Monday, March 16, 2009
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.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Perhaps their view is that I am all-too quick to assume that every problem is systemic, not isolated. And I will agree with them that every team has problems, so are ours so much worse?
Not worse than Detroit's. The only reason I would rather be Detroit than San Jose right now is that I would currently have the Cup, a legitimate chance to keep it, and there would be no monkey on my back. But they absolutely do not have as good a chance of repeating as we have of taking it from them, because they have serious problems in net and their defence is thus not the Cup-worthy one they entered last post-season with.
Not worse than Boston's. The Bruins have an even larger monkey on their backs than San Jose, who at least routinely makes it to the second round. They have some of Detroit's questions in net, with two goalies who have limited playoff success and prior to this season were not consistent. There are questions about resiliency, since this year they have rarely come back from a third period deficit.
Not even worse than Calgary's. The Flames have this made for the playoffs mystique that facts simply do not back up. They made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004, but since have not made it out of the first round.
Chicago and Washington have no playoff experience. The Rangers and Canadiens are a mess and might not even make the playoffs. Vancouver has not made it out of the second round in two U.S. presidential administrations. Pittsburgh started so far back that their road is going to be tough, they are still young, their roster has morphed leaving questions about how they will gel, and they are not a great defence.
Does that pretty much cover it? No, it leaves out New Jersey. That is why I picked them to win it all.
They have an experienced and dominant goalie who will be rested and have a good offence in front of him for the first time in his three-time champion career. They have an upgraded blueline and a system that enabled them to retain the third-best defence in the Eastern Conference despite the loss of their Hall of Fame goalie for more than half the season.
Are they unbeatable? No. Are the Sharks the most likely team to do it? Yes.
But my problems with the Sharks continue. The reason I think they are indicative of larger issues is that there are similarities of this team and last year's.
Both teams had such success (last year after the trade for Campbell, this year up until January) that they could believe they would inevitably win. This leads to the team not playing a full sixty minutes, and that is a bad habit to get into.
Playoff teams are opportunistic, especially those that make it into the second round. They take advantage of those lapses, and a goal surrendered (and along with it, momentum) is harder to make up for than it is in the regular season against lesser competition.
Last season, the Sharks laid an egg in their first game hosting Dallas, then seemed to assume it wouldn't happen again—it did. One of those games was lost because Patrick Marleau jumped out of the way of a Mike Modano power play shot instead of blocking it, in the process screening his goalie, it exemplified how the team's lack of dedication.
The round before, the Sharks were flat in a couple games. In one, they jumped out to a three-goal lead over Calgary and relaxed. The Flames responded by taking it to the Sharks physically, and fought their way back to a 4-3 win because San Jose was unable to recapture the momentum. The series became a seven-game meat-grinder that left them worn down, leading to a 3-0 second-round series deficit for a team too battered to come back from that hole.
Fast-forward to 2009. The Sharks did the same thing in this game, the first time they blew a three-goal lead in the regular season in 13 years. I have written a recap of the game for The Hockey Writers.
Let me make it clear: this is not just about losses. Every team goes through losing streaks, and every team has bad months.
In the playoffs, I would apply Vince Lombardi's famous quote, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." But for the regular season, I would use his less famous theme, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."
How you play shows how ready you are, and this team is not ready. To showcase their problems, I go back to three games before they started losing.
The Sharks have played 19 games since their big win over Detroit January 17, and have struggled in 14 of them despite going 9-5-5. (In the playoffs, that is 9-10.) Here are the highlights of their struggles in this stretch prior to Thursday's loss:
1. They did not show up until late in the third period against Vancouver and were bailed out by Evgeni Nabokov, scoring only on a last minute (literally) goal with him pulled before winning in overtime.
2. Ilja Bryzgalov, who trails Evgeni Nabokov with the 28th-best save percentage and the 33rd GAA, stops 27 of 28 shots he faces.
3. They came out flat against Chicago at home, giving up a goal on their first shift, ending their 13-game winning streak over their foes, and taking just their second home loss in regulation, 4-2.
4. They blew a 2-0 lead against Carolina to lose their second straight game at home.
5. They gave up multiple goals in the first period in Columbus, and were unable to recover from it; it was the first of five consecutive games in which they allowed the first goal.
6. It took them over 50 minutes to score their only goal against Marc-Andre Fleury, who is 21st in save percentage and 25th in GAA.
7. They gave up three early goals to Buffalo, then blew a lead with seconds to go, promptly losing in a shootout.
8. They gave up another three goals in the first period and six goals for the game in New Jersey, including a third period lead for the second game in a row.
9. It took more than two periods to score at home against the second-worst team in the league and another mediocre goalie (Kari Lehtonen, 29th in save percentage and 40th in GAA).
10. They managed just 24 shots and one goal against a Dallas squad that had four of their top six players out with injury or illness.
11. They were dominated 4-1 in Detroit by Ty Conklin, who is ranked 17th in save percentage.
12. They were held scoreless for 58:42 of a game against Alex Auld, ranked 25th in save percentage, scoring only on the power play.
13. Once again, San Jose surrenders three first period goals and cannot score more than twice on 48 shots against back-up goalie Jaroslav Halak (20th in save percentage, 32nd in GAA).
14. Manage just 25 shots and one goal while surrendering four at home to a Dallas team coming off a five-game losing streak on their six game homestand.
So why is everyone still so confident? Here are several excuses I have heard:
* The Sharks have players out with injury. Okay, so why has Dallas, missing much more than the Sharks (who are only without role-players), managed to get back into the playoff chase? And are we expecting the team to be healthy in the playoffs, or are we only going to expect the Stanley Cup if they are?
* We've run into some great goaltending. At what point does the cavalcade of mediocre goalies stumping the Sharks start to become an offensive problem instead of opposing goalie play? Because in nine of these 19 games, the Sharks have failed to score more than two goals.
* It's just a temporary funk. Is six wins in 16 games (20 percent of the season) a temporary funk or a pattern forming?
* This team is not the one who lost the last three years. True, but it looks awfully similar at this point.
* They are still the best team in the league. Okay, but in 2006, the Sharks were the best team in the league after acquiring Joe Thornton. In 2008, the Sharks were the best team in the league after acquiring Brian Campbell. The more things change, the more they stay the same...
* The regular season means nothing in the playoffs. I go back to patterns that exist now that have been our undoing in playoffs past. Todd McLellan always talks about the process and playing sound hockey because he knows the games do matter.
* They're still getting points in a lot of those losses. Are there any rewards for overtime losses in the playoffs? Isn't the playoffs what really matter? 'Nuff said.
* They lost a lot of those games on the road. Yes, but they have lost four of their last seven at home, too.
* We still have one of the best road records in the league. True, but we have fewer quality wins on the road than they have home losses (see here). And that record includes overtime losses as a plus, which as I said, means nothing in the playoffs.
* These difficulties test them, force them to scrap, and prepare them for the playoffs. HERE I WILL AGREE, and if we can solve these problems in the next five weeks, we will return to our status as an irresistible force.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
The 2009 NHL Trade Deadline started off slow but really picked up at the end. The Phoenix Coyotes were one of the busiest teams on the day, making a total of four trades. The moves will be significant in both the present and the future of the franchise.
Who got the better end? .
The Flyers welcome one of the league’s premier enforcers. He currently leads the NHL in penalty minutes, something he did last year as well, as a rookie. Although he is not having the best offensive season, he doesn’t have the worst hands. I still think he is capable of scoring 20 goals a season.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Moen, 26, will be able to fill in for Mike Grier on the penalty kill, but not as well as Ian Laperriere, 35, would have. He has neither the experience or offensive capabilities, coming in with just 12 points to Laperriere's 17. He adds the feistiness the team lacks, but does so without honour: Moen is the one who viciously attacked one-armed agitator Steve Ott Saturday. But he does have his name on the Stanley Cup.
It is hard to see Huskins, 29, playing unless there are injuries on the blueline or coach Todd McLellan decides to dress seven defencemen. He has two goals and four assists, as well as a +6 rating, in limited action, having missed half the season with an injury. He is +26 for his young career, showing that he does not make mistakes. However, he does not have Douglas Murray's hitting abilities or any other of the top six defencemen's offensive skills.
Ducks Trade D Steve Montador to the Boston Bruins for F Petteri Nokelainen.
I'll have more info on this with some analysis and the rest of the days items as the deadline passes.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
“Both are going to be out an extended period,” said Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan.
In order to help shore up the front lines, Brad Staubitz and Lukas Kaspar were called up. Staubitz was in San Jose for the morning skate and skated in a line with Tomas Plihal and Jonathan Cheechoo. The top two lines remained in tact, but it appeared the third line could have a mix of Alexei Semenov, Claude Lemieux, Jody Shelley or Kaspar.
With Evgeni Nabokov still battling a bit of the flu, McLellan will put Brian Boucher in net for the evening’s match up against the Dallas Stars.
“Nabby won’t go tonight,” said McLellan, noting that his No. 1 will still be able to backup. “We wanted to play Boucher more and with Nabby not 100 percent, now is the time.”
This simply makes my suggested trades all the more necessary. The Sharks will have to replace Grier's defence and penalty-killing, as well as Roenick's fire. Ian Laperriere provides both.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Those of you who see the glass as only half-full will tell me that is a .500 road record in February, better than half the teams in the NHL. However, I recognize that a glass that is half-full is also half-empty (and vice-versa).
Overtime losses mean nothing in the playoffs. Excluding all shootouts since they won't happen in the playoffs either, the Sharks are 14-11 on the road. That is not bad, but the following teams among those 14 legitimate wins are not likely to make the playoffs: Kings, Avalanche (twice), Lightning, Predators, Coyotes, Blues, and Senators.
In addition, the Stars (thrice), and Oilers are bubble teams. That's 12 of the 14 legit wins, leaving two of 25 games against quality foes in which San Jose has won on the road without a shootout—eight percent.
The reason the Sharks struggle against the better teams so much is you cannot get away with starting out in a big hole against good teams. This spells seven-game series after the first round (when they will face a bubble team that skated into the post-season) in which San Jose will have to win every home game to win the series or get one of their eight percent quality wins; with nine games, the odds of getting just one such win are 47.2 percent.
Fortunately, the Sharks have won 25 of their 29 home games that did not go to a shootout. But of those 25 games, six came against teams that are not going to make the playoffs (Blues, Kings, Islanders, Thrashers, Lightning, and Maple Leafs) and nine came against bubble teams (two against both the Blue Jackets and Ducks, and one more against the Oilers, Wild, Stars, Rangers, and Penguins).
That means only 10 of 14 non-shootout home wins were against the kinds of teams the Sharks will face after the first round. At that ratio, winning all 12 of their home games in order to win the Stanley Cup is only a 1.8 percent chance.
That's why the Sharks need a trade. They have a 52.8 percent chance of losing all their road games after the first round and, if they do, only a 1.8 percent chance of winning all their home games. All because they do not play for 60 minutes away from the Shark Tank.
They need someone to hold them accountable. They need someone who can win a fight, instead of losing one as Jody Shelley always seems to do, sometimes giving momentum to the other team. They need an energy guy and a leader for both of the checking lines, and they currently have only Jeremy Roenick on the fourth.
So who should the Sharks acquire? They do not need a defenceman, because that would knock someone playing well out of the lineup.
Thus, the following is a list of forwards the Sharks should look at and some potential trades that would work; those at the bottom of the list I would support only because they might shake up the team without destroying its chemistry:
1. Ian Laperriere is a 35-year old player on the worst team in the West in the last year of his contract. They will take almost anything for him, and the Sharks could give away any draft picks it takes. The obstacle for this trade is Laperriere's salary: according to Hockeybuzz.com, Ian's contract is $1.15 million, and the Sharks only have $24,166 in cap space. Even at the deadline, the Sharks would be responsible for over $250,000 of that money. Perhaps The Avs would take Shelley off our hands because he is a younger enforcer under contract next year. Or they might want Lukas Kaspar or Tomas Plihal; then the Sharks would only have to dump Claude Lemieux (let's face it, that experiment has not yielded results) to clear space.
2. Toronto may be a willing partner, and they have two players of the appropriate age and style: Brad May and Jamal Mayers. May would come cheaply enough that the Sharks would only need to dump Lemieux, but would not add much but grit to the team. Mayers would cost a bit more in salary than Laperriere, and offer less; if there is a trade with Toronto, it would probably be for May.
3. Atlanta does have Marty Reasoner, who is a good penalty killer over 30 with some scoring punch in the last year of his contract; he might not fit in the long-term plans of the Thrashers, and costs about the same as Laperriere. The Sharks could go in a different direction with their trade, adding scoring. If this is the decision, Atlanta is a good partner, as well: Jonathan Cheechoo, who has struggled to produce consistently, could be traded for Slava Kozlov, Atlanta's third best scorer. However, I would not do this, as Cheech is younger and better defensively; San Jose would also have to dump Lemieux to get under the cap.
4. Steven Reinprecht is an energy guy and penalty killer who can provide secondary scoring and is good in the faceoff circle. He is also over 30 and in the last year of his contract; perhaps Phoenix would let him go. The Sharks would need to dump more salary to make it work; however, trading Cheechoo for Reinprecht does not make sense unless you are going to use that cap space for another trade, and I doubt the Coyotes would throw young enforcer Dan Carcillo in like they might in my dreams, even if we send picks their way. (Carcillo is my kind of player and a perfect fit for the team.) They might throw Todd Fedoruk in, but I would want a draft pick swap that favours the Sharks in this case.
5. While Gary Roberts fits the Sharks' needs, his salary is too high to justify what the Sharks would have to give up. Mark Recchi does not add enough skill to make a difference at this stage of his career. But San Jose could look at Vaclav Prospal; similar to trading for Kozlov, this would require giving up Cheechoo and dumping Lemieux for a player that is more offence than defence.