Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sharks Outlast Tired Stars, Stay Perfect at Home

For the second straight game, the Sharks caught a break in the schedule and played a team that had played the night before in Anaheim. However, this opponent was coming off a decisive win over the hot Ducks in a game that seemed to signify a turnaround in the Stars season.

The Stars got Sergei Zubov, their best and most experienced defenceman, back from IR. He quarterbacks their power play, he is essential for getting the puck out of the zone, and he is an underrated defender.

They signed Mark Parrish to a contract after he was released by the Minnesota Wild, and he immediately contributed a hat trick. Marty Turco had been struggling, but he played well, giving up just two goals.

Sean Avery combined with line-mate Mike Modano for a score. Avery was seemingly a target of public comments by Modano, the top-scoring American born player in league history and the only holdover from their days as the North Stars in Minnesota, making him the indisputed face of the franchise. Nothing helps teammates bury the hatchet like scoring together.

Plus, the Sharks were without their designated number one goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov. He will not make the trip to Phoenix for Sunday's game, but is expected to do light skating Monday, meaning it is possible he will return in time for the Sharks' games Tuesday or Thursday.

Jonathan Cheechoo was also out of the lineup, and not only has he been the team's top goal scorer since the lockout ended, he has been the top hitter so far this season. He also will not make the trip to Phoenix but is listed day-to-day.

When I saw Marty Turco in net again, I thought of all the times former Sharks coach Ron Wilson put Nabby back in net on the second of back-to-back nights last season, often even when there was travel between the games. I am sorry, but I think the only time you do that is if your other guy is hurt and you have no one who is remotely ready for the NHL as an option.

Sometimes it works in the short run, but I still think the workload may be one reason Nabokov held a save percentage under .900 until the four-OT thriller against these Stars last May 2. And when someone has been struggling, forcing them to play tired seems even less advisable.

However, if Turco was tired, he didn't show it. But then again, Boucher once again did not look like anyone's backup goalie. This was a goaltending duel reminiscent of the Belfour-Roy playoff match-ups that used to make my heart race in the late 90s.

The officiating was that bad, too.

Early on, cheap-shot Neanderthal Sean Avery took down Brad Lukowich away from the play and stood over him so he couldn't get up, all the while flapping his gums with disrespect. I have always felt there was one answer for a guy like that: send Jody Shelley on the ice and make him back up his talk. If he does, you pull a good player off the ice for the Stars in exchange for a fourth-line grinder; if he doesn't, he loses all impact because he's nothing but a coward who is all talk, no action.

Instead, Ryan Clowe drops the gloves with Brandon Crombeen, essentially allowing Dallas to get the edge in talent taken off the ice. It is absolutely stupid for Clowe to get into that fight because it basically allows the Stars to know that they can be more aggressive because if they are called for a penalty the Sharks will not have their best power play unit on the ice.

The Ducks did this to the Sharks last month with Joe Thornton, and sure enough, that was exactly what happened Saturday night. Clowe might not be Thornton in terms of the unit's importance, but with the team already struggling on the power play and missing Cheechoo, they could not afford to yield more talent.

The bad calls continued throughout the game, and I will provide the other five worst examples:

1. Turco got away with sweeping Thornton's feet out from under him.
2. At the end of the same shift, Joe was called for a boarding penalty when he hit the man shoulder-to-shoulder.
3. Avery was called for a slash that came nowhere near the hands or even the shaft of the stick.
4. Thornton got away with a high-stick on Mike Ribiero two feet from the official.
5. They did not call Mike for the retaliatory slash.

Throughout most of the contest, the Sharks were taking it to the Stars. They out-hit Dallas 43-21 and out-shot them 33-24, with an edge in that department in all three periods as well.

San Jose took an early lead 7:13 into the game when Joe Thornton hustled to keep a puck in and Lukowich controlled it on the blueline. Then he slid it along the blueline to Patrick Marleau in the middle, who found Joe Thornton penetrating to the faceoff dot to Turco's stick side. Dan Boyle, having already read the play when Marleau got the puck, was streaking toward the face-off circle on the weakside, and Thornton found him for the easy goal.

Dallas blocked more shots (17-9) mostly because San Jose took more of them, but they did hold a slight edge in face-offs (27-24) and giveaways were even (12). The one time the Stars did take control was early in the third.

Their pressure paid off 3:41 into the period. Lukowich mishandled the puck behind the net, and Loui Eriksson got to it. He passed it to an onrushing Steve Ott between the circles, then grabbed the carom of Ott's Wild shot off the boards for the easy put-back because both Boucher and Lukowich came out to play Ott.

That ended Boucher's shutout streak to start the season ended. With the way Turco was playing, one had to wonder if the Sharks could extend their perfect record to nine games without a second consecutive shootout win.

Early in the second period, the announcers pointed out how Turco's ability to play the puck drew a penalty on the Sharks for too many men on the ice. Just over halfway through the period, Turco made an incredible save in which he batted away a puck that had already bounced over and behind him. Several times Turco came out above the circles to play the puck and keep the Sharks from the attack.

However, the Sharks got a gift from their goalie nemesis with under 30 seconds left. Turco came out just past the crease to play the puck, but instead of dumping it behind his net, he tried to backhand it past a net-crashing Marleau. The puck went off Patty's skate, who promptly knocked it in front of the net with his stick and then poked it home.

By getting the win in regulation, the Sharks widened their lead over the Dallas Stars to 14 points and six-and-a-half games. Even should Dallas win all five games it has left against San Jose in regulation, they would not cover that ground. With 68 games to play, they would have to earn nearly ten percent more points to overtake the Sharks. That is a huge hole to dig so early against so good an opponent.

The Sharks have the same 14-point lead over every team in the division but Anaheim. Phoenix has the easiest deficit to overcome out of those three teams, with three games in hand and six to go against the Sharks. Even Anaheim is seven points and four games back, and have to win an extra game in every 15 compared to the Sharks to catch them.

This means that the Sharks could come down to earth and still have the division locked up by March. But lest we get overconfident, nothing that matters is won with that many games to go: just ask Major League Baseball's Angels how that worked out for them.

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