Friday, November 7, 2008

Sharks Grit Out Win, Stay Unbeaten at Home

Thursday night, the Sharks faced a St. Louis Blues team that had lost three in a row, including a thrashing at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks the night before.

In that game, they lost their leading scorer, Paul Kariya. They had spent their back-up goalie, Chris Mason. Their starter, Manny Legace, is out thanks to the carpet used for vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin to drop the ceremonial first puck. (In a swing state, that could have cost them the election.) The Blues also started the season without young star defenceman Erik Johnson, and have two other players on injured reserve.

The Sharks were only without Marcel Goc and Jody Shelley, whose wife gave birth to their first child, Owen. Alexei Semenov filled in on the left wing of the fourth line.

The Blues are also in the middle of a road trip two time zones away from their home. They had to fly back to Southern California after the game to play Los Angeles this weekend. Wednesday night, they could not fly into San Jose after their loss to Anaheim because of the city's rules about late night flights, so they had to fly into Oakland and bus into San Jose.

This always has me wondering, why don't teams stay in a hotel in the city they're in and fly into the new town the next day? That way they get a good night's sleep instead of napping on the plane and maybe bus before getting to a hotel exceptionally late and perhaps having their sleep disrupted by the naps. I would do this even if there were not restrictions on flying into a city.

Thus, with so many obstacles for a team that was not a match for the Sharks on paper, a win was required; a blowout should have been expected. Early on, it was clear that was not going to be the case.

Just 3:17 into the first period, one of the Blues players was kicking at a puck under Evgeni Nabokov, and Semenov took exception; his reaction drew a penalty for roughing. Half-way through it, Rob Blake was called for hooking.

With four seconds left in the ensuing five-on-three penalty, the Blues' Keith Tkachuk scored, ending Semenov's penalty. Ten seconds after Blake's penalty expired, Lee Stepniak extended the Blues' lead with a one-timer goal off a beautiful feed from Patrik Berglund.

As many of you remember, I have been brutal regarding Semenov being a waste of salary, roster space, and just about everything else. So how do I feel about this penalty that led to a score?

I thought it was a great penalty. In fact, I thought it should not have even been necessary. How on earth can the officials justify letting a player kick at a goalie with sharp skates and the puck under their control? Shouldn't they have been concerned with that player's safety?

I'm glad someone was, and I'm even more glad it was Semenov. His play has been good the past three or four games, and I would like nothing more than to be wrong about his signing.

However, the Sharks were now left in a 2-0 hole just 6:30 into the game. Last season, the Blues only scored two goals in their four games against the Sharks combined. So how would the Sharks respond?

Just under three minutes later, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton did a little role-reversal. Marleau got to a Devin Setoguchi dump-in behind the net and fed Thornton for a one-timer just outside the crease; it was Joe's second goal of the season.

The Sharks dominated the second period as they have all season, out-shooting the Blues 12-3, but only scored once. On a power play 7:07 into the period, Rob Blake got his first goal of the season as he pinched in for a big slapshot of a loose puck that was a blocked Christian Ehrhoff shot.

The third period is when things got really strange. The Sharks came into the game as the league's least penalized team, but in two minutes, the Sharks got two penalties; fortunately for them, the Blues answered both with penalties of their own 10 and 32 seconds later. There was so much four-on-four time, it was like overtime had started 5:15 early.

And yes, this one went into overtime, but not without some more scoring. Andy McDonald scored on a wrap-around 7:56 into the third, Evgeni Nabokov's only soft goal in the 29 shots he faced.

Just over a minute later, Ryan Clowe put home a rebound of a Rob Blake shot that was redirected by Jeremy Roenick. But the game did not remain tied long--1:35 later, David Backes knocked a rebound of a Stepniak shot out of mid-air to regain the lead.

That lead looked like it might actually hold up, but during all the penalties late in the period, Clowe scored his second goal of the game. He took a Brad Lukowich feed from his backhand to his forehand while Setoguchi occupied the defence in front of the net at a sharp angle, and rung a shot off the inside of the far post. Setoguchi got credit for a secondary assist; it was Lukowich's third consecutive game with an assist.

Both teams went scoreless in the extra period, but the shootout was drama-filled. The Sharks sent their best two shooters to start, Joe Pavelski and Jeremy Roenick. Both failed to score.

Meanwhile, Andy McDonald beat Nabokov on the first shot. This meant that if Nabokov failed to stop the next shot, the Sharks perfect home record would be lost. He faced former Shark and goal scorer extraordinaire Brad Boyes, and forced him wide on the backhand.

Next up for the Sharks was defenceman Dan Boyle, who had to score in order for the Sharks to stay alive. He put a great deke on rookie goaltender and former University of Maine standout Ben Bishop for the Sharks first goal in the shootout.

But the Sharks were still facing elimination, as Nabby had to stop the next shot to go into sudden death. For whatever reason, Blues coach Mike Kitchen sent David Perron up next, and when Nabby stopped him (nearly sliding back into the net to make the goal count anyway), Kitchen sent Berglund with the game on the line. No Keith Tkachuk, no David Backes, no Lee Stepniak.

By contrast, Sharks coach Todd McLellan knew who to put out: Ryan Clowe. He had scored the biggest two goals of the game and now netted the potential winner in the shootout, just as long as Nabby could stop Berglund.

Nabby came out aggressively to stop him, stopping between the face-off dots before setting up to stop the shot. As Berglund tried to go back to Nabby's left to get an angle to shoot around him, Nabby extended his left leg and forced the shot wide.

Unfortunately, in the process he twisted his knee, and he put no weight on the leg until he reached the tunnel, and then limped badly. By not putting Nabokov on injured reserve, one might speculate that the injury is not serious enough for him to miss more than a week.

The team has officially revealed only a "lower body injury," but they sent Jamie McGinn down to the minors and recalled Tomas Greiss and Brad Staubitz. Thus, it is safe to assume the injury is significant enough for Nabby to be out for at least the next couple games.

Brian Boucher has shutouts in his only two appearances this season, so the team should not be hurt much in the short-term without Nabby. However, they host Dallas Saturday and then travel to Phoenix Sunday, and may have to rely on Greiss or a tired Boucher for the second game.

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