Thursday, January 15, 2009

Team Teal and Silver with a Touch of Grey

In fewer than 1200 career hockey games, Rick Tocchet accrued almost 3000 penalty minutes. In a brief stint as Wayne Gretzky's assistant coach in Phoenix, Tocchet was linked not only to gambling on sports, but to a dirty cop with ties to organized crime, and was suspended from the league. Yet he is back coaching a sport that has enough integrity problems.

I guess the old saying is true: fecal matter does roll downhill. Tocchet's team plays like he lived his life, both on the ice and off it. They are just not quite good enough to get the job done cleanly, so they resort to unsportsmanlike behaviour.

With a 7-1 deficit about half-way through the third period, Evgeni Artyukhin hit Mike Grier long after the whistle. When Grier came after him, the officials tackled him and gave him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to match Artyukhin's roughing minor.

In my opinion, they had no business tackling a man for defending himself, either to have him avoid that penalty for a retaliation or to stop him from doing it. Plus, by stopping that fight, things just continued to escalate; after all, what difference would another penalty kill make in a game that was already decided?

Two of Tocchet's players were ejected later in the period. Vaclav Prospal was first with 6:15 left in the game, crossing the line in arguing a bad call. You can't blame a guy for that—his team is losing 7-1 on the end of a three game road trip three time zones from home in what is already a long season. He's working his tail off and gets a bogus call and just kind of loses it out of frustration.

The second is another story. After a penalty to Andrej Meszaros for cross-checking seventy seconds later, the Sharks were on a five-on-three power play. With 12 seconds left in it, David Koci (who also attempted to start a fight in the first period with Ryan Clowe) commits three consecutive cross-checks to the back of Alexei Semenov followed by a gloved punch to the face.

Semenov's apparent transgression? Standing in front of the goalie on a power play. Not interfering with him, just screening him. Perhaps the way the Lightning took offence to this, we can understand why they have one of the worst power plays—and teams—in the league.

The fact that San Jose's seventh defenceman who has been playing on the fourth forward line because of injuries is out on a power play despite the dirty play of the Lightning tells you that the Sharks were going out of their way not to rub it in. And this is how that sportsmanship is repaid.

So how did Team Teal get to this point?

For one thing, the Sharks got back into good habits. They got the puck behind the defence and forced them to face their own net. They won face-offs. Douglas Murray laid wood on a few players and set a physical tone early.

But more than anything, the Sharks got pucks to the net. The Lightning were out-shot in all three periods, and 17-8 in the first, when the Sharks took control of the game.

Just a couple shifts into the game, Murray dumped the puck to the corner and Devin Setoguchi fought to poke it to Joe Thornton. Then he dropped back to the slot, where Joe found him; his wrist-shot was ripped short side high for the 1-0 lead.

On the next shift, Tampa had a chance to tie the game. Ryan Malone got a shot on a two-on-one thanks to a great outlet pass with the Sharks pinched up to try to keep the puck in the zone, but was denied by Evgeni Nabokov.

With about six minutes to go and the Sharks on the power play, Thornton tried to get the puck across the crease to Patrick Marleau, but it deflected off an opposition stick and past back-up goaltender Karri Ramo. Marleau and Rob Blake got assists on the play, and the Sharks went into intermission up 2-0.

The second period saw some push-back from Tampa, and it resulted in a score 7:47 in. Artyukhin got a puck to Mark Recchi, who sent a brilliant cross-ice feed to the 2008 top overall pick Steven Stamkos, who deflected it home.

However, that score seemed to wake the Sharks up. At the mid-point of the game, Thornton was able to punch home a rebound after Setoguchi deflected a puck on net on a shot-pass from Marleau.

Then, with less than three minutes to go in the second, the flood gates opened. Milan Michalek started a string of four goals in 4:51 with assists from Jonathan Cheechoo and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic. Ryan Clowe got another power play goal with four seconds left in the period, with Pavelski and Michalek getting the assists.

Joe Pavelski's line was on the ice for the start of the third period, and 34 seconds in, the centre scored his first goal in 2009 when he got to a loose puck in the crease. The scoring ended 2:12 into the third when Semenov worked hard to keep a puck in the zone, passed it across to Brad Staubitz, and Tomas Plihal deflected his shot over Ramo.

Team Teal looked sterling in this game, especially the top power play lines. But there was a touch of grey to the silver lines.

First and foremost, Tampa is not very good, and a team of San Jose's calibre should dominate them on home ice. Furthermore, we must remember that Tampa played the night before and had to travel in between, flying into Oakland and taking a bus to San Jose. We all remember what the hardship of playing and traveling over the previous night did to a much more talented Sharks team in Detroit last month.

Yet despite the tired opponent, the power play failed to score on back-to-back five on threes in the third period. Granted, Todd McLellan put out fourth liners to play it, but you need to have a score there.

More to the point, there was almost no scoring outside of the first two lines. Plihal's goal was the only one despite the ice time given to the checking lines in the third period.

One of the reasons Calgary—the Sharks' opponent Thursday—dominated San Jose last week was that McLellan tried to break up the top line to spread out the scoring threats. It did not work, and it leaves one wondering how this team will do when the top line faces shut-down defensive pairs and checking lines in the playoffs.

McLellan is doing more than spouting lines when he says there is a lot of work to do for this team to be able to meet its ultimate goal. Good thing we have 40 games left to do it.

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