Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sharks-Stars: If Only All Games Were Against the Pacific

The Stars have played better since shelving Sean Avery, and the Sharks have been vulnerable. On the road, coming off an overtime loss, this looked like a tough game to win.

Not if Evgeni Nabokov had anything to say about it. He turned away 28 of 29 shots, with the only one he let in being a fluke: Alexei Semenov, playing for Christian Ehrhoff (healthy scratch) reached up to catch a shot and deflected it past his teammate and fellow-countryman with 5:03 to play.

Drew Remenda and Randy Hahn talked about the potential for Semenov to be the goat in what was suddenly a one-goal game. I have derided Semenov as hard as anyone, but there is no way a bad break when he was doing his job makes him a goat, no matter how things turn out.

But just to make sure, he laid out to block a shot in the final minute that helped not only preserve the win, but spring the Sharks' first empty-net goal of the season; Pavelski followed with another block and then got the puck to Ryan Clowe all alone in the offensive zone.

The score with just over a minute left sealed the game, and the Sharks (3-0-0) cannot lose the season series with Dallas (0-3-0). The fact that San Jose had the second-ranked offense in the league without an empty net goal is remarkable.

Nabby was unbeatable any other way, and has been tremendous since coming back from injury, with the exception of the time he played the world champions after an overtime struggle and flight the previous night. If the Sharks have the net shored up, they are going to hard to stop.

San Jose got the first goal from Jonathan Cheechoo 15:10 into the game, even though Dallas had been controlling the play more than their guests. Joe Thornton got the puck back to Dan Boyle on the point, and his one-timer was tipped by Cheech, who has a four-game points streak and five points in the five games since returning from an "upper-body injury."

There were not any more scores until the third period. On the team's 15th shot of the game with 16:05 to play, Milan Michalek scored his eighth goal of the season from his knees. Thornton and Clowe got the assists; San Jose got only four more shots the whole game, including the empty-netter.

San Jose plays in Minnesota on New Year's Eve Day before making a one-game stop at home. Too bad they cannot play a division rival again: San Jose is 9-2 in 11 division games, and has only 13 remaining.

Monday, December 29, 2008

St. Louis Blue-Collars Out-Work Sharks

In three games against San Jose, Brad Winchester has three goals. He has just two goals more than 30 other Blues games this season.

On Saturday night, his goal tied the game at two, allowing his team to win in a shootout. It was only the eighth time in 35 games this year that San Jose did not leave the rink with a win, and the first time they lost in four shootouts. It also ended the Blues seven-game losing streak against the Sharks.

Things did not begin well for the Sharks, as within the first minute David Parron put a shot through Evgeni Nabokov's five-hole. When Douglas Murray stepped up to drop a forward, the puck sprang free and Parron had a breakaway. Christian Ehrhoff back-checked well enough to force the shot to come without a deke, but Nabby did not play it well enough.

After that, Nabby tightened up. But his skater-teammates just played tight.

At one point in the second period, St. Louis was out-shooting San Jose 16-4. Coach Todd McLellan began to mix up lines to shake things up, and it paid dividends twice before the period was out.

At 12:19, Jonathan Cheechoo extended his points-streak to three games since returning when he took a Joe Thornton feed from behind the net and hit the far corner. Mike Grier, who had been moved down to the fourth line for the beginning of the game, got an assist on the play, as well.

Those three hooked up again just six and a half minutes later, as Thornton's feed to Cheechoo deflected to Grier and he put home his second goal of the year. But Winchester's goal, with assists from Jan Stasny and Mike Weaver, came just six minutes into the third.

It was a battle of goaltenders, as Nabby made 25 saves and Manny Legace made 24, including some doozies. In the shootout, Nabby stopped only one of three and Legace stopped two. One guess who scored the shootout winner...

McLellan was clearly not happy with his team's play: "We weren't prepared to play and to be quite honest with you, you could almost see it coming."

Grier may have summed it up best:"We played our game in spurts and it wasn't good enough. They play a simple game and it's never going to be easy when you play a team like that."

The Blues out-worked the Sharks, who are 2-1-2 in their last five. And it doesn't get any easier.

San Jose is in Dallas Monday night, and the Stars have played well since getting rid of Sean Avery. In fact, a stretch of 4-0-1 has put this team above .500 (15-14-5).

After that, the Sharks travel to Minnesota (17-15-2) for a New Year's Eve afternoon game, come home for one game against the New York Islanders, then make a three-game swing through the Canadian Northwest. Might we be seeing the mid-point of an eleven-game stretch of .500 hockey?

It may be just want McLellan wants to keep this team humble and working hard.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas Sharks Fans: San Jose Wraps This Gift Early

First, if you are a secularist offended when someone wishes you a Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays, you need to get over yourself. If you are a Christian who constantly says there is a war on Christmas just because the store you shop at wishes you Happy Holidays to make sure they don't offend anyone, you do not understand what it means for your faith to be under attack.

As a Sharks fan who celebrates Christmas, I look at the game Tuesday night, the day before Christmas Eve, as a gift wrapped in Teal. It was not perfect, but it was decisive.

It took just 4:22 seconds for the Sharks to get on board. Jonathan Cheechoo got a pass from Ryan Clowe and fired a shot on net that bounced off Vancouver goalie Corey Schneider to the wing. Rob Blake was pinching up and put in the rebound easily.

Henrik Sedin took a penalty 1:16 later, and the Sharks needed just 17 seconds to cash in on the power play. Off the face-off, the Sharks got the puck to Dan Boyle, who shot the puck from the point. Joe Thornton tipped it to Marleau, who circled behind the net and roofed it from a steep angle through a screen by Joe.

Then things got chippy. Former Nashville Predators bad-boy Darcy Hordichuk tried to goad Jody Shelley into a fight. While it didn't work, Mattias Ohlund's check in the back of Tom Cavanagh seconds later nearly did.

Instead, the Sharks did what the world champion Red Wings have always done when someone takes a run at one of them: score on the subsequent power play. This time it took 40 seconds for Marleau to take the puck from Boyle and pass it into the slot for Devin Setoguchi, who redirected it past Schneider.

The Sharks blew three consecutive power plays that included almost two minutes of five-on-three time in the middle of the period. San Jose also caught a break when Tomas Plihal's follow-through caught Alex Edler in the face with just over two minutes to go in the first, drawing considerable blood, but was missed by the officials. (This happens an inexcusable number of times in this league—I can understand missing it occasionally or being wary of a Mike Ribiero-style fake job, but when someone is bleeding profusely?)

Instead of starting the second period on the penalty kill, the Sharks got an even-strength goal on their first shift. Marleau's pass to Setoguchi resulted in a shot that left a rebound for Thornton, who slid it through a narrow opening between Schneider's skate and the post with his back to the goal.

Just 19 seconds later, Plihal stole the puck on a bad turnover and shot it past Schneider from the slot, chasing the goalie from the game. At that point, the Sharks set a record for the fastest five goals in franchise history and were out-shooting Vancouver 15-4.

For the rest of the game, the Sharks seemed to sit on the lead; Vancouver ended up winning the shots-on-goal battle 33-31. But Evgeni Nabokov made every save (as did Curtis Sanford, who relieved Schneider), and the Sharks avoided any big mistakes in finishing off the Canucks.

San Jose goes into the Christmas break with an 18-0-2 record at home and the fourth-longest streak in NHL history of home games without a regulation loss at 29. The record is 37 by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1976-77 and '77-78 seasons.

San Jose has a nine-and-a-half game lead over Anaheim in the division, and a three game lead over Detroit in the conference. Boston has closed to just a game-and-a-half of San Jose, however, and San Jose faces six of the next seven games on the road, starting Saturday in St. Louis.

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.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sharks Unable to Bite Wings

Evgeni Nakokov had a rough night, and it is understandable that he would look exasperated. It is just that sometimes it looked like he had his eyes closed while facing shots.

The Sharks already had a tough road to hoe. Playing in the second consecutive night—an overtime game, no less—and having to travel in between. That would make any foe, much less the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, tough to overcome, especially at Joe Louis Arena.

But there are many ways in which the Sharks made things harder for themselves. For instance, as Coach Todd McLellan pointed out in the interview before the third period, the Sharks were not getting the puck deep. They were constantly on their heels because they did not make the fresher Wings turn to chase the puck.

In perhaps the worst example of this, Marcel Goc threw a puck up the middle that Pavel Datsyuk easily intercepted for an unassisted goal to make it 5-0 and eliminating any possibility of this not being an embarrassment. On a couple occasions, the Sharks were caught watching the puck instead of playing their man. Detroit is not a team you can get away with these mistakes against.

But now I have a bigger problem: playing Nabokov on both nights. Boucher played on Monday after Nabby had played Saturday, when he would have had a day off. Then Boucher does not play in either of the back-to-back nights.

Aside from how much of a drop-off Nabby had in net in April after being overplayed last season, he has not done well in these situations this year: he is 2-1, but with an .815 save percentage and a 3.95 GAA. In the rest of his games, he is 15-2-2 with a .912 save percentage and a 2.34 GAA.

When Boucher is 8-1-1 with a .928 save percentage and a 1.88 GAA, why would you not start him instead of the guy who is tired and struggles when he is? Yo, coach, play the back-up more!

In any event, you cannot give up six goals and score none. The Red Wings have the bad goaltending, not the Sharks, but they get the shut-out and San Jose gives up six.

I do not care that you had no Milan Michalek or Jeremy Roenick. I do not care that Joe Pavelski and Jonathan Cheechoo had not been on the ice for quite some time and likely were rusty and maybe not even fully recovered. I do not care about you having played the night before or traveling in between.

Detroit had to face similar obstacles in the match-up of the two at the end of October, and they at least put up a fight in a 4-1 loss. Someone has to step up for the Sharks and score. Someone has to make an extra save or two, block an extra shot or two, and make an extra hit or two.

In the first period, the Sharks were dominating early. Nine of the first 11 shots were from the team in white. Then Nabby lets two in he should have stopped, and all life goes out of the Sharks.

San Jose is a lot better than anyone else in the league, but we need to see more fight when the chips are down. There is a chance to bounce back at home when they face a New York Rangers team that is more rested Saturday—this has to be a better effort.

San Jose Sharks, the Unseen Games

The San Jose Sharks are making history. It's just too bad not enough people are watching.

Why? Well, for one thing, the team is on the Left Coast, and plays too late for many people in the East. For another, and astonishing number of their record-setting 31 games have not been televised, even locally.

The last two games marked the first time they were not televised in back-to-back games. But Wednesday was the fifth game not televised (and there have been two unavailable even with NHL's Center Ice package), and there will be two more. After that, the remaining two will probably be picked up by Versus if the Sharks keep playing this well.

Up to nine games not covered for the best team in the NHL, for a team that may set a record for points, and for a team that would be in the middle of the top 10 all time even if games still ended in ties? Ridiculous.

Thus, it is hard to write about the last two nights, even having heard about five of the six periods and subsequent overtimes on the radio, even having seen highlights. Let me instead provide some observations based on the two games:

1. The Los Angeles Kings are much improved, and should still be all right with Erik Ersberg down for a couple weeks. The Sharks are 3-0 in these games, but two were decided by one goal and one of those in overtime.
2. The Sharks do look like they are still susceptible to lapses in intensity, and that's a problem they CANNOT have in the playoffs, and better correct now.
3. The team has the resilience and talent to come back from deficits established during those lapses.
4. San Jose is 9-0 when being outshot (as they were against Los Angeles) but winless when getting 48 or more shots (as they did against Columbus)...weird.
5. The injuries are starting to pile up and the Sharks' depth is depleted. There are currently three minor league forwards playing because of injuries. Apparently it will take several weeks for Jeremy Roenick to recover from surgery following a bad shoulder separation he suffered, so at least one of those players will have to contribute long-term. Joe Pavelski and Jonathan Cheechoo have officially been listed as day-to-day for quite a while, so who knows how long it will be before they return.
6. The Sharks have incredible special teams. They have given up 18 power play goals but scored seven short-handed goals. Meanwhile, they have scored 34 power play goals and allowed only four short-handed goals. That is a total of +19, and only Philadelphia (with an astounding 12 shorties, including three of the four against San Jose) is better.

With the Sharks game going into overtime Wednesday, the hill to climb to beat Detroit Thursday (4 p.m. PST) just got higher.

The Red Wings have not played since Monday, when they and the Sharks were involved in the league's only two games. So they will be at home, better rested, and have their full compliment of players. The Sharks will be at the end of a three-game road trip that spans three time zones and includes a short flight the night after a game before playing the next day.

If the Sharks manage to win this one, I will be surprised and may no longer be able to contain my excitement the rest of the way.

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.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Stars – Red Wings: Brunnstrom, Turco Help Dallas Shut Down Detroit 3-1

A basic fact of hockey is that a game is composed of three periods. No big news there, but if a team is capable of winning all three periods, or even two out of the three, that team can usually win the game.

This basic mathematical outlook on hockey might just be something the Stars are beginning to learn this season, or at least they exhibited that style of play against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Red Wings tonight in Dallas.

The Stars controlled the tempo for the majority of the first period despite going down 1-0 on a Brett Lebda goal at 6:05. The Stars not only outshot Detroit 12-9 in the first frame, but also saw three power play opportunities to the Wings one on a Trevor Daley hooking penalty at 3:45. Marian Hossa and Lebda sat for hooking penalties at 7:29 and 18:16 respectively. At 18:29 Dan Clearly gave the Stars a 5-3 opportunity with a cross checking penalty, but the Stars wouldn’t be able to convert it for a goal before the end of the period.

The Stars' hard work paid off in the second period, regardless of being out-shot 15-9 by the Wings. At 2:12 Nicklas Grossman got caught for a hooking penalty, but the Stars' penalty killers killed off the Wings' man advantage and seized the momentum for a 1-1 game on a Tom Wandell backhand goal at 5:47. The goal was Wandell’s first of the season in only his second game after being called up by Dallas. Landon Wilson, son of assistant coach Rick Wilson, recorded his second assist of the season on the goal.

At 7:27 Fabian Brunnstrom recorded his ninth goal of the season to give the Stars a 2-1 lead. Mike Ribeiro and Darryl Sydor were given assists on the goal.

“I got a great pass from Ribeiro and I faked the shot first and shot it right away,” Brunnstrom said on the Stars website. “It was a great pass and it was fun to score. It was good luck.”

Later in the period Grossman earned himself the right to sit for another two minutes after being whistled for a cross checking penalty at 18:31. Detroit was not able to score on the power play chance due to the sensational play of Marty Turco.

The third period was more of the Marty Turco show as Detroit fired shot after shot on the Dallas net. The shots on goal in the third were literally 14-3 in favor of Detroit. No that is not a typo. Detroit’s Mikael Samuelsson and Landon Wilson both sat for offsetting minor penalty’s at 12:15. Neither team scored with the four on four opportunity. Detroit got dangerously close to tying it, but with a little over a minute left chose to pull goaltender Ty Conklin in favor of the man advantage. Regardless of the extra player, Mike Ribiero inked the icing on the cake on the empty net for Dallas. Assisting on the goal was Landon Wilson and Matt Niskanen.

“We competed hard, had excellent goaltending and we played well as a group,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “We defended really well and Marty was so solid. Our D blocked a lot of shots, made smart plays in our end and really did well tonight. It was a good, solid team effort and it builds a belief system that it doesn’t matter who we are playing, we can find a way to win.”

“It’s probably a good tape to hold on to and recognize what we did,” said Mike Modano. “Our situation is what it is with the injuries and guys missing and calling guys up. It’s a basic game plan, it’s real simple, but it’s a great game to build on. It’s a good confidence for us to start.”

Following the game the Dallas Stars left for Nashville to take on the Predators. According to sources, some of the injured Stars players have been working out and skating and could be back to game form soon, but nothing is confirmed. The Predators and Stars game can be seen on Fox Sports Net Southwest tomorrow at 7pm central. Nashville is currently in eighth place in the conference and five points ahead of the Stars in points.

“It was a great game and as big as it was, tomorrow’s just as big and we got to get re-focused again and another tough one,” Turco said.

Quotes: Courtesy of Dallas Stars website

Original Boxscore: Courtesy of NHL.com

Friday, December 12, 2008

Battle of the Pacific? This Is No Battle, Sharks Win Again

There was a wall around Evgeni Nabokov Thursday night, and he earned his first shut-out of the year. And I mean earned it.

Before getting hurt, Nabby's play was sub-standard. His save percentage was under .900 and his back-up was outplaying him in GAA, shut-outs, winning and save percentage.

Since his return November 26, he is 6-0-1 with a 1.87 GAA with a .929 save percentage and last night's 31-save shutout. Only once has he allowed more than two goals, and that was in overtime.

But as always, Nabby was quick to defer credit. "The shutout was just icing on the cake. Everyone chipped in."

His counterpart did well for Anaheim. Jonas Hiller stopped 25 of 27 shots, including a couple dynamite chances and all eleven he faced in the third period. Only Devin Setoguchi and Patrick Marleau were able to beat him.

So once again, the Sharks won in a game when they were out-shot. They may lead in the league in shots on goal and shot differential, but they are unbeaten when they are out-shot. This was another game that was by no means a statement win, but showed that this year's Sharks are plucky enough to win when they do not dominate.

Things were chippy early in this contest, with Brett Festerling checking Jeremy Roenick from behind against the boards, a play very similar to the Mike Grier check a few games back that got him a match penalty, though certainly not as hard. Nevertheless, it clearly should have been called boarding.

JR was able to return later, but said after the game, "it's not good." But the Sharks showed they could deal with this kind of crossing-the-line play like their coach's last team, Detroit: score.

With three minutes left in the opening period, the defencemen were pinching up, and Dan Boyle did a great job to keep the Sharks on the attack. Marleau and Mike Grier took up the positions on the point, Marcel Goc got the puck back to Grier on the left, and he passed it across to Marleau for the one-timer.

Just 36 seconds later, the Ducks do what they do, with George Parros, who is nothing but a no-talent thug, getting the best of the Sharks' Jody Shelley—who for the record is not much more. This reminded me of why I cannot stand Anaheim: I got involved in sports for the sportsmanship, and where I was raised, you didn't try to beat someone up just because they scored on you.

No matter, the Sharks just kept playing their game. About mid-way through the second, Setoguchi got to a loose puck in front of the net, and spun off a shot with a defender on him that beat Hiller to the near side corner. Marleau and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic got the assists.

The Ducks did not respond immediately with thuggery, waiting instead until all hope was lost. With about 20 seconds left and their goalie pulled, Nabby stopped another one-timer. Corey Perry came to the net and responded to what could have been called a cross-check by Rob Blake by swinging his stick overhead down onto Blake.

Blake retaliated with a nasty spear, and once again only the retaliator was caught. He was given a match penalty, and in the ensuing scrum, Scott Niedermayer, Perry, and Milan Michalek got penalties.

Afterward, Niedermayer had a predictably one-sided view of the play: "Perry went to the net off a shot, and (Blake) just reacted with a spear. I was just kind of in the middle of the pile." There is no word yet on whether Blake will face a suspension.

With the win, the Sharks lead in the division grows to 7.5 games. They face St. Louis at HP Pavilion Saturday before embarking on a three-game road trip.

Holy Jumpin is Right! Coyotes Finally Figure Out Wild

I am taking a break from studying. Okay I haven't started yet so maybe this can be classified as a continuation of my procrastination...a student's best friend. 
Last week NHL.com had an article about how the Coyotes sophomores, specifically Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal, were struggling. The color commentator for the Coyotes, Darren Pang, apparently read it and was none too pleased about the content of the article. You can read his take on the Coyotes website here.
But more importantly is the Coyotes game last night. If anyone has been following this team, they know the Minnesota Wild have been a kryptonite for Phoenix. Going into the game last night, the last time the Coyotes had defeated the Wild was on November 16th, 2006. Niklas Backstrom has been an absolute fiend in net coming into this contest 8-0 with 3 shutouts and a 1.13 goals against average against the Coyotes throughout his career. 
However, all streaks come to an end. Backstrom let in 3 goals including 2 in the final 30 seconds of the 2nd period. The first came from Zbynek Michalek who continues his unbelievable play as he ripped a shot from the point. 
Then just 25 seconds later Peter Mueller came down the wing with Olli Jokinen on the other side after rookie Mikkel Boedker had stolen the puck. He made a beautiful pass across the slot and over the stick of a Wild defenseman to Jokinen who put it by Backstrom. Just like that, it was 2-0. 
The third period saw the newest addition to the Coyotes make an impact. Joakim Lindstrom was acquired earlier this week from the Anaheim Ducks for young defenseman Logan Stephenson. Tonight he scored his first goal as he redirected a beautiful pass from Steve Reinprecht into the net. While it was disallowed at first, review showed the puck had hit the white bar inside the net and bounced out.  
Olli Jokinen has continued his hot streak since coming back from injury. He now has 3 goals in two games. Steven Reinprecht is also on a hot streak as he now has 6 points in his last 5 games. Ilya Bryzgalov had his best game of the season as he stopped 30 of 31 Wild shots. The Coyotes will need him to continue to play stellar if they want to succeed. 
Was this game the turning point of the season? Quite possibly. The Coyotes had not beaten the Wild in over 2 years. Maybe this is where the Coyotes start moving up. They will face a stiff test on Saturday as the Detroit Red Wings come to Phoenix.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sharks Dominate League One-Third of Way Into Season

Now that we are a third of the way through the season, most of what we see is more than a mere streak, it is an indication of what to expect the rest of the way.

As a Sharks fan, this makes me really happy.

The Sharks are by far the best team in the league so far. And I cannot believe they are getting less coverage than the Boston Bruins.

Don't get me wrong, Boston is really good. But would even a Bruins' fan, among the most cynical of hockey fans I have come across, can honestly say they believe the Bruins will come out of the East, much less hoist the Cup.

Pittsburgh is too talented, and has more playoff experience to draw from on their roster despite being so young. And they're competing with everyone in the East right now without their best defenceman.

In the rest of the toughest division in hockey, there are the New Jersey Devils, winning without one of the greatest goalies of all time. The bad news for everyone else is he will be coming back before the playoffs to get his game ready, but will no longer be worn down from playing over 70 games. Then there are the New York Rangers, who are long on talent with a well-established goalie.

That's not all. The Montreal Canadiens are perrenial contenders who have yet to get an historically dangerous power play on track. The Washington Capitals are winning with half their roster and have arguably the best player in the world.

Boston will make it to the playoffs. They might even be good enough to win their division, which will allow them to probably allow them to avoid any of the above teams in the first round and get to the second. But that's as far as they will go.

Why? Boston's Tim Thomas is a Vezina Trophy candidate, but he has no track record of playoff success. Historically those goalies do not fair well.

By contrast, the Sharks have Evgeni Nabokov. He is not playing as well as Thomas, but he won more games in the first round last season than Thomas has won for his career, and Thomas is older. Nabokov has won the Calder Trophy and was a runner-up for the Vezina Trophy last year. He has taken his team to the Western Conference Finals.

I know, I've heard it before: the Sharks are chokers. But I ask you, do you say that because they are, or because you keep hearing it? Let's really look at their "lack" of playoff success:

* In 2004, the Sharks made it to the Western Conference Finals as a surprise #3 seed after not being in the playoffs at all the previous season. They beat perennial contender Colorado along the way.
* In 2006, the year after the lockout, the Sharks made it into the playoffs as a #5 seed and lost to Edmonton in the second round. Granted, Edmonton was a #8 seed, but a vastly different team at playoff time because they had made a trade that brought in Dwayne Roloson to solidify their defense. They not only beat the President's Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings in the first round, they would have won the Cup had Roloson not gotten hurt (Ty Conklin replaced him and mishandled the puck, giving a goal to Carolina in a game they needed overtime to win).
* In 2007, once again as a #5 seed, the Sharks lost to the top-seeded Red Wings.
* In 2008, San Jose failed to show up with enough intensity early in the second round against the Stars (and in a couple games in the first round), digging themselves a hole they could not emerge from. This got coach Ron Wilson fired and half the blueline replaced, forcing the Sharks to spend up to the salary cap for the first time since it was instituted.

Thus, San Jose is not even the same team. For the first time in years, this defence has experience to match its talent on the blueline, with three Stanley Cup winning players. And there is still more depth among the forwards than anywhere else in the NHL.

Let's just look at a few ways this team stands head-and-shoulders above most of the league:

1. The Sharks average the most shots on goal in the league AND are in the 90th percentile in shots against, easily giving them the best shot differential in the NHL.
2. San Jose leads the league in scoring from the blueline, while in previous years they were among the lowest in the league. There are four defencemen (Rob Blake, Dan Boyle, Christian Ehrhoff, and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic) who are among the top thirty in the league, meaning they have outscored all defenceman on many teams. Two are in the top ten.
3. The Sharks have seven players with over 20 points.
4. San Jose has the best goal differential in the league, and is one of only two teams to out-score opponents by more than a goal a game (Boston is the other).
5. HP Pavilion, home of the Sharks, has assured the Sharks of at least one point in every contest since February 14, 2008. This year, the team is 16-0-2 in the friendly confines.
6. San Jose is in the top quarter of the league on both the power play and penalty kill.
7. Only Minnesota in the West has allowed fewer goals per game, and only Boston in the East.
8. No one has scored as many goals as San Jose, who is averaging 3.78 per game.
9. San Jose is an astounding 19 games over .500, five games better than Boston and Detroit and 14 better than the second place team in the Pacific division.
10. The Sharks have the most points through 26 games in NHL history, and the fifth-best record if all overtime games were counted as ties as they used to be. All four other teams made the Stanley Cup Finals, and two of them won it.

This is not to say they should start etching names on the Stanley Cup right now. It is the greatest trophy in sports because it is so hard to earn.

Detroit is still a serious contender, and I had them as the league's top team before the season started. Any of the above-mentioned Eastern teams, with the easier travelling schedule and easier playoff run, could be a tough finals match-up if the Sharks get there.

I just hope everyone keeps talking about Boston...no one reads my columns anyway, do they?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Kharma Bites Back at San Jose in the Form of Dwayne Freaking Roloson

In Thursday's win, the Columbus Blue Jackets out-played the Sharks and lost 3-2, primarily because of Evgeni Nabokov's stellar net-minding. Saturday, Dwayne Roloson stole a game back, in the process reminding everyone of why the Edmonton Oilers beat San Jose in the playoffs in 2006.

Okay, there was no un-penalized high elbow to the face from Raffi Torres (who ironically is now in Columbus) taking away the Sharks most dynamic scorer (Milan Michalek). This team doesn't fold at first sign of facing physical play, either, so all Edmonton had left from that blueprint was Roloson; he was at least close to as much of a factor in those playoffs as the Sharks' spinelessness.

From the outset the Sharks controlled play, pounding Roloson with shots. San Jose had eight shots before Edmonton got its first and only shot of the period; unfortunately for Nabokov, that shot went in.

Just under nine minutes into the game, Tom Gilbert got the puck out of the Edmonton defensive zone to Dustin Penner, who got it to Ales Hemsky. Hemsky skated to the middle of the ice with it, about half-way between the blueline and the circles, and wired a wrist-shot to the corner on Nabby's stick side.

The Sharks added eight more shots before the period ended. After Patrick Marleau drew a double-minor on Penner because his stick drew blood on Patty, the Sharks power play struggled to even control play in the offensive end.

However, with about five seconds left, defenceman Dan Boyle back-handed a pass along the goalline to get it in front of the crease. Instead of creating a scoring chance, it created a score, bouncing off Roloson's thigh and then skate before going in. Assists were credited to Michalek and Joe Pavelski.

The irony in the first period was thick:

1. The Sharks were unable to score with great shot after great shot and then scoring on a fluke.
2. Nabby went an entire period without a save.
3. San Jose had a 16-1 edge in shots and the score was tied 1-1.
4. San Jose had the sixth-ranked power play and Edmonton the 29th-ranked penalty kill, and the only time the Sharks weren't getting shots was on the one Oilers penalty.

The second was a little more even, with the Sharks only garnering a 15-9 edge in shots, helped greatly by being whistled for four penalties to Edmonton's one. San Jose got on the scoreboard first when Jody Shelley and Tom Cavanagh banged away at a loose puck in front of Roloson until Cavanagh was able to kick it over to Jeremy Roenick uncovered at the side of the net for a backhand score.

But then the penalties caught up to San Jose, as with Rob Blake in the box, a shot broke Michalek's stick. He tried to clear the puck with the shaft; by rule, only a goalie can employ a broken stick, so a delayed penalty was called. With the extra attacker on the ice, Edmonton centre Shawn Horcoff passed the puck to Sheldon Souray on the point, whose shot was tipped in by Penner to tie the game.

The third period saw more furious action by San Jose, who out-shot Edmonton 12-5 and drew the only penalty, but neither team scored. In the extra period, Marleau was called for hooking, and with 30 seconds left on the four-on-three, Kyle Brodziak fired a puck across the crease off Christian Ehrhoff's skate and into the net. (Gilbert and Horcoff got the assists.)

Final tally, Edmonton three goals on 17 shots, San Jose two on 43 shots. Hockey is a funny game sometimes, but if the Sharks had needed this one, I wouldn't be laughing. For now, the Sharks are still the only team in the NHL to have no regulation losses at home, increasing the streak to 16 games this season.

The last team to beat San Jose at home in regulation? Edmonton, Feb. 14, 2008. San Jose puts that streak to the test again Thursday against the Anaheim Ducks.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Ken Hitchcock Lays Out Blueprint for Beating Sharks, but Comes up Short

Before the game, Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said no team had out-worked the Sharks yet this season. I disagree with that, but now there is no doubt it is no longer true.

Even though his Blue Jackets lost, Hitch may have provided the blueprint for beating San Jose: Get the puck deep and grind, grind, grind.

This was the same game plan I had wanted Ron Wilson to use against the highly-skilled, puck possession style Red Wings in the 2007 playoffs. The difference is that the Sharks were bigger than the Red Wings, so the question is whether anyone can be successful at this when the Sharks are one of the biggest teams in the league.

But at the very least, it gave the Sharks problems. Columbus out-shot San Jose 14-4 in the first period and 31-22 for the game.

However, their style led to four more power plays for the Sharks, and that led to two goals. The verdict: You have to play the grinding style without taking trips to the box.

You also may need to catch Evgeni Nabokov on a bad day. Nabby gave up one goal in the first, when a Rick Nash shot deflected off defenceman Dan Boyle into the net (Jan Hejda and Kristian Huselius got the assists). He wasn't giving up anything else, even stopping Huselius on a two-on-none by swiping the puck right off his stick with the glove while sprawled out on his side.

The Sharks got the equalizer in the second, with Patrick Marleau getting his own rebound and back-handing it past rookie goaltender Steve Mason (Dan Boyle and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic got the assists). Jeremy Roenick got his second goal of the year 44 seconds into the third, putting home a rebound of a Vlasic shot (off a Thornton feed) on the power play.

That didn't last long: Frederik Modin took the puck from the right wing and puck-handled down the goalline, getting a shot off to the far side between Rob Blake's legs (Jarred Boll and Derick Brassard got the assists). But the Sharks answered, when Joe Thornton knocked a Vlasic shot out of the air for the game winner with over 12 minutes left; Devin Setoguchi got the secondary assist.

Nabby had to make a couple more killer stops to put this one in the books, and was very deserving of the first star of the game. The Sharks host Edmonton tonight at 7pm PST.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sharks Pay Tribute to Former Coach by Dominating His New Team

Let me get one thing straight: Ron Wilson deserves a lot of credit for the Sharks' current success.

He helped develop a lot of young players, and he got more out of Joe Thornton than anyone had in Boston. More than that, his focus on fundamentals and everyone fulfilling their defensive responsibilities made Todd McLellan's job easier.

That being said, I was leading the charge in calling for him to lose his job this off-season. He just was not the man to take this team to the next level.

This team was not going any further year after year, they played tight in key games, they would stop being aggressive if they had a lead in the second-half of a game...all recipes for disaster.

In the 2006 playoffs, Wilson had his team enter the third period playing to hang on to a 2-1 lead in Edmonton when a victory would have all but ended the series. They gave up a goal and lost in multiple overtimes.

In the 2007 playoffs, the Sharks didn't change from their puck possession strategy even though the Red Wings were out-performing them in that regard; the Sharks were bigger than their opponent and would have benefited from a grinding style. Instead, less than 35 seconds away from a 3-1 series advantage, their Russian Roulette with shots on goal failed as Robert Lang tied the game that Detroit would later win in overtime, and the Sharks never won again.

Then in 2008, the Sharks were not focused or prepared for their first round series against Calgary, and appeared to be worn down by the time they faced Dallas in the second round. They did not play well in their first two home games and were not able to make up that deficit, once again unable to get past two wins in the second round.

Afterward, Wilson infamously said about the season "we should be rejoicing." He was understandably defensive about his job being called into question, considering he has the best coaching record in franchise history. But if you even suggest you should be rejoicing about not being able to get out of the second round when in two of the three years you were the team with home ice advantage, you just don't get it.

And now he was back in town, leading a mediocre-at-best Toronto team to a 9-9-6 record. He say it's his dream job, leading the league's most-storied franchise that he grew up a fan of and played for. Ironically, it is perhaps the only one viewed as more under-achieving than San Jose.

But Wilson is the right man for this job. He will get veterans to be rededicated to fundamentals or give the ice time they feel they are entitled to away to a younger player who is doing the little things. He will make sure their defense is solid so they are in as many games as possible with a chance to win.

Wilson will have this team in the playoffs by 2009. They will probably win a series by 2010. And by 2012 when they still have not gotten past the second round, he will need to be replaced by someone like McLellan.

Then again, Wilson never had the talent to work with that McLellan has. Comparing what the two coaches are able to do with this franchise is unfair on two levels: Wilson laid the roads that McLellan only needed to smooth over, and McLellan was given a $10 million budget to work with.

And Wilson's current team has less talent than the one he coached last year. Toronto is in transition, trying to dump some large salaries and rebuild, a process made harder by contracts other teams do not want. And to make matters worse for Tuesday's contest, they had just played the night before in Los Angeles.

In watching this game I was reminded of a couple flaws persistent in the Ron Wilson era, most notably letting up with a lead. Toronto out-shot San Jose 12-6 in the second period and closed the gap to 4-1 on a goal by Nikolai Kulemin (assisted by Niklas Hagman and Mikhail Grabovski) 9:10 into the period.

But the first line's best period all season came in the first, and that's saying a lot. Joe Thornton had three assists and a goal, Devin Setoguchi had a goal and an assist, and Patrick Marleau had two assists. Other scorers were Dan Boyle and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, who took a beautiful no-look backhand feed from Thornton across the crease on the power play (the others were all even-strength); Rob Blake also assisted on the Sharks first goal.

Joe Pavelski pretty much ended the game with a short-handed goal (assisted by Milan Michalek) four minuted into the third period. Toronto got a goal in the final 35 seconds from Hagman, with assists by Nik Antropov and Grabovski, to make it appear closer than it was. They out-shot San Jose 31-30, leaving San Jose unbeaten in games they are out-shot (6-0-0).

The win tied the Sharks for the NHL all-time best start through 25 games with 43 points. However, that stat is misleading since prior to the 1999-2000 season no teams earned any points for an overtime loss, and prior to the lockout, there were no shootouts ensuring that someone would get two points in every game. Taking away those "extra" points, the Sharks would have 39, still good for fifth-best all-time.

The good news is that of the four other teams to finish better, all four made the Stanley Cup Finals. Even better is that two of them won it, and that is the only stat I care about.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Sharks Fan's Thanksgiving List

The San Jose Sharks take on former coach Ron Wilson Tuesday night at HP Pavilion at 7:30pm PST. Last week, they took on former teammate Brian Campbell.

Between those two games was Thanksgiving. This got me to thinking about how we can be grateful to those who failed us if it helps us get the changes necessary to make things better.

After all, if it was not for the insecure department head at my old job in Milwaukee who fired me because I was a threat (I had applied for his job), I would not have gotten my new job and met my wife. If that new job hadn't treated me like a pawn, I wouldn't have left it for the great job I currently have.

But then, not all things I am grateful for when it comes to the Sharks are limited to what changes happened because of our short-comings. This team is on pace for 140 points, and while they certainly won't make it there, with that kind of success comes an abundance of material for a thanksgiving list.

Below are my top 10 things to be thankful for, starting with the two in which management has proven to me I was wrong:

1. The new coaching staff I was skeptical of. They have a handle on what it takes for success and how to motivate players to work a full 60 minutes. Players are blocking shots and making stellar saves with multiple-goal leads in the final minute of games.
2. Keeping Patrick Marleau, who I was sure would have to be traded to upgrade the blueline. Instead, Patty has committed to playing on the defensive side of the ice, too, and has been the Sharks best player so far in my mind. (I am also beginning to think I was wrong about Alexei Semenov, by the way.)
3. That Doug Wilson is in charge and not me, so the right changes could be made. That he could pull off the Dan Boyle trade and still sign Rob Blake (a change I called for) is amazing, and there is no better general manager in the league.
4. Greg Jamison opening up the purse strings and spending up to the cap, about $10 million more than previous years.
5. For the overachieving performances of Christian Ehrhoff and Devin Setoguchi--we had every reason to believe they would be good, but they are playing at an All-Star level.
6. For the adversity we have already faced and overcome. The following players have missed time: Evgeni Nabokov, Torrey Mitchell, Jonathan Cheechoo, Mike Grier, Marcel Goc, Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray, and Jody Shelley. But the Sharks keep winning.
7. Depth. The reason we have been able to endure all of these injuries is because we have so many players who can contribute. 15 Sharks have scored game-winning goals, and no one has more than two.
8. Dan Boyle, Brad Lukowich, and Rob Blake. By changing half of the blueline, the Sharks have added not only skill, but experience. There were many times last year that young defencemen like Ehrhoff were put in pressure cookers and doomed to make that mistake ion their own end; now there is a Stanley-Cup winning, calming influence nearby at all times.
9. Brian Campbell, for not only failing to be enough, but for showing Doug Wilson that adding skill to the blueline would make a big difference in the team's success. Then Campbell saved us from overpaying for him like Chicago did and we were able to upgrade more by losing him.
10. Douglas Murray's hits. I am all about the physical game, and that man flattens players who are trying to flatten him. To an enforcer like me, that is a more beautiful sight than a Joe Thornton tape-to-tape pass.

Then again, I caution everyone about getting too excited. Teams will make adjustments to counter our game, and we'll have to have answers for that. Plus, while games in November mean as much as games in March, they mean less than games in May; all of this means nothing if we don't win then.