Monday, January 19, 2009

Sharks Will Way to Victory over Chief Conference Competitor

Jim Rome often uses the phrase, "Man's game!" Saturday night's matchup between the two top teams in the Western Conference proved to be just that.

The Sharks were coming off their first home loss of the year, and first since Valentine's Day of 2008. They were without two of their top four defencemen (Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich), last year's league leader in game-deciding goals (Jeremy Roenick, who had ten game winners and four shootout winners in 2007-08), and top penalty-killer Torrey Mitchell.

The Red Wings were playing the third game in four days in California. But with Friday night off, by comparison to the other two matchups, this was no adversity at all: in both, the road team had played the night before and been forced to travel before the game.

When the two teams met in Detroit, San Jose had a nine point lead on the Red Wings; now, that lead was down to one point. Granted, the Wings had played one more game, but clearly the Sharks' hold on their status of the best team in the conference was coming into question.

Leading up to the game, both teams referred to the other as the best in the league. But when Devin Setoguchi did it on camera, Joe Thornton leaned over and declared, "We're the best team in the league!"

Then he went out to prove it. But unlike the past few games, his line did not have to do it alone.

It took less than three minutes for the first score. Douglas Murray dumped the puck down and Ryan Clowe got to it. Using his considerable reach to protect the puck, he cycled around the net and passed it up to Dan Boyle, who roofed a sharp-angle shot by Chris Osgood's ear.

Just over a minute later, you got the feeling this was not going to be a good day for goalies.

Niklas Kronwall advanced the puck from blueline to blueline, where Jiri Hudler chipped it to Valtteri Filppula on the wing. He in turn advanced it to the faceoff circle on Evgeni Nabokov's glove side, crossed over to the middle, and found a crease in the traffic of everyone settling into position in the zone. His wrist shot eluded Nabby's glove and went in over his shoulder.

It took just 3:15 more for the Sharks to regain the lead, and once again it was the second line that shone brightly. Murray once again dumped the puck down, and the Sharks battled to control the puck along the half-boards.

Eventually it was kicked back out to Murray, who pivoted to keep it in and shot it on net. The save went to the other halfboards, where Joe Pavelski drew a delayed penalty on former Shark Brad Stuart.

Joe, Clowe, and Milan Michalek managed to control the puck again and, once again, got it to Murray, who passed it to Michalek in open space. Milan skated across the slot and laced a beautiful, no look, backhand pass across to the other wing, past Kronwall, Dan Cleary, and Stuart, to a wide-open Pavelski for the one-timer.

This pass had to make Thornton's jaw drop, and the score gave Murray his fifth point in eight days, after going the first 40 Sharks games without one.

There was no more scoring in the opening period, but the Sharks did appear in control. San Jose was better in the face-off circle (13-8), out-hit the Red Wings 20-9, and out-shot them 13-11 despite giving up four shots on the period's only penalty kill.

The scoring and the Red Wings got going again once there was fresh ice.

Murray went to the box for holding, and it took less than a minute for Detroit to cash in. Brian Rafalski shot the puck in, and much like Murray's shot leading to his second assist, the rebound bounced out to the half-boards. Pavel Datsyuk got the puck on the wing and passed it to Marian Hossa, who one-timed it home.

Less than three minutes later, Tomas Holmstrom advances the puck to Datsyuk, who attacks the defence, drawing Christian Ehrhoff from the far side to support Derek Joslin. He then finds Johan Franzen in front of the crease on the far side and threads a pass by Jonathan Cheechoo, and Franzen taps it home easily for the Wings first lead of the game.

To me, this play exemplified what has been wrong with the Sharks in the playoffs each of the last three years. The team was controlling play, even having forced the Wings to take a timeout after two consecutive icings. San Jose was out-shooting and out-chancing their foes, but young defencemen were making key mistakes that were giving up scores to an opportunistic, quality foe.

However, San Jose was able to draw Detroit's first penalty less than a minute later, and 31 seconds after that, a slashing penalty on Anrdeas Lilja gave the Sharks an extended five-on-three. San Jose, despite facing the league's second-worst penalty kill on the road (75% coming in), could not cash in on the two-man advantage. Devin Setoguchi and Patrick Marleau both had great chances on rebounds, but the puck bounced the wrong way for them.

It was not until there were only seconds left on Lilja's minor that the Sharks made something happen. Clowe chipped the puck up to Michalek, who skated in and shot one on net form the wing. Osgood made the save, but the rebound kicked straight up between the faceoff circles and Ehrhoff was there to put it home for his first goal since October 18.

Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg tallied another goal on a battle in front of Nabby with over four minutes to go in the second, with assists going to Cleary and Hossa. But Cheechoo answered on the power play to tie it up again with just over a minute to go, as Marc-Eduoard Vlasic shot the puck in, it bounced off Clowe, and came out to Cheech on the wing; the rebound was roofed past Osgood.

The second period ended with a scrum that inexplicably saw Thornton get a double minor for standing with his gloved hand in Franzen's face, while Rafalski got just two for driving Setoguchi's head to the ice. In fact, Franzen and Setoguchi, two of the most innocent of those involved, ended up in the box with him, Thornton and Vlasic.

So while San Jose was outshooting their foes 34-23, the score was tied and they were facing the league's second best Power play. However, the Sharks fourth-ranked penalty kill was better in this period, in large part because Nabby rose to the occasion.

In fact, there was no scoring until over half way through the period, when Ehrhoff passed the puck up the boards to Boyle on his own blueline. Boyle chipped it into the air, and Michalek won the race to it at the red line over three Wings, and skated in for the breakaway goal.

About three minutes later, Vlasic got the puck to Clowe, who found Marleau straddling the blueline to stay on side. Marleau also skated in for the breakaway goal, and it appeared the Sharks may finally have worn down their veteran opponents.

But just like veterans do, Detroit got a goal with under two minutes to go from Rafalski (Zetterberg and Hossa got the assists) to make it interesting. However, San Jose staved off a late attack with Osgood pulled to hold on for the 6-5 victory.

The Sharks are expecting to get Blake and possibly Lukowich and Mitchell back after the All-Star break. It appears Blake has a broken jaw since he has a "wiring device" normally used for that, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

There is one more home game prior to the break, on Tuesday against Vancouver. The Sharks return to action the following Tuesday at Colorado.

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