Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sharks and NHL Rants, Raves, and Rankings

Rants:

1. I just want to say that I have heard a lot of people bad-mouth the Minnesota uniforms. I find them to be classic and colourful—what, do you hate Christmas?
2. Why do only I care that teams who are one point ahead of another in three more games are listed first in the standings? Hockey needs to do like every other sport and recognize "gamesbehind" so standings are legitimate.
3. I cannot stand that the "upper-body" and "lower-body" injury descriptions are used in the regular season now. Most leagues require accurate reports to avoid gambling scandals cropping up because of inside information and the potential influence organized crime could gain on the sport. The NHL has one interim coach convicted of gambling and involvement with organized crime that they inexplicably have allowed back into the game. Perhaps worse, the face of the last generation and current head coach of Phoenix, Wayne Gretzky, was also tied to the same scandal. Sohow can the league allow the secrecy with injuries?
4. Wednesday night's Sharks-Wild game was also another game not televised, and the potential audience missed a barn-burner. San Jose has three games left that are not scheduled to be televised, at Vancouver, St. Louis, and Chicago. My guess is at least two of the three will be picked up by either NBC or Versus since the Sharks are one of the NHL's top stories, Vancouver is a solid team and that game is on a Saturday, and Chicago is one of the other major NHL stories.
5. But given the Sharks' status in the league, it is strange that one would have to go online (there needs to be a partnership between TiVo and the web for me—I am almost always working during the games) to see them play.
6. Wednesday, the Sharks continued their annoying trend of playing down to the level of their competition, being dominated in the first half of the first period. Minnesota is a good team, but I guess the Sharks figured their hosts would be hospitable since they were 3-9-1 in December. But this wasn't the same team, since Marian Gaborik only recently got back in the lineup: San Jose cannot get complacent, because that will cost them in the playoffs.
7. San Jose is 3-1-3 in the last seven games, with the one regulation loss coming in the home of the Stanley Cup champions. This is a pace for over 100 points over 82 games, but I have heard San Jose described as " struggling."
8. Even as badly as San Jose was beaten, the result was not at all a cause for concern as many people have asserted, and it was hardly a "statement game" for Detroit. It was the Sharks' second of back-to-back nights with the same goalie in net despite an overtime in the first game and overnight flight. Those games happen occasionally, and are more likely to under those circumstances.
9. However, one cause for concern has arisen. The Sharks other losses in that stretch, though all in overtime on the road (one point against anyone in their house is nothing to be ashamed of), came against Columbus, St. Louis, and Minnesota. Not one of those teams was in the playoffs as of the time of the puck drop. If it was just this stretch, it would not be a cause for concern, but the Blues and Blue Jackets have out-played the Sharks in their match-ups this season even though the Sharks lead both series.

Raves:

1. Then again, they don't seem to be complacent against the league's best teams. San Jose has earned wins in their two home games during that seven game stretch against teams that would currently be in the playoffs. The one road win came against Dallas, a team that was 4-0-1 in their last five games to get above .500.
2. Evgeni Nabokov has been strong since his return from a "lower-body injury" we all know was a knee problem. He is 10-1-4 in those 15 games, with a .914 save percentage and a 2.31 GAA. However, if you exclude the two games he should not have been in net (both on the second night of back-to-back games with travel in between, situations in which no one, not even Martin Brodeur, should play both games in that situation), Nabby is 9-0-4 with a .924 save percentage and a 2.05 GAA.
3. San Jose can play any game and come out on top. From October 12 to October 22 alone, they won a game 1-0 and another 7-6.
4. The Sharks have shown more savvy than one would expect of a team that usually has the opponent over-matched. The Sharks have the highest shot differential in the NHL, but only two losses when out-shot by the opponent compared to double-digit wins. Fifteen players have scored the 25 official game-winning goals (i.e. not in shootouts).
5. The Sharks are also able to grit out the close games. Almost half of the Sharks victories have been by more than one goal; San Jose is 8-1 in regulation in one-goal games.
6. The Sharks have survived despite many of their regulars missing time. Only five players have been able to be dressed for every game. The following key players have missed at least one game for injury or family issues: Nabokov, DevinSetoguchi, Dan Boyle, Joe Pavelski, Milan Michalek, and Jonathan Cheechoo. Nabby, Cheech, and Jeremy Roenick have all missed more than a week.
7. The players who have been the most-criticized in the past are among the team's best players thus far. No one I knew (especially not me) thought that AlexeiSemenov was worth a darn, and despite rarely playing he has been solid when in uniform. Many of us were calling for Patrick Marleau to be traded, but he has turned last year's disastrous season (19 G, 29 A, -19) around this year (18 G, 22 A, +16 in fewer than half the games). Christian Ehrhoff has not only become solid defensively but is in the top ten on the team in scoring.
8. The Eastern Conference has a lot of compelling teams and is no longer the conference of no defence. Boston is leading the way in both categories, the Atlantic Division is once again the best in hockey even without Brodeur, and there are seven teams who have a real shot at making it to the conference finals.
9. The Central Division has also become deeper. Chicago has become a genuine contender, Nashville continues to play sound fundamental hockey despite the loss of more key players, and Columbus is an exciting team behind the tremendousgoaltending of rookie Steve Mason.

Current Top Ten Rankings:

1. I still expect the Boston Bruins to fall back to the pack a bit, but they have asserted themselves in the nine-game winning streak. They average more goals, fewer goals against, and have played more of their contests on the road than San Jose; that means more than the one point they are behind the Sharks.
2. The San Jose Sharks are still much more sound than anyone else. They have all the elements: top-tier power play and penalty kill, offence and defence, depth, and even experience.
3. The Detroit Red Wings have an incredible offense and the scariest power play in the league. Their depth and experience is unmatched, and they are deep and savvy. But their penalty kill and defence are questionable mostly because their goaltending has been lacking.
4. The Washington Capitals have survived more injuries than any other team in the league and still have the league's fourth-best percentage of possible points. Granted, they are in by far the weakest division, but they could be contenders to win any division if healthy.
5. The Montreal Canadiens have been able to climb to 12 games above .500 despite being in the division with Boston and struggling on the power play. If they get the latter going to more standard post-lockout levels, they will challenge the Bruins for the division crown.
6. Chicago is a dangerous and talented team, although they are too reliant on overtime and shootout losses to get their points; those will not be helpful in the playoffs.
7. The Calgary Flames have one of the deepest defences and best goalies in the game, but thus far have given up almost three goals per game. Still, they sit atop a division with no teams under .500, and I would expect them to tighten up in their own end before long.
8. The Philadelphia Flyers have grit and depth, and just keep winning. I still do not trust their goaltending and defence, but they score enough to have the best percentage of possible points in the toughest division in hockey.
9. The New York Rangers started out hot and have all the elements: depth at defence, one of the best goalies in the game, and two dangerous scoring lines. Still, they have given up as many as they have scored and have shown a propensity to fall apart.
10. The New Jersey Devils are hanging in there without Brodeur, further proof that they should not feel it necessary to play him 75 games a year—maybe he would have more left in the tank in playoffs, so watch out for this team this April.

Other teams to watch: I would still expect the Pittsburgh Penguins to get things together enough to make the second round and I think the Vancouver Canucks will be dangerous when Roberto Luongo returns. They will make noise in their conferences.

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