a sophmore slump style second season, but this is an extremely capable line that should be able to put points on the board. There's a reason the Sharks were 4th in scoring, and this line compliments the top line well. Avs have trouble matching up against one really strong line, so a second one, facing the Avs second line and second defensive pair should give them plenty of opportunities.

What is the Key to the Series for the Avs?

Besides getting healthy quickly? The Defense. Frankly I don't know what to expect from the defensive corps this season, as every pair has looked good in stretches and looked completely over matched at other times. Frankly I don't know what to expect from them, but inconsistent is certainly a word that comes to mind.

What weapons do the Avs have that could give San Jose trouble?

When asked about the Avalanche, the one thing opponents unanimously praise is the Avs team speed. They might be the fastest team in the league (which is completely un-verifiable so I'll just channel my inner talking-head and say that the Avs are unquestionably the fastest team in the league. I realize that by being unverifiable team speed is anything but unquestionable, but we live in the times of unaccountable hyperbole so I'm going to go ahead and say it). Despite my rambling aside, the Avs are a fast team and they need to use that to their advantage, especially with counter strikes and a punishing fore check. If they try and get into a possesion game with the Sharks they will probably not be long for these playoffs.

Is the Sharks "choking" factor really that big of an issue?

No. Look, the entire "choking" and "clutch" player and team issue is probably the most overplayed and overrated thing talked about by sportswriters and fans, across all sports. And no where has this been played up more than in San Jose.To me a true "choke" is losing to someone far inferior to you. Think Sweden losing to Belarus. Let's take a look at whose knocked out San Jose over the last few seasons:

'09 #8 Anaheim Ducks. (2-4) This is a tough one.. they were knocked out by an 8 seed. But that Anaheim roster in no way shape or form should have been an 8 seed. That may have been the best 8 seed of all time. 2 hall of famers, a 2 time Con Smythe winning goalie, and another top-10 player in Getzlaf. Anaheim should have been a #5 seed, at worst, unless anyone really thinks that team was worse, talent wise, than Columbus, St. Louis, or Calgary.

'08: #5 Dallas Stars: (2-4) Again not a choke. This series featured 4 overtime games, three of which Dallas won. Turco played as well as he could possibly play, and this Dallas team gave the eventual cup winners (Detroit) all they could handle in the next round. This was a good team, and the Sharks got a bit unlucky in this series, with 3 OT losses.

'07 #1 Detroit Red Wings: (2-4) Losing to the Wings in 6 is hardly a choke.

'06 #8 Edmonton Oilers (2-4) This was a weird season all around, not just for the Sharks. In fact the only time a higher seed won in the entire western conference was Anaheim's 4-0 sweep over the Avs in the 2nd round. I'd still call this one a choke, but the Sharks were only a # 5 seed that year.

'05 Lockout.

So there you go. The Sharks have been probably been a victim of bad luck more than "choking", at least in my opinion. Obviously you have to beat great teams in order to win the cup, but this 4 season Sharks stretch is no worse than the Avs from '97-'00, or the Red Wings from '03-'07 (where they lost in the first round twice). They need to beat a good team to win the cup, but they haven't exactly been losing series to the dregs of the league either.

That said, perception can be reality, and it's got to be in the mind of the Sharks players that they are considered "chokers"". Thornton and Nabokov have been tagged with this label, mainly because their play hasn't been up to snuff in the second season. It may be a mental block they need to overcome, but this is a team that has, for the most part, only loses to teams as good as them.

Overall, who's the better team, and by how much?

I'm going to be blunt here. The '09-10 San Jose Sharks are a much better team than the Avalanche. Every single indicator says so, and I would need burgundy-tinted glasses the thickness of the Poly(methyl methacrylate) glass that's used in the Monterey Bay Aquarium (outside San Jose) to think otherwise. They have more wins, less losses, more goals scored, less goals against, less goals against, a better power play, a better penalty kill. They are better at creating shots on the powerplay, and better at limiting them on the PK, and better at creating shots at even strength. and yes.. a much better Corsi. In fact the only place the Avs can claim to have any advantage at all is goaltending.

Other than goaltending, San Jose is a completely dominant team when compared to the Avs. (There's nothing wrong with that. They are a top-3 NHL team, and arguably the best). The good thing is that a hot goaltender can win a series, so the Avs aren't done like dinner, but in all reality, Anderson is going to have to play lights out for the Avs to have a chance, plus other things still need to go right.

Gabe Desjardins give the Avs a 30% chance of winning the series, and quite frankly that sounds about right. It's been a great season, and I will cheer like hell for the Avs, and I hope they win. But in all reality the Avs season, with the emergence of so many young players and making the playoffs after last seasons disaster, is a success. As long as the Avs don't completely get run off the ice I think fans will look at this season with fond memories. The Sharks season is just starting. I will cheer like hell for the Avs, and I want nothing more than for them to go an '06 Oliers-like run but the reality of it is it's not very likely. I'm just going to enjoy watching the Avs play some playoff games.