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Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Updated: April 19, 4:38 PM ET
First-round breakdown: Sharks vs. Predators

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

On paper, this looks like one of the biggest mismatches of the first round. The Predators have home-ice advantage, but that might be the only thing going for them as they begin their second playoff series in franchise history.

Top netminder Tomas Vokoun is gone for the season with a blood disorder. Top offensive contributors Steve Sullivan (groin) and defenseman Marek Zidlicky (shoulder) are out and their return is unknown. And they're facing arguably the hottest team in the NHL, featuring the league's best player (Joe Thornton) and hottest goal scorer (Jonathan Cheechoo). But looks can be deceiving.

The Predators finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak. Backup netminder Chris Mason, who turns 30 on Thursday, had settled in nicely as the Preds' new starter. And a team with one of the deepest blue lines in the league was playing its best "team" hockey in several months. So, no, the Preds aren't going to be mailing in this series.

Still, the Sharks are an impressive group, from GM Doug Wilson, who engineered the biggest trade of the season, to coach Ron Wilson, who did not panic when his team took almost half a season to work out the kinks, to MVP-in-waiting Thornton and linemate Cheechoo, who has come out of nowhere to lay claim to the Rocket Richard Trophy. Here's the funny thing. Thornton, the former Boston captain, was dealt in part because he couldn't and didn't deliver in the clutch. Now, his new teal team looks like a good bet to go at least to a conference final, if not beyond.

Why the Sharks will win: Talk about hitting the playoffs on fire. The Sharks have gone 16-4-2 since the trade deadline and won a franchise-best eight straight games before losing a meaningless contest to the Kings in their final regular-season contest.

If you're the Predators, Job 1 is shutting down the dynamic duo of Thornton and Cheechoo. But even if Nashville has success in limiting chances by the top line and the Sharks' power-play unit, San Jose still has lots to throw at you. No other team can boast a second-line center with the credentials of captain Patrick Marleau, who had 86 points and is still an afterthought. Although some scouts point to the Sharks' blue line as a weak point, it is a maturing group. The Sharks also have had excellent goaltending from Vesa Toskala, who has supplanted former rookie of the year Evgeni Nabokov as the starter.

That said, Nabokov has playoff experience and the team will be served well by Nabokov if Toskala stumbles. Ron Wilson has oodles of playoff experience behind the bench, including a trip to the 2004 Western Conference finals with virtually the same team. As one top scout said, with a superstar like Thornton, there's always another gear.

Why the Predators will lose: We really hesitated on this one. We really love the idea of Mason as the unlikely playoff hero. We like the hard-working, blue-collar mentality that defines the Predators and that will make this series closer than many people think.

But in the end, we just couldn't pick the Preds. The uncertain status of Sullivan and Zidlicky, whose 49 points is tops among all Nashville defenders, means the Predators will simply not have the guns to keep up with a Sharks team firing on all cylinders.

Paul Kariya has been a terrific addition in Nashville, leading the team with 85 points. Still, the Sharks' diligent checkers, such as Alyn McCauley, will be able to focus on Kariya without having to worry as much about the rest of a lineup that will have to cobble together offense from David Legwand, Scott Walker, Mike Sillinger and Yanic Perreault. It's a tall order. Too tall.

And then there's Mason. If he falters, the team simply won't have any depth in the way that the Sharks will have a comfort level with either Toskala and Nabokov.

Prediction: San Jose in six.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.