Monday, December 15, 2008

Sharks Overcome Two Soft Goals, Win 5-4

The spotlight is on Evgeni Nabokov.

If there is one weakness on the Sharks, it is Nabby. True, he has been outstanding since returning from his "lower body injury" that was clearly a sprained right knee. As I pointed out in my last article, he went 6-0-1 with a 1.87 GAA, and .929 save percentage coming into Saturday's game.

On Saturday, he reverted back to his early-season form, giving up four goals on 33 shots (.879 save percentage) including two soft goals. On the Blues' last goal, David Backes let fly a 14-foot backhand from a tough angle over defenceman Dan Boyle to tie the game.

Nabby was visibly angry with himself afterward and appeared more focused, not letting anything past him despite a couple great scoring chances.

However, his save percentage for the season is a very pedestrian .904, and his goals against average is 2.48. By contrast, back-up Brian Boucher has a .928 save percentage and a 1.89 GAA.

I am not suggesting that Boucher should be made the team's starting goaltender. Nabby has earned that, and a goalie controversy is nearly as detrimental to a team as a quarterback controversy in football.

But Nabby has played in back-to-back games on three occasions so far this year, and I see no reason to ever do that when your back-up is out-performing your starter. Give Brian some time between the pipes, and I believe Nabby—who seemed to worn down in the playoffs after last season's workload—would benefit from a little time off now and then.

The Sharks came into Sunday third in the league in team defense (2.34 GAA) behind Minnesota (2.21) and Boston (2.23) because the Sharks give up only 26.1 shots per game, second lowest to (of all teams) the Los Angeles Kings (26.0). But only the top net-minder plays in the playoffs, and giving up an extra goal every two games could be costly if Nabby does not perform more consistently well in net.

However, Nabby's play was far from the only problem is this game. The Sharks gave up three goals in less than two minutes of game play.

The first was on a power play with 19 seconds left in the first period. Brad Winchester got to a loose puck and roofed a quick shot over Nabby's shoulder. This goal was just a bad break, and they happen.

But the Sharks came out in the second period without the intensity necessary to play a blue-collar team like St. Louis. B.J. Crombeen put home a rebound after a failed clear by Marcel Goc that Nabby never had a chance on. Finally, just 1:38 into the second, Winchester got a goal when Nabby went down too soon.

However, as my mother used to ask me to do frequently, I'll get off my soapbox. Let's look at what went well in Saturday's game:

First line scoring

The first line scored three goals, including the first to take a 1-0 lead, the third to tie the game, and the fifth to win the game. Devin Setoguchi scored the second of these, with Patrick Marleau getting the other two; Joe Thornton had an assist on all three. Other assists on those goals went to Marleau and defencemen Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich.

Grit

First, Douglas Murray showed what his physicality can do for the team. With eight minutes to go in the opening stanza, Dan Hinote came charging toward Murray who was carrying the puck out of the Sharks zone. Murray simply chipped the puck out and lowered his shoulder, and the hitter became the hittee. Hinote not only went down hard, his teammate Alexander Steen followed him—Murray had registered every checker's dream: a double-knockdown.

The Sharks also bounced back from giving up those goals and eventually got a hard-working goal with under five minutes left in the second. Goc was behind the net and found Tomas Plihal in the slot. His shot deflected off Mike Grier, as announcer Randy Hahn put it, this "proved Mike Grier could score."

This was a reference to Grier missing an empty net from about 20 feet away Thursday night. My response was, "yeah, but only by accident." Nevertheless, the Sharks hard work had resulted in a goal and a change in momentum.

That carried into the third period, and it only took 3:32 for the Sharks to take the lead. The second line chipped in on the power play despite the absence of Joe Pavelski, who left the game with a "lower body injury." Ryan Clowe got the go ahead goal, and Lukas Kaspar and Milan Michalek got the assists.

Then when St. Louis re-tied the score, the Captain stepped up 4:28 later to take the lead for good. The Sharks even weathered a penalty at 18:47 when St. Louis pulled the goalie for the extra attacker.

Home Sweet Home

The Sharks still have not lost at home in regulation (i.e. real hockey) in the regular season since February 14, 2008, a stretch of 27 games. This after struggling at home last season in the first four months of the season. This is pretty important for a team that looks like a strong bet to have that throughout the playoffs.

Now the Sharks embark on a three-game road trip, having played 18 of the first 29 at the Shark Tank, where they are 16-0-2. However, they are still 8-3 on the road, a .727 point percentage—second only to Detroit (11-3-2, .750).

The first of the three is in Los Angeles Monday, and will not be televised. The following game on Wednesday in Columbus will also not be televised, an odd thing for a record-setting team's fans to suffer.

However, the Sharks are televised in Detroit Thursday in what promises to be their toughest game thus far. It is the second of back-to-back nights and after a late plane flight, in legendary Joe Louis Arena where the Sharks have historically struggled, and against the defending champions who have the third-best record in the league.

Notes: Jeremy Roenick has been put on injured reserve with a shoulder separation and is expected to miss about three weeks; San Jose called up Jamie McGinn (5GP, 2G, 1A) to take his roster spot. Pavelski is listed as day-to-day, as is Jonathan Cheechoo. Lukowich returned after missing just two games.

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