Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sharks Dominate Another Pacific Foe

Good to see someone else posted here. Even better to see my "guppies" as he put it are now over a dozen games ahead of his fallen Stars...

On Thursday night, the San Jose Sharks returned home to host the Pacific Division second place Phoenix Coyotes. Both teams came to play, and the game had post-season intensity.

Under four minutes into the game, there was a fight between Daniel Winnik and Ryan Clowe. Both teams had in excess of 30 hits and a minimum of 17 penalty minutes.

The game also featured tight defence. Neither team managed 30 shots on goal, and both goalies made tremendous save after save. Thursday was Evgeni Nabokov's second consecutive shutout, and it has now been 170 minutes, 10 secondssince he let a goal by him.

The only shot that went by either happened when Patrick Marleau passed a rebound of a Devin Setoguchi shot out to Christian Ehrhoff, who slapped it home around a partial Joe Thornton screen. The only other goal came when Ryan Clowe passed the puck across to Marcel Goc, who shot it into the empty net; Alexei Semenov got the secondary assist.

One concern for the Sharks is their failure to score in every game where the first line is broken up; coach Todd McLellan did that again by elevating Clowe to the first line and putting Marleau on the second.

The other time he did that was in Calgary, when the Sharks were outscored 3-0 in the first period before McLellan switched the teams back. Any good defence can shut down one line, and there will be plenty of good defences in the Western conference playoffs.

But for now, the Sharks have shown an ability to win games against tough teams in multiple ways. In this four-game winning streak, they have needed six goals to win one game and a shutout to win another.

Now the Sharks face the Chicago Blackhawks Saturday at home; Chicago will be playing their third game in four days in California, so San Jose should earn their 14th consecutive win over the Original Six franchise.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Glad to be Home


After a slight hiatus from the blog, and even one from my usual writing duties at Bleacher Report I am back. Thankfully my good friend and guppies fan M.J. has kept this lovely blog afloat. With my return to hockey writing is also even more motivation to write even more after joining a site called The Hockey Writers, an attempt to bring together some of the best blogging minds in hockey together on one site.

I hope my friend M.J will make an attempt to write for them, although they do ask for original material that will not be posted anywhere else other than their site. This is also the main reason I will be covering my usual assignment of Stars hockey for Bleacher Report, while covering the Anaheim Ducks for hockeywriters.com.

A big thanks to M.J. who has truly busted his tail fin on Bleacher Report and this blog to spread Sharks news.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sharks Send Avs to Davey Jones Locker

The second half of the NHL season started Tuesday. For the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche, the setting for Act II was the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.

This game served as a second act in several ways. It was a reunion of many former teammates and champions from both teams.

The Avalanche are famously without aging stars of their glory days like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Adam Foote, and any chance they have of returning to the playoffs rests on their ability to stay in the hunt until their former studs can return.

The Sharks saw the return of two other teammates of those great Avs teams. The newest Shark, 43-year old Claude Lemieux, returned to one of the few places he is not hated.

Rob Blake not only returned to the Arena he won his Stnaley Cup with, but also returned from what is believed to be a broken jaw. However, that was off-set by the news that fellow blue line addition Dan Boyle reinjured himself in the All Star game. San Jose was also without their other off-season addition, Brad Lukowich, as well as Jeremy Roenick and Torrey Mitchell.

So how would the teams perform without their full compliment? Both have been dealing with this for most of the year; to this point, San Jose has the best point percentage in the league, and Colorado has the ninth worst.

Early on, the Avalanche was getting a majority of the pressure, out-shooting the Sharks 9-5 in the first period. However, two key lapses led to a San Jose lead.

First, former Sharks defenceman Scott Hannan (sorry, Colorado fans: he is no Minister of Defense—that title belongs to the late Reggie White ONLY!) took a penalty for high-sticking. For more than a minute-and-a-half, they did an excellent job killing the penalty.

But then they made their second mistake. Christian Ehrhoff took the puck from Ryan Clowe behind the net, and the Avs left Milan Michalek alone drifting toward the crease; he easily put the one-timer home for a lead just 8:15 in.

The Sharks looked like they might take over the game at the end of the period. Alexei Semenov had one of the best shifts I have ever witnessed (I am officially off his case and about to get on his bandwagon), checking David Jones hard twice and drawing a double minor for high-sticking from Cody McLeod. But the Sharks power play struggled to even get shots against the league's 22nd-ranked penalty kill without Dan Boyle as its catalyst.

A couple shifts into the second period, the assault on Jones continued from Douglas Murray, and that hit sent him to Davey Jones' locker. Just as the pirates of old for whom that term was first used, he did not return.

The physical play helped generate momentum to lead to another score by Michalek just 1:31 into the second. Blake advanced the puck to Joe Pavelski, who found Milan streaking up the right wing. Michalek kept Andrew Raycroft guessing between pass or shot and ripped a quick, hard wristshot to the corner.

Michalek has three two-goal games at the Pepsi Center in the last two years. He now has 10 in his career without a single hat trick.

These events also led to further confrontations. One was a fight between Murray and Chris Stewart, in which Murray landed several shots to his opponent's one, but that one was a doozy. The other was Ryan Smyth being knocked over the back of the net, toppling the cage with him onto Evgeni Nabokov; no one was hurt.

Nabby was also dominant. One on occasion, he made a save in which he slid into the net but kept the puck out. On another, he kept a puck from going in despite half the net being open. Rookie defenceman Derek Joslin also beat Wojtek Wolski to a loose puck in front of the crease with Nabby on his back.

From this point, the Sharks began to take over. By the end of the period when they took a penalty, they had registered several unanswered shots and ended the second with a 21-19 lead in shots.

It continued into the third, when the Sharks out-shot the Avs 17-12, including the empty net goal by Patrick Marleau (assisted by Tomas Plihal and Joe Thornton) with 38 seconds to go.

The Sharks come home to HP Pavilion to play the second place Phoenix Coyotes Thursday night at 7:30pm PST. The Coyotes lost to Anaheim to fall 22 points back of the Sharks, who also have three games in hand on their pursuers.

The Sharks got mixed news from their other two hunters, seeing their lead over the Detroit Red Wings, who lost in overtime to the Columbus Blue Jackets, rise to six points with a game in hand.

But Boston was a winner in overtime against Washington, and is thus still able to claim they are tied for the best record in the NHL because of the moronic precedence given to the point system over the fact that they have played two more games. They will maintain that two extra game edge by hosting New Jersey Thursday.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sharks Dominate Division Like I Dominate This Blog!

I have written the past 16 entries on this site, and completely dominate the first page. Why does no other writer on this site for the division have anything to say?

Perhaps it is because the Sharks are as dominant in the Pacific Division as I am on this site. San Jose currently holds an almost insurmountable edge on their next closest competitor in the division.

Even by NHL standards (the dumbest way of tracking division leaders ever conceived), the lead is 20 points. But if you factor in that the Phoenix Coyotes have played three more games than the Sharks, that translates into an 11 1/2 game lead by baseball standards.

To put it in perspective, the next biggest lead is six games and 13 points by Boston over Montreal. The difference between the first and last place teams in the Northwest is only seven games and 13 points. Only six teams outside of the Pacific are behind their division leader by more games than Phoenix.

Let's say the Sharks were ravaged by injury and played only .500 hockey for the rest of the season, a pace that only eight teams are currently below. Even then the Coyotes would have to earn 57 of a possible 68 points the rest of the way, an .838 point percentage.

That is 27 percentage points better than the Sharks current success rate of .811, which best in the league by 35 percentage points. Good luck: I project the Sharks will have the Pacific Division mathematically wrapped up on March 12, eight days after the trade deadline.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

San Jose Officially NHL's Team to Beat

With the 2008-09 NHL season entering the All Star break, this is a perfect time to analyze what we have seen so far as well as what we can expect in the remaining 11 weeks. We have seen enough to know the quality of each team, even as far as getting an idea of whether teams might be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline.

So let's get right to it; the top ten teams are listed in order of how I believe they will finish the season in the standings:

1. The Boston Bruins have shown enough to make me believe they can hold on to the substantial lead they have over other Eastern Conference teams and will finish with the best record in the league because they have an easier road than the Sharks or the Red Wings, including a home game against the former in February and a win against the latter already. They lead the league in goals for and goals against, and are eighth in penalty kill and third in power play.
2. The San Jose Sharks are the best team in the league right now. They have proven themselves with an almost invincible home record and are a full game ahead of the Boston Bruins (equal points, two games fewer played). They have survived significant injuries to such key players as Evgeni Nabokov, Jonathan Cheechoo, Rob Blake, Torrey Mitchell (out the entire season so far), Mike Grier, and Jeremy Roenick. They are in the top five in shots on goal and shots against, in goals scored and goals against, and in power play and penalty kill.
3. The Detroit Red Wings are still an elite team, with the league's best power play and offence and the experience and savvy to make things happen—they are definitely clutch. However, they have horrible defence. Only 11 teams give up more goals per game and only 10 have penalty kills ranked lower than Detroit's. This is primarily because of goaltending, as the Red Wings give up the third fewest shots in the league. As we all know, goaltending is the most important position in all of sports, and especially critical in the playoffs.
4. The Washington Capitals will finish with the fourth-best record in the league for a few reasons. First, they survived a plethora of injuries earlier in the season and fought through it. Second, they are in the weakest division in the league, possibly in the history of the league. Third, they have possibly the greatest player in the league in Alex Ovechkin, a player that is not just among the most skilled in the league but has the physicality to play on a checking line.
5. The New Jersey Devils have the league's fifth best point percentage despite playing in a competitive division without one of the five best goalies of all time. Martin Brodeur will be back before the end of the season, and this time will have an offence that is tied for eighth in the league in front of him. They have the savvy and experience to win when they have to.
6. The Calgary Flames have been struggling on defence, with only six teams giving up more goals per game than the Flames. But they have found their offence, ranking sixth in the league in that category, and they have one of the league's best goaltenders and blue lines, so I expect them to turn it around defensively.
7. The Chicago Blackhawks are among the league leaders in points despite a 0-2-0-2 record against the Red Wings, who they do not play again until a home-and-home series in the last two games of the season. By then, the games may mean less to Detroit than Chicago. With two of the other teams in the division being weak, they should be able to have the best record of the non-division winners. They have the fourth-best offence and fourth-best defence, and in the top ten in both power play and penalty kill.
8. Les Habitants de Montreal are doing well despite their typically vaunted power play sputtering—they are currently ranked 24th in that category. Despite this they are tied with New Jersey for the eighth in offence, and they are in ninth in both goals against and penalty kill. Expect their power play to turn around and for them to feast on their mediocre division.
9. The New York Rangers have only spent most of the season in "first place" in the Atlantic because they have played more games than anyone else. They were off to a hot start in October, but their point percentage has been lower than New Jersey and Philadelphia since about Thanksgiving. They have the goaltending and, on paper at least, the forwards and blue line to be an elite team, but they have actually given up more goals that they have scored andseem to often play for the shootout; that will not be a strategy they can employ in the post-season.
10. The Philadelphia Flyers can score with almost anyone and have similar clutch capabilities to the Red Wings, but their defence and goaltending are also similarily suspect, and I do not believe they will be able to win this division with that weakness.

Best of the rest: I expect the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks to see their positions rise in the remainder of the season. When Pittsburgh gets Sergei Gonchar back, he will be the catalyst for the power play the team needs. Now that Roberto Luongo has returned and Mats Sundin is rounding into form, Vancouver is a dangerous team.

Other playoff teams: Western Conference teams will see great defensive teams in the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets join a young but fundamentally sound Phoenix Coyotes team squeak in, leaving behind the resurging Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, and fading Anaheim Ducks. In the East, the Florida Panthers will ride their weak division schedule into the post-season just as I predicted (and was derided for) before the season, with the Buffalo Sabres being the the odd-team out.

Playoff results by round, Western Conference:

1. Sharks over Blue Jackets in six—Columbus plays the Sharks tough and will be able to slow the game down, with rookie standout goalie Steve Mason making scoring tough. Red Wings over Wild in six—I see a clash of styles with much the same results as above. Flames over Coyotes in five—Phoenix just does not have enough depth of talent to win this series. Canucks over Blackhawks in six—Chicago relies too much on overtime losses for their points and does not have the playoff experience Vancouver does.
2. Sharks over Canucks in six—San Jose has dominated Vancouver and is simply too deep. Red Wings over Flames in seven—Calgary is physical and well-rounded, but their propensity to take penalties will be their undoing against this power play.
3. Sharks over Red Wings in seven—I firmly believe that whichever team wins home ice for this round wins it, and with a three game lead and Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Lidstrom being suspended for the first game after the All Star break, San Jose will hold off the Wings despite a slightly tougher schedule the rest of the way. By avoiding the tougher and more physical opponent in Calgary as well as one less trip over three time zones, San Jose edges out the defending champions.

Playoff results by round, Eastern Conference:

1. Bruins over Panthers in five—Florida's goaltending will get them one win, but they do not score enough to be a serious threat in this series. Penguins over Capitals in seven—I am doing a rare thing here for me by picking a road team in game seven, but I think Pittsburgh is deeper and more experienced than Washington and that will carry them. Devils over Flyers in six—New Jersey is the better all-around team, especially with Brodeur back in net. Rangers over Canadiens in seven—I trust Henrik Lundqvist more than Carey Price in that pressure cooker, so I am picking another road team in a game seven.
2. Penguins over Bruins in six—Boston will be in uncharted territory, and I do not think they are ready. They have only one third period comeback on the entire season, and that does not indicate a team resilient enough to overcome the adversity they are likely to face. Devils over Rangers in six—New Jersey has never had a rested Brodeur in the playoffs, and will be hard to beat with that plus an offence.
3. Devils over Penguins in seven—Pittsburgh avoids the pitfall of the West by playing two of its three series against teams in their back yard, but they will still have to travel more than New Jersey. The Devils are the only team in the East with more late-round experience, they have better goaltending, and they have home ice; this is too much for Pittsburgh to overcome.

In the finals, the one less cross-country flight because of owning home ice will not even compensate for San Jose's much more demanding playoff itinerary. However, New Jersey does not have the depth of talent on the blue line or even among their forwards that San Jose does, and if the Sharks get this far, they will have the confidence of having slain the dragon in Detroit—there will no longer be the worry of choking. Brodeur is a better goalie and will be less weary, but it is not enough; Sharks in seven.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sharks-Canucks: a Trap Game

I wrote that Saturday's game against the Detroit Red Wings was a man's game. Tuesday's game against the Vancouver Canucks was a trap game.

It was a trap game because the Sharks were coming off a hard-fought, emotional win against the Stanley Cup champions and chief competitors in the Western Conference. It was a trap game because it was right before the All-Star break. It was also a trap game because the Canucks were coming off a stretch in which they got only one of a possible ten points.

But mostly it was a trap game because, after taking an early lead, the Canucks played the dreaded trap.

The trap was successfully employed by the likes of the New Jersey Devils, who won three Stanley Cups utilizing this suffocating defence that clogs up the area between the blue lines with four or five players, making entry into the attacking zone almost impossible. It also nearly killed hockey.

Ironically, the very strategy that helped the venerable Claude Lemieux win two of his four rings was used against him in his return for the first time since retiring after the 2002-2003 season. He was on the Sharks fourth line and very effective, registering a couple shots on goal and a couple hits.

At least when Lemieux was voted the most hated hockey player ever, it was not by his own teammates like was the case with Sean Avery. I also do not deny that the Sharks need more of what Lemieux brings: an ability to get under the opponent's skin and Stanley Cup experience.

But I had enough problem with the trade for Jody Shelley, who had crossed the line a couple times against the Sharks. Lemieux crossed the line into permanent infamy with that hit on Kris Draper in the playoffs about a decade ago.

But I digress. One good thing about the employment of the trap is that after Saturday night's game recap, I felt my articles were too focused on rehashing the scoring and not enough on other substance.

That cannot be a problem in this game. If it were, this would be the entire article:

Just past the mid-point of the opening stanza, Vancouver got on the board when Daniel Sedin got the puck to his brother Henrik, who skated behind the net. After working his way back and forth, he found Taylor Pyatt in the slot with a backhand feed, and Pyatt put home the one-timer over Evgeni Nabokov's glove for the 1-0 lead.

The Sharks were unable to get through the Vancouver trap for many good scoring chances, and when they did, Roberto Luongo was there to stone them. So with just over a minute left in the game, the Sharks were forced to pull Nabby.

Getting a faceoff in the offensive end with 53.6 seconds to go, the Sharks called a timeout to set up. Despite having lost almost two faceoffs for every one they won to that point, San Jose won this and passed the puck around the zone for about 12 seconds, until Joe Thornton got the puck behind the net from Patrick Marleau.

Coming out the forehand side, he spied Devin Setoguchi drifting back away from the defence and threaded a pass to him at the faceoff dot to Luongo's stick side. Seto's one-timer made it through traffic screening Luongo and just inside the post with 39.1 seconds to go.

In overtime, the Sharks drew a penalty and took less than a minute to cash in on the four-on-three. Thornton got the puck to Marleau on a semi-break, and Luongo made the save. In the ensuing scramble, Pavelski took a whack at it and the puck kicked wide to Thornton, who threaded a pass to Marleau on the other wing for the one-timer, game-winner.

Not much to talk about. The peripheral stuff was definitely better than the game made boring by the trap employed.

After the game-winner, Shane O'Brien, the most penalized player in the NHL, threw his shoulder into Ryan Clowe on his way off the ice, and a scrum ensued. Sharks colour commentator Drew Remenda gave Canucks coach Alain Vignieau credit for keeping the peace, but it was his guys who started it and he was the one yelling at the Sharks as they skated away.

The Sharks defence held Vancouver to just 14 shots, although that was made easier by the Canucks dump and trap approach. Luongo was back in form, turning away the first 28 shots he faced.

But San Jose showed it could fight its way back into a game that they struggled in. Clutch is everything in life, and the first line was clutch Tuesday night.

San Jose goes into the All-Star break with a three-game lead on Detroit (five points and a game in hand) for the top spot in the West, who has just 35 games left to make up that ground. The Sharks are also two points up on Boston with two games in hand.

This is shaping up to be an exciting stretch run.

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.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sharks Burned by Flames for First Home Loss in 11 Months

The San Jose Sharks last regulation loss at HP Pavilion in a regular season game was Valentine's Day, 2008. So you might title Thursday night's effort Love's Labours Lost.

During the broadcast, Drew Remenda and Randy Hahn commented that, before the game, Calgary said, "someone's going to beat (San Jose) here—it might as well be us." When the Flames were hanging on to a one-goal lead late in the game, they wondered aloud whether the Flames were prophetic.

The game started out well enough for the Sharks. On the game's second shift, Dan Boyle took an outlet pass from Joe Pavelski and skated it into the offensive zone before dumping the puck into the corner. Milan Michalek forechecked to get the puck free, and Boyle passed it from behind the net to Ryan Clowe on the inside edge of the faceoff circle to Miikka Kiprusoff's stick side.

Before Clowe let it fly, Boyle had both hands raised in the air. Exactly one minute into the game, the Sharks had a 1-0 lead.

Calgary's Craig Conroy answered early in the second. Adrian Aucoin's shot from the point caromed around in front of Evgeni Nabokov until finally Conroy was able to put it home 2:02 into the period.

Joe Thornton had a rebuttal less than four minutes later. He took a pass from Devin Setoguchi and skated into the slot, never even looking to pass for a change, even with Patrick Marleau headed toward the net on the wing. His wrist shot ripped the twine from between the faceoff dots on Kipper's stick side; Boyle got the secondary assist.

But after Calgary evened up the score on a Daymond Langkow power play goal, Joe took a foolish penalty that may have cost the Sharks the game. With a man in the box, Rene Bourque cross-checked Joe and got exactly what he wanted—a retaliation that put the Sharks' best player in the box.

Thus, when Corey Sarich took another penalty 50 seconds later, the key to the Sharks power play could not help his team cash in on 29 seconds of five-on-three or the remaining 41 seconds of the one-man advantage.

This is not the first time a thug team has taken a shot at Joe and then known they did not have to worry about killing penalties. Anaheim did it in the teams' second matchup en route to their first win of the season, a 4-0 drubbing.

There are two successful ways teams respond to opponents taking runs at their stars: score on the power play like Detroit does, or knock out someone's teeth like the Flames or Ducks would.

The Sharks cannot do the former without Joe. That highlights another problem I talked about in my previous article: if teams shut down Joe's line, as we have seen them do time and time again in the playoffs, the Sharks are dead in the water.

And they seem unwilling to respond the other way. Even with Jody Shelley back in the lineup and tough guy Brad Staubitz out there to boot, the Sharks allowed the Flames to take liberties with their players without retaliation, even when it was clear that the referees were swallowing their whistles all night.

Bourque took a boarding penalty for hitting Derek Joslin from behind, but got only two minutes and no knuckle sandwiches. Derek Roy shot a puck at Evgeni Nabokov on a whistle and faced no consequence beyond posturing. Kiprusoff pulled Joe's skate out from under him, sending him face first into the ice...nothing.

Trust me, if David Koci's triple cross-check and gloved punch to the face in a game wherein the outcome was already decided Tuesday had met with an ungloved punch to a now-broken nose, instigators would think twice about messing with the Sharks.

Don't threaten to toss the gloves, do it. Especially if you are Alexei Semenov or Shelley, and having you tossed from the game will not greatly affect the team's chances of winning. That's what you are there for!

In a close game, Joe needs to either let someone else fight his battles or let the referee whistle give his team a man advantage. Then he needs to make the play that makes them pay.

That one goal would have kept this streak alive, but it never happened. Instead, the Sharks went into the third period tied and Dion Phaneuf shot a puck off Marc-Eduoard Vlasic's stick and past a surprised Nabokov for the game winner with about four minutes left.

One of the other things that hurt the Sharks was the departure of Rob Blake. A puck ramped up his stick and into his face with about four minutes left in the first. The team is being very tight-lipped about what the subsequent injury is: according to the team website, the resulting examination was "positive" and more information would be forthcoming.

Without Blake for the last two periods, the Sharks handle on the game slipped away. The team had to rely on over 30 minutes out of Vlasic and Boyle, and had lost a key man on the point in the power play.

Again, one must question the team's depth. The air of invincibility at home is dispelled, and the Sharks have only won three road games over teams that are solidly playoff-bound. The first was at Philadelphia at a time when the opponents had only one win, the second was over Chicago in November, and the other was over Vancouver last week.

That is not the mark of a team ready to win Lord Stanley's Cup. San Jose has a chance at redemption over the other team who most recently embarrassed them, as Detroit comes to town Saturday.

This is a must-win for the Sharks, since Detroit will be playing their third game in California in four days. The Sharks will be on their third game in California in five days...all at home.

If you can't beat the second-best team in the conference at home when you need to bounce back and you have that kind of advantage, you are the second best team in the conference.

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.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sharks Respond with Back-to-Back Wins in Canada

The San Jose Sharks came into Edmonton Friday night with a disturbing one win in their last six road games. Against teams that would be in the playoffs, they had two losses by three or more goals (Calgary, Detroit) and one in overtime (Minnesota).

Edmonton was a team on the bubble, much like the Dallas Stars that San Jose played last week. And just like that game, the Sharks came away victors, with Evgeni Nabokov allowing just one goal.

The Sharks got on board first with a power play goal 7:54 into the game, and just seven seconds into the penalty to Steve Staios. Joe Thornton won the faceoff back to Dan Boyle, who skated left and dropped the puck back to Devin Setoguchi; his slapshot was wired top shelf stick side on Shark-killer Dwayne Roloson.

Edmonton answered with a power play goal of their own. After San Jose created a short-handed scoring chance, the Oilers got a chance to set up their power play. With 37 seconds left in the hooking minor to Brad Staubitz, Denis Grebeshkov wristed a shot home past Nabby from Andrew Cogliano and defence-mate Lubomir Visnovsky.

Staubitz, born and raised for much of his childhood in Edmonton, got his revenge three minutes later with his first NHL goal, a simple slapshot that went off the glove of Roloson. Douglas Murray got his first point of the season with the primary assist, and Alexei Semenov got the secondary assist, his first point as a forward and second of the year.

With 36 seconds left in the first, Patrick Marleau did what he commonly does: answer with a goal of his own after Setoguchi has scored, maintaining the team lead. Rob Blake tried to shoot the puck at the net from the point, but it was blocked; Setoguchi picked up the puck and whiffed on a shot, then tossed it to Marleau who slapped it home.

That goal was the last given up by Roloson, who was pulled between periods. It also moved Patty past his goal total from all of last season and gave Blake his 500th career assist.

Marleau did extend the lead on a power play with about three minutes to go in the second, after Nabby stopped a great short-handed scoring chance from the Oilers' captain, Ethan Moreau. San Jose advanced the puck, Joe Pavelski shot it into the zone, and Patty got it to Seto, who found Pavelski back on the point. Little Joe's pass looked like one of Jumbo Joe's, coming tape-to-tape from the blueline to a wide-open Marleau at the faceoff dot on the far side for the easy one-timer past Matthieu Garon.

The game was marred by 16 penalties, four of which were fighting majors, and two injuries. Sheldon Souray left the game in the second with an "upper-body injury," and Robert Nilson crashed into the boards with the help of his friend and countryman Murray; he was able to skate away after a short time down.

The win in Edmonton assured Sharks coach Todd McLellan would coach the West in the All-Star game, making him only the second rookie coach to garner that honour. San Jose also out-shot the Oilers 31-26, but the game still did nothing to prove the Sharks were over their road woes.

If they were going to make that claim, they had to win their sixth straight over the Vancouver Canucks. While still without All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo (how does a guy who has played only 19 games and none since injuring himself November 22 get picked for the game?), the hosts had added future Hall of Famer Mats Sundin.

Vancouver had also played the night before—a disappointing 6-4 loss to the Western Conference's worst team, the St. Louis Blues. And while they did not have to travel like the Sharks, McLellan had gotten a chance to rest many of his stars in the third period against Edmonton.

With Nabby struggling in the second of back-to-back games in net, McLellan saw the wisdom in putting a very solid Brian Boucher in net. For the 13th time in 17 games with the Sharks, Boucher did not give up more than two goals.

Again San Jose got on the board first with a power play goal in the opening stanza. Ryan Clowe got the pass to a wide-open Joe Thornton who reverted to his annoying habit of looking solely to pass. The puck ended up squirting out Blake on the wing. He backhanded a sharp pass that went off the skate of a defender and past Curtis Sanford.

With eight seconds left in the first, on a Sharks penalty that probably should not have been called (there were plenty of those on both sides), Sundin got his first point as a Canuck.The Sharks spent much of the power play scrambling in their own end, including a period wherein Boucher lost his stick.

The score came when Henrik Sundin passed the puck to Kevin Bieksa, whose shot deflected to his new teammate alone on the weak side for the easy goal. The arena erupted and someone held up two front-door mats that said "Welcome" and "Mats."

Early in the second, Marcel Goc chipped the puck to Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, whose shot spun out to Mike Grier. The suddenly hot-scoring (four goals in four games, already matching the nine he scored last season) checking line forward and penalty-killer took a quick snapshot of the unsettled puck that Sanford could not read and put it in the glove-side corner.

Then Vancouver started to take over the game. En route to a 24-17 edge in shots through the fist two periods, Vancouver got a goal with just over five minutes to go from Daniel Sedin, with assists from Shane O'Brien and brother Henrik. Only several big saves in the period by Boucher kept the Sharks in this one.

However, while the hosts maintained pretty good pressure in the third period, the Sharks buckled down enough defensively to keep pucks from the net, allowing only two shots. Eventually, Vancouver lost that edge and their guests managed two Marleau goals among his team's ten shots.

The first went off his skate and was reviewed because he did make a distinct kicking motion; however, by the time he did the puck was already on its way through Sanford's five-hole. Assists went to Dan Boyle and Thornton, who now has 40 assists through 41 games.

The second goal came with 2:06 left, after Tomas Plihal forced Sanford to turn the puck over behind the net. His efforts to get the puck in front of the net were rewarded when Patty's backhand found paydirt.

San Jose has now reached the half-way point with a four-point lead in the West over Detroit and a one-point lead over the Boston Bruins (67-66) for best record in the league. Boston has also played one more game, but San Jose has played one more at home and two fewer on the road.The Sharks play six of their next seven at home, where they do not have a loss in regulation (19-0-2).

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.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sharks and NHL Rants, Raves, and Rankings

Rants:

1. I just want to say that I have heard a lot of people bad-mouth the Minnesota uniforms. I find them to be classic and colourful—what, do you hate Christmas?
2. Why do only I care that teams who are one point ahead of another in three more games are listed first in the standings? Hockey needs to do like every other sport and recognize "gamesbehind" so standings are legitimate.
3. I cannot stand that the "upper-body" and "lower-body" injury descriptions are used in the regular season now. Most leagues require accurate reports to avoid gambling scandals cropping up because of inside information and the potential influence organized crime could gain on the sport. The NHL has one interim coach convicted of gambling and involvement with organized crime that they inexplicably have allowed back into the game. Perhaps worse, the face of the last generation and current head coach of Phoenix, Wayne Gretzky, was also tied to the same scandal. Sohow can the league allow the secrecy with injuries?
4. Wednesday night's Sharks-Wild game was also another game not televised, and the potential audience missed a barn-burner. San Jose has three games left that are not scheduled to be televised, at Vancouver, St. Louis, and Chicago. My guess is at least two of the three will be picked up by either NBC or Versus since the Sharks are one of the NHL's top stories, Vancouver is a solid team and that game is on a Saturday, and Chicago is one of the other major NHL stories.
5. But given the Sharks' status in the league, it is strange that one would have to go online (there needs to be a partnership between TiVo and the web for me—I am almost always working during the games) to see them play.
6. Wednesday, the Sharks continued their annoying trend of playing down to the level of their competition, being dominated in the first half of the first period. Minnesota is a good team, but I guess the Sharks figured their hosts would be hospitable since they were 3-9-1 in December. But this wasn't the same team, since Marian Gaborik only recently got back in the lineup: San Jose cannot get complacent, because that will cost them in the playoffs.
7. San Jose is 3-1-3 in the last seven games, with the one regulation loss coming in the home of the Stanley Cup champions. This is a pace for over 100 points over 82 games, but I have heard San Jose described as " struggling."
8. Even as badly as San Jose was beaten, the result was not at all a cause for concern as many people have asserted, and it was hardly a "statement game" for Detroit. It was the Sharks' second of back-to-back nights with the same goalie in net despite an overtime in the first game and overnight flight. Those games happen occasionally, and are more likely to under those circumstances.
9. However, one cause for concern has arisen. The Sharks other losses in that stretch, though all in overtime on the road (one point against anyone in their house is nothing to be ashamed of), came against Columbus, St. Louis, and Minnesota. Not one of those teams was in the playoffs as of the time of the puck drop. If it was just this stretch, it would not be a cause for concern, but the Blues and Blue Jackets have out-played the Sharks in their match-ups this season even though the Sharks lead both series.

Raves:

1. Then again, they don't seem to be complacent against the league's best teams. San Jose has earned wins in their two home games during that seven game stretch against teams that would currently be in the playoffs. The one road win came against Dallas, a team that was 4-0-1 in their last five games to get above .500.
2. Evgeni Nabokov has been strong since his return from a "lower-body injury" we all know was a knee problem. He is 10-1-4 in those 15 games, with a .914 save percentage and a 2.31 GAA. However, if you exclude the two games he should not have been in net (both on the second night of back-to-back games with travel in between, situations in which no one, not even Martin Brodeur, should play both games in that situation), Nabby is 9-0-4 with a .924 save percentage and a 2.05 GAA.
3. San Jose can play any game and come out on top. From October 12 to October 22 alone, they won a game 1-0 and another 7-6.
4. The Sharks have shown more savvy than one would expect of a team that usually has the opponent over-matched. The Sharks have the highest shot differential in the NHL, but only two losses when out-shot by the opponent compared to double-digit wins. Fifteen players have scored the 25 official game-winning goals (i.e. not in shootouts).
5. The Sharks are also able to grit out the close games. Almost half of the Sharks victories have been by more than one goal; San Jose is 8-1 in regulation in one-goal games.
6. The Sharks have survived despite many of their regulars missing time. Only five players have been able to be dressed for every game. The following key players have missed at least one game for injury or family issues: Nabokov, DevinSetoguchi, Dan Boyle, Joe Pavelski, Milan Michalek, and Jonathan Cheechoo. Nabby, Cheech, and Jeremy Roenick have all missed more than a week.
7. The players who have been the most-criticized in the past are among the team's best players thus far. No one I knew (especially not me) thought that AlexeiSemenov was worth a darn, and despite rarely playing he has been solid when in uniform. Many of us were calling for Patrick Marleau to be traded, but he has turned last year's disastrous season (19 G, 29 A, -19) around this year (18 G, 22 A, +16 in fewer than half the games). Christian Ehrhoff has not only become solid defensively but is in the top ten on the team in scoring.
8. The Eastern Conference has a lot of compelling teams and is no longer the conference of no defence. Boston is leading the way in both categories, the Atlantic Division is once again the best in hockey even without Brodeur, and there are seven teams who have a real shot at making it to the conference finals.
9. The Central Division has also become deeper. Chicago has become a genuine contender, Nashville continues to play sound fundamental hockey despite the loss of more key players, and Columbus is an exciting team behind the tremendousgoaltending of rookie Steve Mason.

Current Top Ten Rankings:

1. I still expect the Boston Bruins to fall back to the pack a bit, but they have asserted themselves in the nine-game winning streak. They average more goals, fewer goals against, and have played more of their contests on the road than San Jose; that means more than the one point they are behind the Sharks.
2. The San Jose Sharks are still much more sound than anyone else. They have all the elements: top-tier power play and penalty kill, offence and defence, depth, and even experience.
3. The Detroit Red Wings have an incredible offense and the scariest power play in the league. Their depth and experience is unmatched, and they are deep and savvy. But their penalty kill and defence are questionable mostly because their goaltending has been lacking.
4. The Washington Capitals have survived more injuries than any other team in the league and still have the league's fourth-best percentage of possible points. Granted, they are in by far the weakest division, but they could be contenders to win any division if healthy.
5. The Montreal Canadiens have been able to climb to 12 games above .500 despite being in the division with Boston and struggling on the power play. If they get the latter going to more standard post-lockout levels, they will challenge the Bruins for the division crown.
6. Chicago is a dangerous and talented team, although they are too reliant on overtime and shootout losses to get their points; those will not be helpful in the playoffs.
7. The Calgary Flames have one of the deepest defences and best goalies in the game, but thus far have given up almost three goals per game. Still, they sit atop a division with no teams under .500, and I would expect them to tighten up in their own end before long.
8. The Philadelphia Flyers have grit and depth, and just keep winning. I still do not trust their goaltending and defence, but they score enough to have the best percentage of possible points in the toughest division in hockey.
9. The New York Rangers started out hot and have all the elements: depth at defence, one of the best goalies in the game, and two dangerous scoring lines. Still, they have given up as many as they have scored and have shown a propensity to fall apart.
10. The New Jersey Devils are hanging in there without Brodeur, further proof that they should not feel it necessary to play him 75 games a year—maybe he would have more left in the tank in playoffs, so watch out for this team this April.

Other teams to watch: I would still expect the Pittsburgh Penguins to get things together enough to make the second round and I think the Vancouver Canucks will be dangerous when Roberto Luongo returns. They will make noise in their conferences.