Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sharks Extinguish Flames

In the first match-up of the San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames since the nasty first round playoff contest last April, one might have expected fireworks.

After all, this was the one that featured the hit on Sharks captain Patrick Marleau by Flames defenceman Corey Sarich that nearly changed the series. It was a hit that should have been called roughing (high hit), or charging (Sarich lept up into the hit), or some might say boarding (I would not agree there).

More importantly, someone on the Sharks should have come to the defence of their captain. It was not even the first cheapshot on Marleau in the game: defenceman Dion Phaneuf allowed Marleau to touch up to avoid an icing so he could splat him to the boards.

There was nothing illegal about that hit, and cheap or not, it's a legitmate game play. But it should have at least set the Sharks on edge enough that the Sarich hit would have forced a response. Or maybe at least gotten the team to show a little heart and intensity for the rest of the game.

Instead, they folded their tents, and I knew right then I was backing the wrong horse.

When things are going tough, you fall back on what you know. The Flames have always been nasty. Former coach and current general manager Darryl Sutter was always that style.

At the time, the going was definitely tough for Calgary. The Sharks were up 3-0 just a few minutes into the game, looking like they would be recapturing home ice advantage.

It wasn't the first time we saw this, either. Let's take a look at the progression:

While coaching the Flames in 2006, Sutter saw that his team, down 4-1 with under five minutes to go, could not beat the Detroit Red Wings, so they decided to beat them up, especially once the Red Wings scored on the power play that resulted from the first of those penalties.

In the last 4:48, the Flames took 37 minutes of penalties. Captain Jerome Iginla raced up the ice spearing an opponent with the butt end of his stick. Back-up goalie Jamie McLennan swung his stick like a sword at another forward's midsection and received a match penalty. Obviously, there were other infractions.

In 2007, the team hired "Iron Mike" Keenan to coach the team. His reputation is one of a coach who is hard on his players and expects them to play with his personality. The team was as erratic as their coach all season, ranging from the number three to out of the playoffs at various times after the All Star break.

They finished seventh and looked horribly over-matched at times against the second-seeded Sharks. But, in keeping with their coach's personality, they played with more passion and more of an edge in taking the Sharks to seven games.

In 2008, apparently not satisfied with their representation of thuggishness, they signed one of the game's all-time villains, Todd Bertuzzi. His cowardly attack on Steve Moore las left Moore paralyzed for life and rates as one of the worst actions anyone has ever taken in performance of a sport.

The game is shaping up to be pretty nasty, huh? Most fans were expecting fireworks in the form of vicious hits and fisticuffs.

Instead, they got fireworks from the Sharks lighting the lamp.

The Sharks power play came into the game in the bottom half of the league, but they needed only seven seconds of the Flames initial penalty to light the lamp. Christian Ehrhoff passed the puck to Rob Blake, whose shot rebounded off Mikka Kiprusoff and to the stick of Joe Pavelski. Kiprusoff never had a chance on the rebound because defenceman Robin Regehr had ridden Ryan Clowe right into his goalie.

It was the beginning of a big night for all three scorers.

On the very next shift, Dan Boyle advanced the puck to Ehrhoff, who found Milan Michalek racing past the Flames defence. Michalek faked a slapshot to get Kiprusoff into the butterfly position, then skated further until he had an angle to shoot it past the goalie as he was trying to get back up to cut it off.

About four and a half minutes later, Calgary was called for a second penalty, this time for too many men on the ice. The Sharks moved the puck well and controlled it in the offensive zone for more than the first minute but were not getting shots on goal.

After a late clear, Ehrhoff got it back into the zone with only eleven seconds left; Marleau dropped it for Devin Setoguchi, who bounced it off the boards behind the net. It caromed to Joe Thornton, who found Blake at the point for a one-timer. Kiprusoff made the save, but the rebound came to an uncovered Marleau for an easy put-back.

At that point, the Sharks were dominating in shots 18-3, but unlike the playoff game last April, they did not let up. Bertuzzi was called for Calgary's third penalty with a high-stick just over a minute later, and this time the power play had trouble even getting a shot.

With about 30 seconds left in the man-advantage, Boyle kept faking shots to try to see a lane, eventually settling for just sending a soft pass toward the net to hope for a lucky bounce. He got one: Setoguchi could not control the pass, but it bounced off Phaneuf's stick right to Thornton, who put it home past a scrambling Kiprusoff.

The announcers mentioned Sarich's hit and the expectation that Calgary would retaliate, but it never really happened and there was one scuffle on the next shift. The period also ended with Brad Staubitz and Phaneuf taking matching minors (a great trade-off for the Sharks), but the only physical penalties after the first period were matching minors for roughing to Bertuzzi and Staubitz in the last five seconds of the game.

The Sharks ended that first period with a 20-5 edge in shots and chased Kiprusoff in favour of little-used back-up Curtis McElhinney. While a four-on-four would seem to favour the faster-skating Sharks, the puck stayed in San Jose's zone for more than a minute.

Once Boyle's skating freed him up to advance the puck to Ehrhoff, the Sharks wasted no time in getting one past McElhinney. Michalek took a cross-ice feed from him and stuck home the loose puck on his backhand from behind the goalline, taking advantage of Calgary being without their best defender.

The rest of the period was rather uneventful: no scoring and two penalties for each team. The Sharks out-shot Calgary 15-8.

The Sharks scored one more time on a five-on-three power play in the third period when Blake passed to Boyle just outside the face-off circle on the stick-side. The kick save on the one-timer was made, but the loose puck was gobbled up by Pavelski because Michalek got away with a slash of Sarich's stick in front of the net so he couldn't clear it.

Calgary eventually scored when a soft penalty for interference was called on Jody Shelley. Just 23 seconds later, new Flame Mike Cammalleri put a rebound of an Adrian Aucoin flip towards Boucher from behind the goalline through a small opening between Boucher's arm and chest. He also created the original scoring opportunity when he took a Curtis Glencross pass and attacked the net from the right wing, forcing the initial save that started the scramble for the puck.

The Sharks finished with a 46-24 edge in shots and still matched Calgary in blocked shots with 11. After winning the first six face-offs of the game, San Jose managed only a 29-27 edge there and were out-hit 32-24. They had 15 giveaways to the Flames' five, but that's what happens when you control the puck so much more.

This was a game in which the Sharks best players carried them. The power play was 4-9 (the Flames' was 1-4). Blake and Boyle each finished with three assists, Ehrhoff had two and Thornton, Marleau, Setoguchi, Clowe and Pavelski each had one. Pavelski and Michalek both finished with two goals, and Thornton and Marleau each had one.

San Jose's next game is Sunday afternoon (4pm PST) in Chicago.

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