Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sharks Show Up Late on Road Again

San Jose got off the flight late. Their bus broke down on the way to the rink. They thought the puck did not drop until 8pm PACIFIC time, rather than Mountain time.

That would explain why the team did not arrive until the second period, when it was already too late.

But they were on the ice, so that was not the problem. The problem was that once again the Sharks could not play an entire game of hockey on the road.

Is it too late to have Ron Wilson coach this team on the road and Todd McLellan coach it at home? Wilson's Sharks had the best road record in the league last year; McLellan's Sharks are on pace (19-0-2) to have the best home record in the history of the league.

This is a real concern. Granted, the Sharks are likely to have home ice at least through the Western Conference, but they will still have to play three of every seven games on the road against good teams. No team has ever won the Cup when playing three rounds of seven games, so San Jose will have to beat someone good on the road.

Overall, the Sharks are still 10-5-2-1 on the road, but in the playoffs that is just 10-8. More to the point, in the recent stretch of nine games, San Jose is 1-2-3 on the road.

That's 1-5 in the playoffs. That's a problem.

The one win was against the Dallas Stars, who are over .500 now but not yet in the playoffs. This continues San Jose's dominance over the rest of the division: the Sharks are 9-2 against their division rivals, including 3-2 on the road.

But only one of those teams (the Anaheim Ducks) would be in the playoffs right now, and the Sharks lost the only road game against them. In the last nine games, the two regulation losses on the road were against the two other division leaders.

In other words, we as fans cannot expect any wins on the road after the first round. That does not bode well for a deep run, just as an inability to win at home made last year's run more difficult. You have to be able to play anywhere.

Now to the actual game...

Calgary had 14 shots and two goals before the Sharks got their first puck to the net, a sharp-angle shot by Mike Grier from the boards that had no chance to go in. Calgary stetched the lead to 3-0 with a 16-4 edge in shots by the end of the first. Two of San Jose's four shots came on their one penalty.

McLellan tried new line combinations, breaking up Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton; the failure to compete is a concern when the Sharks run across defensive pairs who can shut down one line. Despite changing back to what has worked so well, the second period still started much as the first: Calgary's Daymond Langkow scored his second goal of the game just 1:26 in on the team's second shot of the period.

McLellan pulled Evgeni Nabokov after he allowed four goals on 18 shots, but he was not to blame for that poor save percentage. On his best day, he may have stopped two more, and I am sure he feels he should have kept at least one of the two out of the net.

Calgary's second goal came on a pass from uber-villain Todd Bertuzzi through the crease from behind the goal line that Nabby could have stopped. However, once it got through to Langkow, open on the backside at the edge of the crease, it was unstoppable.

One could also argue that the first goal, a wrist shot from Curtis Glencross in the faceoff circle on Nabby's glove side, could have been stopped. It appeared Nabby did not have the stick flush with the ice as the puck glanced off his leg and through the five hole.

That has been a weakness of Nabby's, but after saving the first ten, he was bound to let one in. Shots like this are taken with a fairly high percentage of success.

The other two goals no one could have stopped. The third was a power play wrister by Mark Giordano through traffic, and the one that chased Nabby was a one-timer to the backside.

The Sharks seemed to respond to the move, getting two tallies in the second period on special teams. The first was a rebound goal by Ryan Clowe (assists: Milan Michalek, Dan Boyle) about three minutes later. The second goal was short-handed, with Patty Marleau being persistent enough and showing fantastic hand-eye coordination to poke the puck away from Adrian Aucoin and sending a beautiful pass to Mike Grier for the score.

Have I mentioned before how glad I am that Doug Wilson kept Marleau instead of trading him like I wanted? And while I am talking about where I ahve been wrong, Alexei Semenov has even shown an ability to play forward in relief of Jody Shelley, and even did a nice job in two fights that were both called as roughing minors. (The second "minor" featured several punches by both and lasted longer than many fights—how do you make that call and how can the league let referees who do keep working?)

Grier, who seemed to be struggling earlier this season, has bounced back nicely after returning from injury, much like Nabby and Jonathan Cheechoo. Maybe letting guys who are banged up rest is the best thing in the long run, rather than the macho "play with pain" mantra.

Unfortunately, the Sharks could not get another goal despite out-shooting Calgary 24-12 after the first period. Calgary got one on the ten shots Brian Boucher faced, by David Moss with 9:54 to go in the game, pretty much ending any chance the Sharks had.

The Sharks play next in Edmonton Friday, then will be in Vancouver Saturday. Saturday's game was picked up by Comcast Sports Net Plus, perhaps because Mats Sundin is expected to play by then. I sure hope we see Boucher in net for one of those games.

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