Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sharks Show Heart, Grit Out Win Over Rangers

On Thursday, the Sharks performance in Detroit was so egregious that I questioned whether the team had enough fight.

Saturday, the Sharks returned home to play the New York Rangers, who waited for their next opponents from their hotels in San Jose and were coming off consecutive victories against Anaheim and an improved Los Angeles Kings squad. They had one more day off, 2000 fewer miles traveled, and were playing better hockey than San Jose.

Once again, the ice was tilted toward the opponent. The Sharks, about to play their fourth game in six days, had to be asking some questions in the locker room.

Can we skate uphill and grit out a win? Can we put the last two losses, including the embarrassment of a 6-0 shellacking, behind us? Can we do it against a Stanley Cup contender with the sixth best winning percentage in the league?

The answer has a familiar ring to it: Yes, we can.

We can do it by getting the power play moving. We can do it by getting big scores out of the top line. We can do it because a goalie who was abused Thursday rises to the occasion, especially in the third period when his teammates ran out of gas.

This is the kind of adversity that prepares a team for the playoffs, so long as it can prove it can overcome the obstacles. After responding with a win, players had to be saying, "Yes, we did."

The Sharks got out to a quick lead when the Rangers took two penalties early in the first. Paul Mara was whistled for holding at 2:31 and Blair Betts for high-sticking at 3:23.

With four seconds left in the five-on-three, Dan Boyle rocketed a one-timer from Joe Thornton past Henrik Lundqvist; Rob Blake also picked up an assist. Just 25 seconds later, Ryan Clowe knocked in a loose puck with Betts still in the box; Jonathan Cheechoo and Joe Pavelski got their first assists since returning from injury on the play.

Boyle made a mistake on a four-on-four a few minutes later, trying to poke the puck through Nikolai Zherdev to Ryan Clowe on the point. Instead, Zherdev was able to turn and pressure Clowe, forcing the puck past him and heading for a two-on-one with Scott Gomez. He kept Nabby guessing between pass and shoot, then got off a quick wrister five hole four seconds after Cheechoo's penalty expired for an unassisted short-handed goal.

Not to be outdone, Patrick Marleau—the man rumoured to be getting traded to Columbus for Zherdev before the draft—got a pass from Thornton off his skate and to his stick for a goal at 6:20 of the second; Devin Setoguchi got the secondary assist. But the Rangers answered again before the mid-point, as Ryan Callahan put home a Brandon Dubinsky rebound.

From that point, the Sharks had to bite down defensively, because the Rangers began to take over play. San Jose out-shot New York 13-9 in the first, and were out-shooting them to that point in the second. After a 17-7 deficit in the third, the Sharks had turned that advantage into a four-shot deficit (34-30).

However, San Jose raised their record to 9-1 in games in which they are out-shot because they played sound fundamental hockey. They blocked twice as many shots as New York (20-10), won 38 of 62 face-offs (61.3 percent), and took only two penalties to New York's five. Both teams had 38 hits.

But more than anything, San Jose gritted out this win because Evgeni Nabokov seemed to take his poor performance Thursday personally. He made about a half dozen spectacular saves and willed his team to a win when they had nothing left to give.

That's the kind of performance a championship team needs to be able to get. And now the Sharks can spend a day recovering because they do not play again until Tuesday, when the Vancouver Canucks come to town.

There will be a lot of Canucks uncertain of how their status might change with the signing of Mats Sundin, who will still not be in the lineup. The Sharks have to take advantage of that uncertainty, because six of their following seven are on the road.

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