Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sharks-Canucks: a Trap Game

I wrote that Saturday's game against the Detroit Red Wings was a man's game. Tuesday's game against the Vancouver Canucks was a trap game.

It was a trap game because the Sharks were coming off a hard-fought, emotional win against the Stanley Cup champions and chief competitors in the Western Conference. It was a trap game because it was right before the All-Star break. It was also a trap game because the Canucks were coming off a stretch in which they got only one of a possible ten points.

But mostly it was a trap game because, after taking an early lead, the Canucks played the dreaded trap.

The trap was successfully employed by the likes of the New Jersey Devils, who won three Stanley Cups utilizing this suffocating defence that clogs up the area between the blue lines with four or five players, making entry into the attacking zone almost impossible. It also nearly killed hockey.

Ironically, the very strategy that helped the venerable Claude Lemieux win two of his four rings was used against him in his return for the first time since retiring after the 2002-2003 season. He was on the Sharks fourth line and very effective, registering a couple shots on goal and a couple hits.

At least when Lemieux was voted the most hated hockey player ever, it was not by his own teammates like was the case with Sean Avery. I also do not deny that the Sharks need more of what Lemieux brings: an ability to get under the opponent's skin and Stanley Cup experience.

But I had enough problem with the trade for Jody Shelley, who had crossed the line a couple times against the Sharks. Lemieux crossed the line into permanent infamy with that hit on Kris Draper in the playoffs about a decade ago.

But I digress. One good thing about the employment of the trap is that after Saturday night's game recap, I felt my articles were too focused on rehashing the scoring and not enough on other substance.

That cannot be a problem in this game. If it were, this would be the entire article:

Just past the mid-point of the opening stanza, Vancouver got on the board when Daniel Sedin got the puck to his brother Henrik, who skated behind the net. After working his way back and forth, he found Taylor Pyatt in the slot with a backhand feed, and Pyatt put home the one-timer over Evgeni Nabokov's glove for the 1-0 lead.

The Sharks were unable to get through the Vancouver trap for many good scoring chances, and when they did, Roberto Luongo was there to stone them. So with just over a minute left in the game, the Sharks were forced to pull Nabby.

Getting a faceoff in the offensive end with 53.6 seconds to go, the Sharks called a timeout to set up. Despite having lost almost two faceoffs for every one they won to that point, San Jose won this and passed the puck around the zone for about 12 seconds, until Joe Thornton got the puck behind the net from Patrick Marleau.

Coming out the forehand side, he spied Devin Setoguchi drifting back away from the defence and threaded a pass to him at the faceoff dot to Luongo's stick side. Seto's one-timer made it through traffic screening Luongo and just inside the post with 39.1 seconds to go.

In overtime, the Sharks drew a penalty and took less than a minute to cash in on the four-on-three. Thornton got the puck to Marleau on a semi-break, and Luongo made the save. In the ensuing scramble, Pavelski took a whack at it and the puck kicked wide to Thornton, who threaded a pass to Marleau on the other wing for the one-timer, game-winner.

Not much to talk about. The peripheral stuff was definitely better than the game made boring by the trap employed.

After the game-winner, Shane O'Brien, the most penalized player in the NHL, threw his shoulder into Ryan Clowe on his way off the ice, and a scrum ensued. Sharks colour commentator Drew Remenda gave Canucks coach Alain Vignieau credit for keeping the peace, but it was his guys who started it and he was the one yelling at the Sharks as they skated away.

The Sharks defence held Vancouver to just 14 shots, although that was made easier by the Canucks dump and trap approach. Luongo was back in form, turning away the first 28 shots he faced.

But San Jose showed it could fight its way back into a game that they struggled in. Clutch is everything in life, and the first line was clutch Tuesday night.

San Jose goes into the All-Star break with a three-game lead on Detroit (five points and a game in hand) for the top spot in the West, who has just 35 games left to make up that ground. The Sharks are also two points up on Boston with two games in hand.

This is shaping up to be an exciting stretch run.

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