Monday, March 16, 2009

Sharks Man Up Over Weekend, Earn Playoff Spot

This weekend was all Evgeni Nabokov, as he returned from both illness and the dreaded "lower-body injury" that is just a "tweak" Saturday night.

Against the Los Angeles Kings, who are desperately fighting to stay alive for the playoffs, Nabby was dynamite in his first day back. The only goal he gave up in 24 shots was a rebound Wayne Simmonds punched home, and he stopped six of seven shooters in the shootout. He even turned away a two-on-none shorthanded breakaway.

But Erik Ersberg was better, stopping 38 of 39 shots, with the only goal being a Milan Michalek redirect of a shot-pass by Joe Pavelski. He also turned away five of seven shots in the shootout--not enough to avoid the loss, but that was only because his teammates, coming off a game the previous night in Vancouver, could not match the fresher legs and superior talent of their opponents.

Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich returned for that game, but Christian Ehrhoff was held out because of a "lower-body tweak." Then on Sunday, having to play less than 20 hours after completing the previous grueling contest and after a late-night flight, the line-up was the same. Including in net.

So after not having played for two and a half weeks, Nabby is expected to play for 125 minutes-plus in under 25 hours. Foolish.

The last time Nabby played in back-to-back games, the Sharks lost 6-0 to Detroit. I pointed out in my recap article that he has not been very successful in those outings.

But in this one, Nabby was even better. Anaheim's fresher legs staked them to a 12-7 edge in shots in the first period, and they held that five-shot edge through two. But with about a minute left in that period, Jamie McGinn backhanded a pass through the middle that former Duck Travis Moen deflected over Jonas Hiller's shoulder.

That one goal was all Nabby needed. He stopped all 34 shots he saw, and endured some abuse at the hands of Corey Perry, who in keeping with the thuggish approach of the Ducks, whacked at a puck Nabby had covered after the whistle.

Maybe it wasn't so foolish to play him after all. He stole two games to keep the Sharks within a point of Detroit with two games in hand. Thanks to Nabby, the Sharks still have the best point percentage in the league and are still in the driver's seat for the President's Trophy.

My biggest complaints for the Sharks of late has been not playing with the desperation of their opponents. But there was no problem with the effort this weekend. They out-shot the Kings 38-24 and hung in there on the road against a team who had not played for five days, even though there were less than 20 hours between games.

This is a good sign because the Sharks finish the season with 34 games in 66 days before entering the grueling Western Conference playoffs, in which they are likely to play a lot of long series. They have shown they can muster the energy and clamp down on defence.

But they are not going to face teams like Anaheim, who has lost too much talent to overcome four teams and three points in their final 13 games. Even if they somehow make it in, they are certainly not going to be there in the second round, when the Sharks need to break their jinx.

The Sharks have now become the first team in the league to clinch a playoff birth. They are one point away from clinching the division title. They are a lock to be at least a two seed, since they seven and a half games ahead of Calgary. They are even likely to finish ahead of Detroit thanks to having two more games to play.

At the same time, if they want to win in the playoffs, they will have to figure out how to score. Excluding the shootout, the Sharks have scored just 19 goals in 11 games, and just 18 in regulation.

It is amazing that they are 5-5-1 in that stretch, but only two of the teams in that stretch will be in the playoffs, and they can't blame the scoring on injuries: Rob Blake was the only player out to have scored over 22 points, and he only missed two games. They have even failed in their last 16 power play attempts.

They have 14 games to figure out their scoring. If they cannot, they will get no further than they have in the past three seasons.

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