It’s a familiar story for San Jose Sharks fans: a strong regular season capped by a Pacific Division win followed by a complete collapse in the playoffs. Clearly, this team just doesn’t have the guys to…wait, what? They won game 7 against the Red Wings? And this is their second straight Western Conference Final appearance? Then what’s all this I keep hearing about the Sharks choking in the playoffs?
With the same “choking” tale being told constantly about the Sharks, I sometimes feel like I don’t know the real story behind the Sharks. So let’s take a look at the Sharks players, the season series vs the Canucks, and try to draw some conclusions apart from the tired “playoff chokers” storyline.
The Sharks post-season story bears a strong similarity to that of the Canucks, simply reversed. While the Canucks went up 3-0 in the first round, only to have their opposition win 3-straight and push them to 7 games, the Sharks did the same in the second round. Against the Predators, the Canucks won the first, third, fourth, and sixth games of the series. Against the Kings, the Sharks had the exact same pattern of wins and losses. It’s uncanny.
The Sharks’ main strength lies in their offense, which is simultaneously high-powered, deep, and balanced. The backbone of their offense is their strength down the middle in “Jambalaya” Joe Thornton, Logan “Haute” Couture, and “Also Named” Joe Pavelski, but they are surrounded by a bevy of other talented forwards. Ryane “Unnecessary E” Clowe leads the Sharks in playoff scoring and Dany “Two Ns Are Customary” Heatley, Patrick “Guts” Marleau, and Devin “Don Cherry Can Pronounce My Name” Setoguchi are all dangerous offensive threats. In addition, PITB favorite Kyle “Defensive Superstar” Wellwood has 7 points while leading the Sharks in +/-. By their powers combined, they form
Captain Planet three dangerous scoring lines, making them difficult to shut down.
Their defense is decent, but no more than that. They are led by Dan “Susan” Boyle who leads all defensemen in playoff points and leads the Sharks in average icetime by over 4 minutes per game.He is paired with the hulking Douglas “Surprisingly Swedish” Murray, after which the quality drops a bit. On their second pairing they have the underrated Marc-Edouard “It’s a” Vlasic with the young Jason “Demure” Demers, with Ian “Jack” White and Niclas “Another Brick in The” Wallin on the third pairing. It’s not a bad group of defenders, though they lack a true shutdown pairing and will depend on team defense and puck possession to prevent the Sedins and Ryan Kesler from scoring. The unit tends to be prone to turnovers as well, a dangerous weakness against the Canucks. On special teams, Boyle is a quality powerplay quarterback and White is very capable in the role on the second unit, but the penalty kill is a question mark. They had one of the worst penalty killing percentages in the regular season and haven’t been much better in the playoffs. Vlasic leads the team in shorthanded time on ice.
In net, the Sharks boast old friend Antti “Anti-Monitor” Niemi. While very good at times against the Red Wings, he was frequently terrible against the Kings and has the worst statistics of any goalie still in the playoffs. His .906 SV% and 3.01 GAA likely do not inspire much confidence. And while much is being made of how he has never lost a playoff series, he’s had the benefit of playing for two very good teams and the Chicago Blackhawks clearly did not think enough of him to re-sign him. Still, if Niemi can get on a hot streak, he will be tough to beat, though likely not as tough as Corey Crawford or Pekka Rinne.
The Sharks will be an incredibly tough opponent to shut down: similar to a Hydra, if you shut down one line, the other two spring up in its place. It’s one of the big reasons Clowe and Couture are leading the team in scoring in the playoffs; with so much attention being paid to Thornton, Marleau, and Heatley, their secondary scorers have provided their primary firepower.
The first meeting between the Canucks and Sharks wasn’t even close. The Canucks were good; the Sharks were bad. The combination led to a lopsided score, with 5 players scoring 6 goals for the Canucks. All 4 lines chipped in: Alex Burrows for the 1st, Jeff Tambellini for the 2nd, Mikael Samuelsson had two goals for the 3rd, and Raffi Torres for the 4th. Keith Ballard added a goal from the defense to round out the scoring. It was a dominant offensive performance, but it started from the defensive end, where they blocked 21 shots, with one of those blocks leading directly to a goal. They also dominated physically, with the highlight being the devastation of Douglas Murray by Dan Hamhuis.
Dany Heatley scored a goal in the first period, which presented the illusion of a close game. The illusion disguised how the Canucks outshot the Sharks 15-8. The Canucks capitalized on every mistake the Sharks made over the next two periods, turning a tight game into a 6-1 debacle. It wasn’t a good game. But it was fun to see the Canucks score at will. I’m fine with watching poorly played hockey if it’s the Sharks playing poorly.
There was an expectation heading into this game that the Canucks would lose. They were playing their third game in four nights and were riding a five game winning streak. Indeed, they had picked up points in 12 straight games. It just did not seem possible that they could continue this pace forever, and a game in which the Canucks were dead tired and the Sharks were lemony fresh seemed like the ideal candidate for an understandable loss. Instead, the Canucks borrowed Marleau’s innards and used them to gut out a one-goal win.
Daniel Sedin opened the scoring after a Demers turnover, which is something we hope to see constantly in round three. Alex Edler and Jannik Hansen scored in the second period, but the Canucks gave up 3 goals in the middle stanza to Clowe, Marleau, and Mayers. This left the door open for Alex Burrows to win da turd, which he did with aplomb. My favorite part of his game winning goal is how far Antti Niemi takes himself out of his net in a misguided attempt to save a shot that was going a good 3 feet wide. Awesome.
The Canucks’ third game against the Sharks came in the middle of one of their worst losing streaks of the season. Of course, “worst” is a relative term when it comes to the 2010-11 Canucks, as this was the third of four straight losses, three of which came in the shootout or overtime. In this particular game, Luongo was outstanding, making 45 saves and stealing a point for the Canucks, who were only able to come up with one goal. But what a goal it was! In my favorite moment of Wizardous Sedinerie from this season, Henrik Sedin pulled off a Forsbergian shootout move in the normal course of play, tucking the puck past Niemi on the backhand with one hand on his stick. It was one of the most stunning goals of the season, but was overshadowed by a loss in the shootout.
Couture capitalized on an inexplicable turnover by Christian Ehrhoff, tying the game in the second period. It was one of 25 shots that the Canucks allowed in the middle frame. The Canucks were unable to score on 4 powerplays, including a 4-on-3 in overtime, allowing the game to go to a shooutout, where Niemi stopped all three Canucks shooters. Fortunately, there are no shootouts in the playoffs.
Harrison and I, along with our wives and a couple friends, had the privilege of attending this game, and it was electrifying. In what was arguably the most entertaining game of the entire NHL regular season, the two teams combined for 8 goals in regulation, with Sharks tying up the game 3 times during the game. The atmosphere in the HP Pavilion was incredible, the crowd deafening, and the culmination of the game in the shootout underwhelming. Seriously, bring back tie games. In any case, I sincerely hope that this game is indicative of the quality of entertainment that we are about to receive from this series.
Despite giving up 4 goals, Cory Schneider was magnificent on March 10th, making 44 saves, including 9 in overtime. He then made three straight saves in the shootout, allowing Alex Burrows to seal the win with his well-known, yet somehow still unstoppable backhand move.
Burrows opened the scoring as well, off a pretty feed from Daniel Sedin. My favorite part of that goal is the jousting Dany Heatley does with Burrows just before Burrows slips free to receive the pass. Heatley clearly has no idea how to check Burrows whatsoever. Sami Salo blasted a Nolan Ryan fastball on the powerplay for the second goal, Mason Raymond took advantage of a friendly bounce for the third, and Daniel Sedin gently placed the puck top corner on the powerplay for the fourth.
The Sharks got goals from Setoguchi, Clowe, Mitchell, and Clowe again. Keeping an eye on Clowe should certainly be a priority for Edler and Ehrhoff, as Hamhuis and Bieksa – affectionately known as Hamjuice – will be busy shutting down the top line.
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