Monday, February 2, 2009

Sharks Drop Second in Last Five Home Games

There were a few streaks on the line Saturday night in the matchup between two of the Western Conference's top four teams.

Evgeni Nabokov had a 170-minute, 10-second shutout streak. It took only 48 seconds for the first to fall, as on a delayed penalty in the San Jose offensive zone, the Sharks failed to get possession of the puck.

Former Shark Brian Campbell skated into the attacking zone, dumped a pass to Andrew Ladd and attacked the net. Nabby saved his one-timer, but the rebound came to Shark-hunter Jonathan Toews (6 goals, 2 assists in 5 career games against the Sharks, including the first goal of his career) for the easy put-back.

A strange sequence followed in which it appeared Dave Bolland scored to give Chicago a two-goal lead just 10:59 into the game. But an obscure rule allowed for the referees to reverse the fourth penalty they failed to call on Chicago (they also let one go from the Sharks), and the goal was taken off the board.

Apparently, linesmen can only call majors and double-minors, but they can actually reverse the action that takes place after a non-call if there is any such penalty. Seeing that Jonathan Cheechoo had been bloodied, they reviewed video and assessed a penalty to Kris Versteeg.

Only trouble is, the penalty was commited by Toews, and the officials did not put the extra four or five seconds on the clock, either. Since they were already looking at video, why couldn't they see those two things?

And there are more questions:

1. With no explanation given over the microphone, we are forced to speculate on the nature of the decision. But since the review of video took a few minutes and the call was not made until it was completed, we can only assume it was video that brought the penalty. Why have I never seen this before, when many timesthere is this evidence?
2. How could Cheechoo coming back out of the tunnel with a cut be enough to make them get the call? Couldn't someone simply go cut themselves in the tunnel to get a call at a key time?
3. What difference does it make whether the high-sticking draws blood in deciding a penalty should be a double-minor? Is it not the action that is the infraction, not the result? And wouldn't it be worse if a slash broke my wrist than gave me a bloody nose, even though it would draw no blood? But then that is how the league issues discipline, too: if no one is hurt, you can do anything.
4. Why not allow the linesmen to call any penalties just like the referees? I understand they might not be watching for penalties as much as off-sides, but if they can make some calls, why not others? Wouldn't it make officiating better to have a another couple pairs of eyes in some situations?

In the resulting double-minor, the Sharks capitalized. About half-way through the first of the two minors, Joe Pavelski passed the puck from the point to Ryan Clowe on the half-boards, and he moved it to Chrstian Ehrhoff on the blue line right in the centre of the ice.

Ehrhoff's slapshot found its way through two Chicago defenders and two Sharks teammates screening Nicholai Khabibulin to tie the game. It was his second straight game with a power play goal, both with the Sharks primary man advantage weapon, Dan Boyle, out with an injury.

The power play has clearly suffered without Boyle. The Sharks are 3-14 (21.4 percent) in those three games, and while that is just two percent worse than the season overall, they also gave up a short-handed goal in this game.

Bolland got his point after all, picking up a shot that Ehrhoff heeled and racing in all alone. Ehrhoff tripped him in trying to dive and kick the puck away, making Nabby's save easy. But no one picked up Versteeg who put the rebound home uncontested.

Later saw another of the Sharks' streaks come to an end: three games without having given up a power play goal. That came with 3:45 left in the second and the Sharks having a man without a stick. Cam Barker passed the puck from the point to Patrick Kane, who got it to Toews on the doorstep to Nabby's glove side. Toews roofed a quick shot past Nabby as soon as he went down into the butterfly.

The Sharks gave up another power play goal to Duncan Keith (assists by Brent Seabrook and Versteeg) in the third period, but needed only ten seconds to respond. Pavelski won a faceoff to Blake, who passed the puck from the boards to the blue line, where a streaking Milan Michalek picked it up, split the defence, and skated in for the backhand breakaway goal.

Unfortunately five minutes later, it was clear the Sharks would have a couple other streaks end.

For one, they had a 13-game winning streak over Chicago dating back to 2005. They also were on a four-game winning streak—modest by their standards, but a streak nonetheless. That had helped them to an eight-point lead over the Detroit Red Wings, who are now mired in a five-game losing streak.

San Jose also had earned a point in 25 of 26 home games, with 23 of those coming in victories. And Chicago was playing its third game in four nights half-way across the country from their home.

This should definitely have been a win for San Jose. I am not saying it should have been easy—in fact, I told my wife before the game I expected Nabby to give up four or five goals to the powerful Chicago offence.

What I am saying is that you have to be able to beat a tired team when things are in your favour—you are playing well with a hot goalie, home ice, and a looming dominance over your opponent. Especially when you do not beat many contending teams on the road.

So far this season, of the Sharks' hosts who are currently in the top eight in their conferences in point percentage, only Chicago, Edmonton, Dallas, and Philadelphia lost to San Jose on their home ice. But of those four, only Chicago was playing well enough to be eligible for the playoffs at the time; Philadelphia and Dallas, in fact, were in the basement of their conferences.

With Edmonton's overtime victory of the Sharks, two of those four teams have also beaten San Jose at HP Pavilion, as have the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators. Since overtime losses are still losses in the playoffs, that means four quality road wins and four home losses, one of which is to a non-playoff team (they would have qualified at the time, however).

Thus, perhaps no team needs home ice as much as San Jose. If San Jose expects to avoid every playoff series going to seven games (no one has ever won a Cup with four seven-game series), they better show they can acquire quality road wins this month, and they will have plenty of chances.

After Thursday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Sharks embark on a five-game road trip. Following that, the Sharks have three at home before going on a four-game road trip to close February. After all that, they will still have one more road game than home game left this season.

February is the month for them to prove they can win on the road and therefore win the Cup. They are expecting to get Boyle back Thursday, and there is a good chance that the Sharks other three injured players—Jeremy Roenick, Brad Lukowich, and Torrey Mitchell—may all return before the month is out, as well.

But at this time of the year, you can neither count on getting nor staying healthy.

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