Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Four Games in a Row Problem

Solid 60 minutes of hockey played by the Sharks tonight. They drove the net well, cleared the defensive zone better and played a bit tougher than they had in the first three games of the series. All of this resulted in... a Sharks victory, 2-1 over Dallas.

Good things from San Jose to be sure, but the problem the Sharks now face is one that has confronted every team in sports history to begin a 7 game series with defeats in the first 3.

What happens is that in the playoffs, the margin of error becomes small as you for the most part have good teams playing good teams. Through the course of a series, bounces will go one team's way one time (or even two times) and then the other team's way. This continues on until the better team creates for themselves more chances for good fortune... and as a result, enough come through to result in a win. The other scenario is for the series to go to the very end and whoever is luckiest last, wins. The important thing to note, though, is when you have two good teams playing up to their potential against each other, it's EXTREMELY unlikely for one team to "get the breaks" four games in a row. In fact, not only is it unlikely to happen four games in a row, but it's also unlikely to happen three games in a row... which is why teams down 3 games to 1 may take two to force a game 7 and yet still lose (discounting the whole "mometum is everything" theory).

This takes us squarely back to the series at hand... Dallas vs San Jose. Some people might not have thought so at the start of the playoffs, but the Stars are a good team. Fast skating, stingy D and (surprisingly) good goaltending. A good team such as this matched up against a good team such as the Sharks (regular season success being the determinate for this) should result in a back and forth series (with the aforementioned back and forth being determined in part by good breaks and in part by good play) likely tied 2-2 after four games.

Instead, what you have is a 3-1 series after four games that is only still going due to a solid game 4 effort (which led to fortunate breaks) from San Jose. They can, and hopefully will, show up for game 5 with similar zest and determination... the difficulty will be in having that result in wins three more games in a row. Unless San Jose plays 180 minutes of hockey like they did the final 30 seconds of game 4 against Calgary (tough to do) or Dallas plays significantly worse than they have to-date (tough to see occurring), the Stars seem likely to get the breaks needed to take one out of the final three games.

Given this theory about how hard it is to win 3 or 4 games in a row, it begs the question of how Dallas took the first three games. Following the logic, one would think that the two good teams would have traded shots, fortunate calls and good bounces to a 2-2 series tie at this point.

However, this logic assumes the Sharks actually playing well enough to put themselves in a position to win each game. In game one, San Jose didn't play with a sense of urgency... and lost. Game two say a great sense of urgency from the Sharks, all the way up until the tying goal was scored against them at the start of the third... and then the wheels came off. Game three... well, same song as game two... with the first verse being the game-tying 3rd period goal and the second verse being the wheels going bye-bye.

The point of all this is that had the Sharks played well (not incredible, just well) in the first three games, they likely wouldn't have completed a series sweep tonight (again, good Dallas team), but they would have put themselves in the position to get the requisite "good bounces" to be at least tied in the series going back to San Jose for game 5.

This is what makes silly the idea of bemoaning some of the early whistles or unfortunate rolls of the puck hurting the Sharks this series. They haven't played well enough to deserve their share of the good things... and Dallas thus far has.

All this being said, their 2008 Stanley Cup Playoff lives really are "day to day" right now and here's to hoping the Sharks can live another day out of game 5 Friday night in San Jose.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

2008 San Jose Sharks: Advance Post-Mortem

Two problems that had plagued the Sharks in games one and two of this series... a lack of drive towards the net and poor defensive zone coverage.

Well, the Sharks drove the net fairly well in game three, but supplemented their still present poor D zone coverage with that albatross from last season... poor response to adversity.

The result of this was in seeing a solid second period effort tonight go by the wayside and a 1-1 tie a minute into the third turn into a 2-1 overtime loss. Yes, the Sharks were disappointed that Dallas scored on the power play to tie the game at the start of the third, but a tying goal does not a season lose. Sadly, in this case, it did as San Jose spent most of the third back on their heels hoping against hope that something good would happen. That Dallas then took until OT to score the game winning (and likely series deciding) goal, seemed a matter of mere formality given the Sharks play after losing the 1-0 lead.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time we've seen this from the Sharks. Remember game 2? A lead entering the third quickly becomes tied and... game over. Dallas wins.

Probably more vexing (especially at the time), though... remember the Red Wings series last season? Less than a minute away from going up 3 games to 1, Detroit scores a game-tying goal and... Well, let's look first at what could have happened and then at what did. What could have happened is San Jose could have continued playing their game and even if they lost in OT, been confident with the knowledge that they were outplaying the Wings. What did happen, though, is (1) an OT loss, (2) a berating of Captain Patrick Marleau in the Press by Coach Ron Wilson and (3) listless efforts in games five and six resulting in an end to the season.

So... back to this season. Dallas is playing well and has combined a stingy defense with exceptional offensive zone passing, but the Sharks have done nothing to help their cause. What should be occurring in this series is you should have two excellent teams trading punches (mostly metaphorical, but maybe a few real ones) over the course of a hard fought 6 or 7 games series.

What you have instead is a Dallas team doing their part and a San Jose team that has (1) not driven to the net (for the most part), (2) done a poor job of defensive zone coverage (both clearing the puck and covering the cross ice pass) and (3 & most appallingly) wilted when faced with adversity (personified by those Star game-tying goals).

Such a talented team. Such a shame.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Sharks Problems: Covering all Their Bases

Well, the problem the Sharks had against Calgary (again, in 3 of the 7 games) was a lack of intensity and deficit in the driving to the net department. Positive marks to them, though (I guess), for countering that (4/7 games) just well enough to take the series.

Unfortunately, that was the Flames... a gritty and ragtag crew who rolled out there no less than 2(!) solid threats to score in Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf. All-world players to be certain, but given their inability to be cloned, Iginla and Phaneuf by themselves couldn't provide enough offense to carry Calgary through.

Our much more worthy adversary this round is the Dallas Stars, a team bringing scoring punch in the persons of Mike Modano, Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro and last, but definitely not least, Brenden Morrow. Results of the series thus far could be best summed up by Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz... "we're not in San Jose anymore, and we're down 2-0."

These first two games have been interesting in their completely opposite nature from the Calgary series. Whereas that was smashmouth hockey that the Sharks fought through to victory, this (for the most part) is the fast skating end-to-end variety. Would certainly think that this style would play right into the strengths of San Jose, but... two critical weaknesses thus far: (1) that now familiar lack of driving to the net and (2) poor defensive zone coverage.

The driving to the net thing is probably best personified in these first two games in the person of Torrey Mitchell. Second period of game two he was standing 6 inches from an empty net... and didn't score! Credit Stu Barnes with an excellent backcheck to poke the puck away, but Mitchell has to slam the puck, his stick and his body into the goal when that situation arises. Granted, he didn't know Barnes was there, but so what? Driving to the net can be done by the players pushing towards the crease, but also by the players pushing themselves and the puck into the goal, as Jonathan Cheechoo did to tie the score in game one.

Now, poor defensive zone coverage on the other hand... an entirely different animal there. San Jose had one of the best penalty kill percentages in the regular season for a reason (I reckon), but that reason doesn't seem to be showing up in this series. Even when not on the power play, too many times this series Dallas has scored via the cross ice offensive zone pass to someone driving the net. Sure, the Stars deserve credit for the aforementioned net drive, but San Jose has to do a much better job of picking up that skater.

So... Sharks are down 2-0 and headed back to American Airlines Arena for games Tuesday and Wednesday. If they lose Tuesday night, it's all over but the crying, but I'd say they still have a shot at success in this series. San Jose is a talented team and as such can't be counted out. The problem they're fast pushing up against, though, is that they're playing a talented team and at 2-0 down, have little margin for error. Well, just try to correct for game 3 the two (fairly glaring) problems and go from there. There's always hope...

Friday, April 25, 2008

You Take It... No, You Go Ahead

Very strange game played between San Jose and Dallas tonight.

In the Calgary series, the Sharks could count on Flames players flying at them during every breakout from the defensive zone and after every whistle. It made the series an epic struggle for San Jose, but they managed to clutch up and play well in enough (specifically 4 of the 7) games to win.

Tonight, however, Dallas seemed content to let the Sharks break cleanly out of the zone and to play a "gentlemanly" brand of hockey free of any unpleasantries. This should have played straight into the hands of the Sharks and allow the skill of Messers Thornton, Cheechoo, Marleau, Michalek and Campbell to take over. Instead, what you saw from the Sharkies was a fairly passive brand of hockey where they seemed content to revel in the new-found open space and pass the puck back and forth to each other... rather than driving the net.

Trailing by a goal late in the 3rd, the Sharks did crash the net and lo and behold... a goal by Jonathan Cheechoo. Strangely, though, San Jose then followed that up with a shift spent on their heels that led to a Dallas power play.

Again, odd game. Dallas played into the Sharks hands defensively. The Sharks didn't play with a sense of urgency (sound familiar?) and capitalize. The Sharks had two large defensive breakdowns and Dallas scored both times... and won.

Going forward, San Jose should be ok if they can repeat their opening series M.O. and follow up a weak game one with a more ferocious game two. If, however, they don't, the Stars are certainly a good enough team to continue current path and do enough to win. Let's hope San Jose rediscovers that needed sense of urgency.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

2008 NHL Playoffs - Round 2... Game On

There were some predicted and some not quite as suspected things that took place in the first round.

Western Conference:

1. Detroit over Nashville. True, it probably took longer than some would have thought, but the Wings ran into excellent goaltending from the Preds Dan Ellis.

2. San Jose over Calgary. Also took longer to decide than might have been expected, but the oft-mentioned inconsistency from the Sharks was a major factor extending this series to 7 games. Either way, Sharks advance.

3. Colorado over Minnesota. Not necessarily a surprise. The Avs series win was keyed by their stars (see: Forsberg, Peter) being better than the Wild stars (see: Gaborik, Marian).

4. Dallas over Anaheim. Yep, a definite surprise. Series result seemed to come from a combination of the Ducks simply not being as good as they were last year (Corey Perry injured, J.S. Guigere not as solid) and Dallas capitalizing (four game one PP goals were very "helpful" to the Dallas cause).

Eastern Conference:

1. Montreal over Boston: Final result was not a surprise given the seedings and fact that Montreal had taken out the Bruins each time in the regular season. The B's showed a lot of heart, though, and stretched it out to 7. Takeaway from this series for the Habs may be similar to that of the Sharks after their 7 game series... we can play better, but for now, we survive and advance.

2. Pittsburgh over Ottawa: Easy to call... the Pens looked good and the Sens were in disaray going into the playoffs. Game over.

3. Philadelphia over Washington: Not necessarily surprising, but disapointing. Would have been nice to see Alexander Ovechkin continue his playoff run. The Caps may be on a similar path to the Pens from last season... just needed a first taste of the playoffs and they'll be back and better next year.

4. New York Rangers over New Jersey: Not a real surprise, course it also wouldn't have been a real surprise had Brodeur excelled and the Devils won. Either way, Rangers appear to have a lot of pieces working well right now.

So... all that being said, here's where we're now at for round 2:

Western Conference:
Colorado at Detroit.
Dallas at San Jose.

Eastern Conference:
Philadelphia at Montreal.
New York Rangers at Pittsburgh.

Sakes alive... it'd be fun to see a Stanley Cup final with the Sharks against Les Canadiens (or even the Penguins, but that would sacrifice the whole "Canada hearts hockey" thing).

Score 5, Survive... and Advance

Definitely wrong about one thing... Sharks-Flames game 7 turned out to be very exciting. Led by Jeremy Roenick, San Jose turned a 2-1 2nd period deficit into a 5-2 2nd period lead, resulting in the fabled "4 in the net, pizza and a trip to the next round you get."

You can (and I think should) quibble with the respective bad/good/bad/good/good/bad/good games that helped make this a 7 game series, but nary a quibble can be said about the offensive explosion that won this game 7 for the Sharkies.

To borrow a notion from NCAA basketball, "survive and advance"... that's all you have to do. The Sharks have done that and now match up against a surprising Dallas team that took out last year's Stanley Cup winner Anaheim Ducks.

Game One Friday night in San Jose. Good times.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hail/Hire/Fire (?) Coach Wilson

Just frustrating. Not Exciting, not titillating, not nerve-racking, just frustrating that the Sharks and Flames will square off in a potentially epic (as are all of them) game 7 Tuesday night.

Let's revisit for a second the Sharks path to get here...

Three seasons ago: Facing a fairly solid, and extremely chippy Flames team, the Sharks get pushed around and eliminated.

- Two seasons ago: Matched up against a less talented Oilers team, the Sharks get pushed around and eliminated... again.

- Last season: 30 seconds away from a 3-1 2nd round series lead, the Sharks give up a game-tying goal to the Red Wings. One overtime goal and two listless games later, their season's over.

- This season: Facing yet another not quite as talented opponent, the Sharks thus far have put up in order... a bad game, a good game, a bad game, a good game and then a bad game. Should the fans be excited for the aforementioned game 7 or should they wonder what's going on?

If you run with the assumption that the Sharks are more talented than Calgary, then you should say that they simply need to work as hard as the Flames to win the series. Given that the first six games of the series have been a "good Shark, bad Shark" story, the question has to be asked of why that's the case. Why can a talented team be up one game and then down another... and thus far, not learn from, but keep repeating the cycle?

Personally, I would look at the coaching.

If you look a couple of years back at the playoff eliminations against first the Flames and then the Oilers, the Sharks got taken out by physical play... fine, maybe that's a case of players, but maybe it's coaching.... tough to say. What isn't tough to say, though, is that last season against the Red Wings, the Sharks gave up a big game-tying goal. The disconcerting thing about that wasn't that they gave up the goal itself, but rather that once the goal was given up, things were game over. We heard from Coach Ron Wilson that two veteran players screwed up and were responsible. What didn't seem to happen, though, was for the Sharks to pull themselves AFTER the goal, or even after the lose in the following game. Players have to play the game (and ultimately determine who wins or loses), but the coach has to work with the collective psyche of the team.

Now, we're at this year... a whole new season. The Sharks are by pretty much all accounts stacked from a lineup perspective, but playing bad/good/bad/good/bad. Again, up to the players to show up, but the coach is supposed to be more than a figurehead. I'm not expecting that the coach should give a "greatest night of our lives" speech prior to each and every game, but c'mon... coaching isn't all just filling out lineup cards and throwing players out there shift after shift. If you've got good players aren't pulling themselves together after big adversity (see: last season) and who can't string together consistent effort (see: this season), one of the only things you can do is look at the leadership they're being provided day after day.

Let's go back for a second to the original notion of this missive. There's a game 7 tomorrow, something that should be exciting and the Sharks will either win or lose. Something that for Sharks supporters should be either thrilling or devestating... depending on of course the outcome.

The problem, though, is it's not exciting. The playoffs are tough, there's adversity, there's injuries, and there's tough times. Teams that are gonna win it all have to meet those tough times times and still prevail. What the Sharks have done thus far is sometimes give the effort needed to prevail and sometimes not. What they would need to keep advancing through several rounds, though, is the effort to always be there. Assuming that, then they can work on working through.

If the effort's not there, it's simply not gonna happen. Maybe a game 7 win could come, but the odds of getting through subsequent rounds gets lower and lower. Could be that the effort will kick into high gear starting tomorrow night and then carry forward, but if not, then you have to question why not. That's where questions about Coach Wilson would have to be asked.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Round One Predictions - Revisited

Let's take a point in time look at how the first round matchups (and predicted outcomes) have played out thus far... keeping in mind that for many teams, "they're not dead yet."

Western Conference:

Nashville at Detroit: A Red Wing victory was forecasted due to sheer firepower. Said firepower has certainly been in evidence, but has been met by absolutely stellar goaltending from Predators netminder Dan Ellis. Series is now three games to two for Detroit, and it "looks like" they'll come out on top.

Calgary at San Jose: Predicted to be a tough test for the Sharks with a dollop of fortitude being required to advance past the Flames. Well, the tough test has certainly been put to San Jose, and thanks in large part to the man with the C, Patrick Marleau, the Sharks have a three-two series lead with a chance to close things out on Sunday.

Colorado at Minnesota: An interesting series in that it was tough to know what to make of it beforehand and still tough to know five games in. This much is known... Colorado is up three games to two going back to Denver for game six.

Dallas at Anaheim: Wild stuff... not the Minnesota Wild type, but the "who would have thunk it?" type. Has been an extremely bruising series as expected, but Dallas has played their way into a three games to one lead primarily by converting on the power play more times than Anaheim. Most of the time a team goes up three-one, they come out victorious, but you can't count out last years champs until it's officially over.

Eastern Conference:

Boston at Montreal: Les Canadiens labeled as the more skilled team, but predicted to go up against a very gritty BB lineup. Pretty much how things have played out with Montreal going up three games to one, but Boston then winning to send it back to Beantown with them down 3-2 in the series. Anything's possible, but I think Montreal is too good to blow this one.

Ottawa at Pittsburgh: And I quote... "this series might be over before it really begins." Final score, Penguins 4 games-Senators 0.

Philadelphia at Washington: Predicted to be an incredibly nasty series with the Flyers goons running at the Caps. No question about this as Cristobal Huet has been run into all series long, but one surprise out of the series has been Philly's ability to stifle (with the huge exception of his brilliant goal to win game one) Alexander Ovechkin. Result of all this has been a three games to one Flyers lead.

New York Rangers at New Jersey: Another series tough to predict going in. Well, no need for further predictions... it's all over including the crying as the Devils were beaten earlier today, knocking them out four games to one.

A Win by Any Other Name is Still a Win

Definitely scary times in the last 10 minutes of the Sharks 4-3 win over Calgary, but they still got the win. The Flames might be able to take some form of solace from their near comeback (and how devastating might it have been if the Sharks had blown a 3 goal THIRD PERIOD lead?), but not really.

One of the big things about the NHL playoffs is it's all about "win and advance." The fact that Calgary got within a goal with just over a minute to go and had a chance to tie means... not much of anything. Reality of the situation is that the team with a greater number of talented players is now up 3 games to 2 in the series and has a chance to close it out on Sunday.

Going into this series, it seemed that the Sharks were a better team on paper than the Flames, but Calgary was a hard-working lunch-pail type crew that would keep coming at you... in some legal ways and others more questionable. The ramifications of this for the Sharkies being that they "should" win the series if they could at least roughly match the Flames in the effort/intensity equation. As the series got underway, this notion has fairly well played out as predicted:

Game one - Sharks lose due to (A) defensive breakdowns... i.e. not clearing the puck and (B) lack of a sense of urgency on offense.

Game two - Sharks win, thanks to solid D coverage and some very timely saves by Evgeni Nabokov.

Game three - The epic collapse game... Sharks blow an early 3 goal lead by sitting back on their heels offensively, not by not clearing the puck out of the defensive zone (anyone remember game one?).

Game four - Big comeback for the Sharks... the goal by Jonathan Cheechoo with five minutes left to tie may have saved the season and that to win it by Joe Thornton with 9.4 seconds left won the game. What was most exciting for this scribe was watching the Sharks offensive pressure in the 20 seconds preceding Big Joe's goal. Imagine if you will a funnel... with the Sharks D and the offensive blue line as the big end and the net behind Mikka Kiprusoff as the little end. Yep, for those 20 seconds, "a river really did run through it." I know it's too much to ask for a team to play like that for an entire game, let alone a postseason, but the Sharks (or any talented team) would be unbeatable applying that type of pressure on a recurring basis.

Game five - Good game. Close game. Fast game. Sharks the better team (pretty much) in the game. San Jose got some more excellent goaltending from Nabokov (who has played at least as well as Kiprusoff in this series) and very timely goals by the super-talented and very hard-working Cheechoo and then held on to win. Going back to prior discussion, it certainly was nettlesome to see them rock back onto their heels and allow Calgary to attack for basically the last 10 minutes, but they got the win, and perhaps will learn a thing or two about how to keep applying pressure even when you've got the lead. Would have been nice if this lesson had fully sunk in after game three, but... a win is a win is a win.

Looking at a big picture reset, five games in, three Sharks victories... two brilliant players on Calgary, higher total skill level on the Sharks. Not to continue hitting an ailing Lipanzer, but it seems the Sharks should be fine if they just keep the focus and effort up, particularly if the hockey Gods should be so kind as to grant them one of those apparently volatile 3 goal leads. Anything can happen in this wacky game of hockey, but it's still the Sharks series to lose.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Things Do Work Out

Effort and determination pay off. Sharks win. Back in "control" (home ice, outplayed Flames last game, won last game) of series. So very happy.

Now gotta keep it up.

It's like haiku...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Train Wreck of a Game

Very rough game to watch put out by the Sharks this evening. After taking an early 3-0 lead, and watching one of Calgary's best players in Mikka Kiprusoff go to the bench, the Sharks then played their way to a 4-3 loss.... ouch.

Scoring chances for the Sharks were few and far between post 3 goal lead and Calgary's pressure in the defensive zone seemed to give the San Jose players nowhere to go with the puck. Joe Thornton seemed to only have the puck on his stick for mere seconds until being harassed by multiple Flames players. Unfortunately, this strategy appears to be a sound one to employ as Milan Michalek and Jonothan Cheechoo have thus far proven themselves unable to both support the double-teamed Thornton and then generate scoring chances.

On the defensive side, things appeared even rougher for the Sharks. Kyle McLaren both appeared to (pardon the cliche) handle the puck like a grenade most of the night and took one of the two penalties that were converted into Flames goals. Additionally, one of the more nettlesome developments was the less than stellar play of "here he comes to save the day" defenseman Brian Campbell. While he certainly had a few excellent plays, he also has made several giveaways in this series (one which led to the Flames 3rd goal in game one) that one wouldn't expect from a player of his reputation. I can't say for certain who should be the one to sit upon his return (but, me thinks I would vote McLaren off for a game), but here's to hoping Christian Ehrhoff can make it out there for game four.

The truly disconcerting thing about this game is that up until these developments, it appeared the Sharks were the better team... and in control of their fate as simply matching the Flames effort and intensity would result in a series win. After watching this debacle, though, I'm not as convinced the Sharks are the better squad. Whether that potential "non-better team" status would be due to the aforementioned effort/intensity calculus or simply poor defensive play, I'm not sure, but I am concerned.

Well, the experts had the Sharks prevailing out of a hard-fought series in either 6 or 7 games. We're now at a game 6 needing to be played (hopefully), let's see if the experts were right.

Friday, April 11, 2008

All Around the Rest of the Mulberry Bush

The prior two posts have been all about your San Jose Sharks, but let's take a moment to look in on the other series rolling right now:

Detroit vs Nashville- See no reason to hop off the Red Wings bandwagon in this series.

Colorado vs Minnesota- Two overtime games played and things are right where they were at the beginning... all tied up. This one might be an excellent candidate for a 7 game series.

Anaheim vs Dallas- Holy Goons, Batman. Not surprised at all that the Ducks came out with malice in their hearts and dirty play on their minds, but would not have expected the Stars to shove home 4 power play goals in game 1. It will be very interesting to see how Anaheim responds... and if they know how to play a game that isn't at least a little bit dirty.

New Jersey vs New York Rangers- Goodness, should be lots of angry (and for good cause) Devils fans out there. It's not often that you see NHL referees mistakenly call icing (was on the Devils, with them shorthanded), but to do so with 30 seconds left in a one-goal playoff game is inexcusable. Adding further bewilderment, the refs not only didn't provide any sort of makeup call help in the last 30 seconds, they didn't call an obviously cross-check with 10 seconds left that enabled the Rangers to clear the puck, and win the game. Crazy.

Montreal vs Boston- Les Canadiens are in fact more skilled... and are playing that way.

Pittsburgh vs Ottawa- Same story as that being played out (at least for now) in the Montreal-Boston series.

Washington vs Philadelphia- Good stuff, good stuff. This series delivered an EXCELLENT game 1 with the Caps taking the early lead, Philly coming back to be up 4-2 entering the 3rd period, and the Caps then answering with 3 for a 5-4 victory. If you haven't watched Alexander Ovechkin yet... do so.

Nice Sharks win

Definitely a bit late in recapping, but a very good game 2 win for the Sharks the other night. Granted, there were a few shifts spent running around in their own zone, but much better focus and intensity on the part of the boys in blue (more precisely, teal).

Given that the sum of the whole played better, let's take a look at a few of the moving parts:

1. Evgeni Nabakov- Fantastic play on the part of Nabby with several "how did he do that?" caliber glove saves. Mikka Kiprusoff got a large amount of credit after game 1 (and during game 2), but I'd say that he has been no better than Nabakov.

2. Joe Thornton- Has played well, which he always does. No points in game 2, but has been a force out there. Similar story really to Flames Captain Jarome Iginla.

3. Milan Michalek & Jonothan Cheechoo- No glaring giveaways, but can provide a bit more production... especially as they're usually paired with Big Joe.

4. Patrick Marleau-Joe Pavelski-Ryane Clowe- Excellent play from this line. Just need to keep doing what they're doing.

5. Jody Shelley- Singled out here to bring up the question of who should play... Shelley or Devin Setoguchi. Seto would certainly be getting more than the three to four minutes a game that Shelley has been on the ice for, but given that the Sharks are a more skilled team (and the Flames are more prolific hooligans), I think it not a bad idea to have a security blanket in Shelley available if needed.

6. Matt Carle- Yes, yes, yes. Carle didn't dress for game 1 in favor of Alexi Semanov (injury replacement for Christian Erhoff), but took Semanov's place in game 2. Carle did spend 2 minutes in the penalty box, but also contributed 10+ solid minutes on the D line. I see no reason to bring Semanov back... and would even consider sitting Kyle McLaren in favor of Carle upon Erhoff's return from injury.

So... all this being said, my feeling going into the series was that it would be a tough series for the Sharks, but one they should emerge victorious out of as they have the more talented team and should be a bit tougher than past years due to both the experience of heartbreak lived through and new blood on the team this season.

After game 1 I was disapointed in the Sharks efforts and intensity, but still felt them the better team and that if they played the way they're capable of, they'd be fine. Game 2 is now in the books, and I'm of the same opinion. It's not going to be easy, but assuming that the (orange-rimmed) eye stays on the prize all game long, they should emerge out of a hard-fought series.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Item Needed: Intensity... In a Teal Sweater

Annoying one to watch in San Jose tonight. The Sharks appeared the more skilled team, but the Flames simply seemed to want the victory more. San Jose had flurries of passion (final minute as an example), but not in prolonged enough stretches to deserve the win.

Good thing to take out of this game is that it's only one game and assuming a more focused effort tomorrow night, the Sharks should be ok. Granted, it's cliche to make this point, but adversity such as this will reveal exactly who the Sharks are in this postseason.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Kid in a Candy Store... NHL Playoffs are here.

So... very... happy. The NHL playoffs start tomorrow and as always, some tempting morsels waiting to be sampled. Let's take a look for a second at what the various and sundry series have to offer... not so much from an X's and O's perspective, but rather what jumps out.

Western Conference (without the not so important seedings):

Nashville at Detroit: Have to give huge props to the Predators for making it to the playoffs again as with the exception of Jason Arnott, pretty much their entire team left via either free agency or fire sale trade (bye-bye Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen). That being said, I just don't see them being able to match the firepower of the Wings (who also kick in a good dose of grit and above average D for good measure).

Calgary at San Jose: If the Sharks wanted an early test of their toughness, they certainly got it in a matchup against the Calgary Roughnecks/Flames. Much has been written and said about the Sharks wilting in the face of adversity in the last few playoff years and the Flames love to provide adversity... often in the form of a cross-check, slash or sucker-punch. Perhaps it's a case of drinking the local Kool-Aid, but I do think this year's Sharks team will be a year wiser, and a goodly amount tougher with the additions of Jeremy Roenick and Jody Shelley (who I really hope plays)... as well as the return from injury of Ryan Clowe (who has already been tabbed for the Joe Pavelski-Patrick Marleau line).

Colorado at Minnesota: Not sure what to make of this one... the Avs certainly have the marquee names to throw out there in the person of Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk and Peter Forsberg, but it will be interesting to see what age and injury allow them to contribute. In this one, anything's possible (course that's like saying someone's "day to day"... aren't we all?)

Dallas at Anaheim: Has the potential to be a very "interesting" series in the sense that "Blood on the Highway" was an interesting movie to view in High School Drivers Ed. The Stars come off 60 minutes of thug practice from their final game of the year against the Sharks, but will be matching up against a team that not only majored in thuggery, I'd say they have a graduate degree in it. Here's to expecting Steve Ott to cheap shot Teemu Selanne and then get chased across the ice by George Parros, but into the waiting club arms of Brad May... lights out, Stevie (and Dallas).

Eastern Conference (again, seedings out the window):

Boston at Montreal: Original Six matchup. Teams that don't like each other. The rookie phenom on one end (Carey Price) with the scrambling and clawing wily veteren (Tim Thomas) at the other. Good stuff. Montreal is the more skilled team, but don't count out the B's, especially with the return from season-long injury of Patrice Bergeron.

Ottawa at Pittsburgh: A pairing that seemingly points towards a Pens victory. With a team built for now (Hello Marian Hossa, goodbye Kolby Armstrong), Pittsburgh will be going against a Senators team minus Captain Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher. This series might be over before it really begins.

Philadelphia at Washington: Alexander Ovechkin in the playoffs for the first time... how sweet it is. Will be terrific fun to see what he does against the... "questionably legal" tactics of the Flyers. Actually, will also be fun to play "guess how soon into game one Donald Brashear will be fighting Riley Cote, Scott Hartnell, Steve Downie or any of the other Flyer goons. I'd put the over/under at about 3 minutes... gotta let him take his first shift, you know.

New York Rangers at New Jersey: Good matchup. A couple of teams with enough skill, goaltending and spunk to do some serious damage in the playoffs, but only one will make it out of the first round. Jaromir Jagr may well be making his last run with the Rangers and Scott Gomez and Chris Drury will be just starting their Ranger playoff careers... and both did pretty well in prior stops. Each of them will be opposed by one of the best "clutchiest" goalies ever (and noted "all in the family" man) in Martin Brodeur.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Sharks playoffs... game on.

Well, day and time to be determined, but it's official... by virtue of Colorado beating the Wild (they actually only needed one point), the Sharks match up against the 7 seed Calgary Flames. There are certainly some concerned Sharks fans out there (for good reason really) who don't like this matchup due to the how shall we say... thuggish nature of the Flames, but I think the Sharks will be ok.

Granted, the Flames do have all world scorer (and talented thug) Jarome Iginla, as well as all "smaller" world defenseman (and thug as well) Dion Phaneuf, but after that things drop off a fair amount. They have gotten solid production this season from Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow as well as ex-Shark Owen Nolan, but they are certainly not as deep in talent as the Sharks.

This leads to the open question of how the Flames will attempt to win the series. Prediction here is that it's through pure brute force. It worked against the Sharks a few years ago as part of Calgary's run to game 7 of the Finals, but this year's Sharks team might be built of just a bit more solid stock.

It's a major get to have bruiser Ryan Clowe back in the lineup and one of the more fascinating questions going into the playoffs will be what coach Ron Wilson does with enforcer, and decently talented player, Jody Shelley. It would have to be at the expense of Marcel Goc or Devin Setoguchi, but here's to hoping that Jody cracks the lineup.

A second, and related question, is where Clowe fits in. He'll certainly be there and should provide some grit, it's just a question of whose line he plays on. Me thinks that if you put him with Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, you make that line much tougher and provide a bit of a security blanket for Marleau. At this point, Setoguchi may get pushed out, and Goc in exchange for the solid penalty killing of Curtis Brown, but both players could well get the call at some point.

Proposed Forward Lines:
1. Thornton-Cheechoo-Michalek
2. Pavelski-Marleau-Clowe
3. Rissmiller-Mitchell-Grier
4. Roenick-Shelley-Brown

Extra forwards: Goc, Setoguchi, Plihal

Proposed D Pairings (not really as concerned or knowledgable about the pairings):

Extra defensemen: Carle, Ozolinsh, Semenov

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Go Caps Go... and desired playoff matchups

The title is a bit misleading as the Capitals don't need any help... they beat the Panthers today and took the 3 seed in the East with Carolina being good enough to lose to Florida Thursday and open the door for Ovechkin and company.

Actually, with that lose, Carolina in effect went from the 3 seed to the 9 (pending of course the eventual Caps win today) and clinched playoff spots for Boston, Ottawa and Philadelphia.

The West has been a bit simpler in that Vancouver's lose on Thursday gave the 8 spot to Nashville... meaning that since Thursday, the West has simply been about 1-8 seedings and now the East has joined in this status.

So, the heavy lifting of getting there is done, but still quite a few things to get figured out on the final day. The various potential matchups are many so rather than listing out everything that could happen, let's look at what we'd like to see and what it would take on the final day to make that happen.

Western Conference desired matchups:
(1) Detroit vs (8) Nashville... set in stone.
(4) Anaheim vs (5) Dallas... set in stone.
(2) San Jose vs (7) Colorado... very much up in the air. Assuming Calgary wins vs Vancouver (safe bet as they're up 4-1 right now), this matchup would occur if Colorado loses in regulation to Minnesota on Sunday (not sure what an OTL would result in).
(3) Minnesota vs (6) Calgary... see above. Calgary and Colorado seedings will depend on Colorado's last game Sunday vs the Wild.

Eastern Conference desired matchups:
(4) New Jersey vs (5) NY Rangers... set in stone, just will have home ice determined by their game Sunday.
(2) Montreal vs (7) Boston... set in stone. Will be either with Montreal 1 or 2 and Boston 7 or 8 in the conference pending the Pittsburgh-Philly game Sunday.
(1) Pittsburgh vs (8) Philadelphia... would come about if Pittsburgh can beat the Flyers on Sunday. If they lose to Philly, Pittsburgh would play Ottawa in round one.
(3) Washington vs (6) Ottawa... see above. Could have Ottawa and the Flyers flipping opponents for their respective first round matchups.

Either way... the playoffs are oh so close to being here and everything starts over at the beginning. Don't be shocked at any lower seeds advancing... wasn't too long ago that the 1-4 seeds in the West all lost to the 5-8 teams. Hopefully that doesn't happen this year, but all bets are off in the wild and wooly NHL playoffs.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Approaching the Wire

Some interesting developments since Sunday night... we've seen Buffalo officially change from playoff contender to pretender, Washington charging hard, but still needing someone to lose a game and Nashville go a leg up on Vancouver.

Things are getting to the point now of looking ahead to the few remaining games to see what might happen. Below are the bubble (not in, but not out of the playoffs) standings as of Thurs Apr 3 during the Vancouver-Edmonton game along with the key Friday night games.

Eastern Conference standings:
3. Carolina- 92 points. 1 game left.
6. Ottawa- 94 points. 1 game left.
7. Boston- 92 points. 2 games left.
8. Washington- 92 points. 1 game left.
9. Philadelphia- 91 points. 2 games left.

Eastern Conference Friday night games:
Florida at Carolina- win and they're in for Carolina. lose and they're likely done.
New Jersey at Philadelphia- lose and Philly is probably out.
Boston at Ottawa- big for both teams. Most likely win and in, lose and... questionable.

Western Conference Standings:
7. Calgary- 92 points. 2 games left.
8. Nashville - 91 points. 1 game left.
9. Vancouver- 88 points. 2 games left... 1 ongoing vs Edmonton.

Western Conference Friday night games:
Nashville at Chicago... may not be neeed for Nashville as Edmonton is up 2-0 after 2 on the Couv.