Searching For What Went Wrong

30 Apr

It’s been just over of a week since the Sharks were eliminated from the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Words so difficult to be reminded of it took me eight days to build the strength to type them.

Over the past week we’ve seen hyperbole far and wide with asinine thoughts ranging from firing Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan to dumping Patrick Marleau and Antti Niemi. Over this same period of time we’ve seen a handful of cooler heads prevail, reminding the world – albeit not the blinded naysayers – of the following:

Doug Wilson-built teams have made the playoffs averaging over 106 points per season while winning 48 playoff games (6 per season) during his stint as General Manager. Who would you rather have? Brian Burke and the mess he’s created in Toronto? Ken Holland (since taking over the GM position solely) has won 7.65 playoff games per season. Even if the Flyers make it to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals this season, Paul Holmgren will have 6.5 playoff wins per season.

Todd McLellan-coached teams have made the playoffs every season averaging 107 points while winning 20 playoff games. Who would you rather have? Ron Wilson, Terry Murray, Randy Carlyle or Bruce Boudreau; all men fired this season for their teams’ lack of performance? Boudreau-led teams have won 17 playoff games in one more season than McLellan has had.

Antti Niemi has the seventh best even-strength save percentage over the last two years, 26 playoff victories in three seasons and his name etched on the Stanley Cup. Who would you rather have? Marc-Andre Fluery and his .834 save percentage and 4.63 GAA this playoff season? Niemi faced more shots per minute in the playoffs than Fluery did playing against the goal-every-other-minute Flyers!

Patrick Marleau‘s playoff exploits have been very well chronicled here. Who would you rather have? Rick Nash and his 0 (yes, that’s zero) playoff victories? Marleau’s slight drop-off in regular season points-per-game to playoffs points-per-game (-8.8%) is on-par or better than most superstar players, including Jarome Iginla (-7%) and Pavel Datsuk (-32%).

Instead of blindly blaming the leaders of this franchise, the issues that kept the Sharks buried in the standings, ultimately leading to their playoff demise, can be narrowed down to a single roster flaw. And the Stanley Cup champs since the lockout can help us find it.

It took the 2010-2011 Boston Bruins 25 games to win the Stanley Cup, over that time they had nine forwards with at least 12 points and five defensemen with at least 9 points.

It took the 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks 22 games to win the Stanley Cup, over that time they had six forwards with at least 14 points and four defensemen with at least 8 points.

It took the 2008-2009 Pittsburgh Penguins 24 games to win the Stanley Cup, over that time they had eight forwards with at least 9 points, three defensemen with at least 7 points, another defensemen with 4 points in nine games and the combination of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each breaking 30 points.

It took the 2007-2008 Detroit Red Wings 22 games to win the Stanley Cup, over that time they had seven forwards with at least 11 points and four defensemen with at least 7 points.

It took the 2006-2007 Anaheim Ducks (were they still Mighty in 2007?) 21 games to win the Stanley Cup, over that time they had eight forwards with at least 8 points, Chris Kunitz had 6 points in 13 games and three defensemen with at least 8 points (all of whom averaged over (29:51 or greater of ice time).

It took the 2005-2006 Carolina Hedicans Hurricanes 25 games to win the Stanley Cup, over that time they had eight forwards with at least 15 points, Erik Cole only skated in two games and four defensemen with at least 5 points.

Since the lockout, Stanley Cup Winning teams have had (on average) eight forwards with at least .5 points per game and four defensemen with .333 points per game. Taking into account a less than generous 25% decline from their regular season numbers (Pavel Datsyuk over his career has seen a 32% decrease in his playoff numbers), a Stanley Cup winning team should have 8 forwards scoring .625 points per game and four defensement scoring .4 points per game during the regular season.

The current edition of the San Jose Sharks had five forwards cross .625 points per game and two defensemen with at least .4 points per game.

So what do all these numbers mean in terms of finding the fatal flaw that ended the Sharks season prematurely? It looks a lot like a lack of depth. Penalty Kill struggles? Didn’t have enough solid third and fourth liners capable of taking those grueling minutes away from Pavelski, Marleau, Thornton and Couture. Top two lines being shutdown by opposing teams top lines and stud defensemen? Need to find someone in the bottom-6 who can score a clutch goal here and there. Top-6 forward goes down with an injury for an extended period of time? Need to be able to call someone up who can slot into the lineup without taking other guys out of their roles.

Doug Wilson, on many occasions, has noted that the Sharks roster is a work-in-progress until the trade deadline. Constantly tinkering in order to get it running just right. But after attempting to wheel-and-deal his way into third and fourth lines in the second half of this past season, I wonder if he focuses more energy in the off-season (and possibly early next season) on finding the missing pieces.

Wilson has already locked up 14 of his most important players for next season (Thornton, Marleau, Havlat, Pavelski, Clowe, Couture, Handzus, Boyle, Burns, Vlasic, Murray, Demers and Greiss). He has control over five RFA’s,  four of which are likely to return (Wingels, Galiardi, Ferriero, Desjardins and Braun). Assuming Ferriero isn’t an everyday player next season, that’s 10 forwards, 6 defensemen and 2 goalies under contract or controlled as restricted free agents; a position most General Managers will envy in about six weeks. It also means he only needs to draft, sign, trade for or call-up no more than nine players. Most of which will be depth players.

And who knows, if Wilson can find the right puzzles pieces, maybe next year we won’t be asking what went wrong. Maybe we’ll be cheering that rugged depth winger who just netted the Stanley Cup-winning goal.

Of course, the Sharks need to go out and sign him first.

It’s Like Deja Vu All Over Again

11 Apr

If you’ve had that tingling feeling down your spine and just know you’ve been here before, well, you’re not alone. Sure that 6-5 final at Staples in April looks eerily familiar, but it’s the wave that we’re riding into the playoffs on that I’m pretty sure we’ve all rode once before.

Flashback to the 2003-2004 season. That Sharks team started the campaign with a mere three wins in their first sixteen games. Not that the current roster did much better over their worst stretch as three wins in fifteen games isn’t something you brag to mom about. Think beating the Kings on fan appreciation night behind a pair of goals from a top defensemen has been done before? You’re right. April 2004. San Jose spotted Los Angeles a two-goal lead in the third period before Brad Stuart took over. Where did the Sharks and Blues finish that season? Yup, you guessed it: San Jose second and St. Louis seventh.

Though impressive as that may sound, the most important factor in the Sharks favor is how they stormed into the playoffs. Now that the tennis-road-trip-from-hell is a distant memory, we can focus on the last nine contests:

March 22, vs Boston: The Sharks complete the season sweep of the defending Stanley Cup Champions with a 2-1 victory on home ice.

March 24, vs Phoenix: It takes a shootout, but the Sharks pickup two critical points as they fight for a playoff spot as Ryane Clowe puts the finishing touches on a 4-3 victory. (Side note: how much more fun would game 82 have been had Phoenix had one fewer point and the Sharks one more regulation or overtime win.)

March 26, vs Colorado: Another game the Sharks had to have against a team they were jockeying with. Someone convinced Joe Pavelski that it was already April as he delivers a pair of tallies in a 5-1 victory.

March 28, at Anaheim: If I could tell you why the Ducks have the Sharks number, I’d probably have a job on McLellan’s staff. Or perhaps working for Doug Wilson. Anaheim controls the majority of the play and sends San Jose onward without any points.

March 29, at Phoenix: Figured the Sharks would lose this one just by looking at the schedule. Three games and two flights in four nights, second half of back-to-backs with a rested Mike Smith waiting (Coyotes had watched two Sharks games on TV since their last game). San Jose is relentless to start, but can’t breakthrough. Phoenix controls the majority of the play after the first and San Jose returns home sans any points on their two game jaunt.

March 31, vs Dallas: Sharks fans sing the national anthem, still boo the word “star.” Stars in the midst of their own difficult stretch look lifeless and Team Teal skates away with a 3-0 shutout.

April 3, at Dallas: Stars have a much better showing and are in position to tie the game late in the third. Niemi makes a huge (season-saving?) stop stoning Jamie Benn on a breakaway. Joe Thornton makes it a two-goal lead moments later. Ryane Clowe empty netter seals a 5-2 victory effectively ending the Stars season. Calendar flips from March to April: Real American Hero leads Sharks forwards in TOI, PP TOI, SH TOI, +/- and chips in the primary assist on Thornton’s goal.

April 5, at Los Angeles: Wacky, wacky game. The Sharks, in this order, take the lead, fall behind, tie it, fall behind, take the lead, get tied up and win it on a (you guessed it) Joe Pavelski shootout-deciding goal. Clowegate has muddied the waters of this game, but we were all quick to forget the 5-minute powerplay that went by the wayside; the team of Joe Thornton and Ryane Clowe serving up knuckle sandwiches and receiving Gordie Howe hat tricks; Clowe rediscovering himself and playing with controlled anger; but most importantly two more points. Team America leads Sharks forwards in TOI, PP TOI, SH TOI, chips in primary assist on Patrick Marleau goal, one of four forwards with a plus-rating and wins the game.

April 7, vs Los Angeles: After watching arguably the most lackluster 40:00 minutes of hockey from the Sharks all season, they decided to come out and try to win a game. Having spotted the Kings a two goal lead, Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau go all Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau. Sharks win in overtime 3-2, clinch the seventh seed and date with the Blues. People will be quick to blame Nemo as he allowed both Kings goals before Thomas Greiss took over to start the third. Let’s not forget that both Kings goals were on the powerplay, he faced more shots through two periods than Quick did all game and Greiss only had to face six in a shade under 24:00 minutes of action. Joe Pavelski, World Police doesn’t play a shift on the PK as the Kings go 2-for-2. However, it’s April. Pavelski has the primary assist on Marleau’s tying goal.

San Jose goes 7-2-0 down the stretch with Joe Pavelski being very Joe Pavelski-like in April. Hopefully we can look back at the season in June, as Joe Thornton hands the Stanley Cup to Patrick Marleau, and realize this was the regular season we needed, albeit not the one we wanted.

Oh, and if you were wondering, the 2003-2004 Sharks went 7-2-0 over their final 9 games. The last two victories? At Los Angeles and hosting Los Angeles. Just before the Sharks made their deepest playoff run in franchise history.

Deja vu, all over again. Thanks Yogi.

It’s The Most Wonderful Time…

10 Apr

Following the NHL lockout, hockey fans far and wide returned to the game they loved in droves. But it wasn’t until the following April that everything started to feel right again. For hockey in the spring brings with it deeper emotion and an abundance of passion. That April, Yahoo! sportswriter Dan Wetzel wrote what I’ve thought to be one of the most descriptive accounts of how hockey fans feel about the playoffs, titling it: The Thrill is Back.

He concisely conveys what we all know and what we all question. It’s obvious that he gets it.

“The most confusing part of being a hockey fan is wondering how this couldn’t be big everywhere. Non-fans just never seem to get it. There is nothing in sports more exciting than overtime playoff hockey. The seesawing drama – the fact that anything can happen at any moment and that one bounce of the puck could change the course of a series – is heart racing.”

Throughout the years I’ve re-read the article several times. I’ve shared it with friends and followers alike. It’s been quoted as if it were scripture from the Bible. But it wasn’t until recently that I started to wonder if it meant anything to those who don’t get it.

Those who “get it” are the fans that have fallen in love with the game. The ones who don’t sleep the night before Game 1 due to nervous energy but awake bright-eyed with anticipation. We’ve always tried to explain it to those who “don’t get it.” The football fans that swear there’s more scoring in their sport. The basketball fans who say they believe. The baseball fans who sit around for 3½ hours to watch less than 13 minutes of actual game action. The casual fan who “watches some of the playoff games” and professes to be an expert. And those who just don’t enjoy professional sports played at the highest level.

But Wetzel’s story was written as much about the lockout as it was playoff hockey; written for the masses as much as it was written for us.

So how do we explain it to the non-believer? Asking the players only helps so much, Bourque, Messier, Hull, Selanne; because there are no words. The sheer excitement of playoff hockey cannot be described. It’s why it feels like the most wonderful time of the year.

Remember how you felt as a kid on Christmas Eve. Now imagine what it was like waking up Christmas morning knowing what was to come. It’s more than the unwrapping of presents. It’s the drama of discovering the unknown. It’s more than a feast for dinner. It’s sharing and being a part of something special.

There are certain emotions, certain feelings that mere words cannot explain. That’s what playoff hockey feels like. The night before followed by the morning of; sitting around the rink with 17,000 strangers who in an instant can become family. But it’s not just one night. The experience lasts for two glorious, nerve-wracking months until one side prevails and their captain holds the holiest grail high for everyone to see.

Borrowing words, once again, from Dan Wetzel: the thrill is back. And if the non-fans can’t figure out what they are missing, then it’s their loss.

Later this week, sixteen teams will begin the magical march to the Cup. Sixteen fan bases will feel exhilaration and heartbreak, riding the roller coaster of emotions as their teams fall behind and come storming back. While those who don’t get it are left behind, we’ll be enjoying every second of the most wonderful time of the year.

No Rest For The Weary

2 Apr

The easy analysis, which also happens to be the popular one at the moment, is that the San Jose Sharks “didn’t show enough effort” against the Phoenix Coyotes and then came back home to play their most complete game of the season against the Dallas Stars. There are about 800 flaws with this line of thinking, least of which is it implies that the opposing team has zero impact on the outcome of the game. It’s simply not that simple.

Starting with their second game of the season, a full week after the first, there have been some odd scheduling quirks for team teal. The tennis road trip didn’t do them any favors nor has the recent stretch of 14 games in 24 days that had Coach Todd McLellan routinely canceling practices as part of the never-ending rest-vs-rust debate.

Specifically, I want to take a look at the previous seven games for the Sharks heading into the Coyotes game and for the Stars headed into their game in San Jose.

Sharks previous games before playing in Phoenix:

  • 7th game in 11 nights, including four flights
  • 6th game in 10 nights, including three flights
  • 5th game in 8 nights, including two flights
  • 4th game in 6 nights, including two flights
  • 3th game in 4 nights, including two flights
  • and the second half of back-to-backs with a flight from Anaheim to Phoenix landing around midnight.

Stars previous games before playing in San Jose:

  • 7th game in 12 nights, including four flights
  • 6th game in 10 nights, including four flights
  • 5th game in 8 nights, including four flights
  • 4th game in 6 nights, including three flights
  • 3th game in 4 nights, including two flights
  • and the second half of back-to-backs with a flight from Vancouver to San Jose landing at 2:00am.

Hockey players will always tell you that fatigue isn’t an issue. But don’t take my word for it, let’s ask Stars captain Brendan Morrow following their 3-0 loss to the Sharks on Saturday night:

“It was a big game, and I don’t think fatigue can be an excuse when you have what’s on the line what we had tonight.”

Fans like to believe two things: (1) when the team plays “their game” regardless of what the opponent does, the team will prevail; (2) hockey players are super-human creatures who do not exhibit fatigue like mere mortals. Unfortunately, neither of these hold true. Look no further than the Sharks last two games.

In Phoenix the Sharks came out strong in the first period, out-shooting the Coyotes 15-9 and out-chancing them 9-2. Unfortunately they didn’t score. When a team comes out as strong as the Sharks did, it is imperative that they make a dent in the scoreboard. Dominating play early with nothing to show for it can have a debilitating effect on the later stages of the game. The Coyotes started to turn the tables in the second period, most visibly with a powerplay goal that allowed them to go into the dressing room ahead 1-0. And while the Sharks continued to get chances, they weren’t able to capitalize on them. It could have been gripping the stick too tightly knowing how well the Coyotes play with a lead, but it was much more likely attributed to the amount of hockey and travel in the previous 75 hours.

Fast forward two days and the Stars are in the midst of their own brutal stretch of hockey plus travel. They played a tough game in Vancouver the night before and didn’t get into San Jose until after 2:00am. Later that night the Sharks started with another strong performance in the first period, but unlike two nights prior, were rewarded with a 2-0 lead going into the first intermission. However, it almost wasn’t that peachy. Had the Sharks gone into the break only up by a goal, they would have been in a familiar position of late: dominating play to start the game but without enough to show for it. When a team comes out that strong, they need to have the results appear in the score. Otherwise frustration can settle in and play slips. A beautiful saucer pass from Martin Havlat to Jason Demers led to a powerplay goals with 100 seconds remaining in the period and the Sharks went into the dressing room with loads of momentum. They kept their foot on the gas in the second increasing their lead to 3-0 and never allowed Dallas to get back into the game over the final twenty minutes.

Two games, two road-weary teams, two much more rested home teams and two strikingly similar results that could have been seen coming a week ago.

[Fun with stats: Home teams not playing the second half of back-to-backs against visitors playing their second game in two nights have a 132-56-12 record (.690 win% or a 113-point season over 82 games) this season in the 200 games played through March 11; further highlighting the difficulty road teams have when playing in these situations.]

So before a team is disparaged for seemingly not putting forth their best effort, or heaped praise upon for visibly playing their best game of the season; it’s worth thinking about all of the factors at play.

As this past week has proven, the reason a team doesn’t achieve results one game very well could be the same reason a team does in the one following.

MythBusting: Patrick Marleau

29 Mar

The old adage goes, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” and with Ray Ratto quick to single out the odds-on favorite for teal scapegoat Patrick Marleau, I’m sick and tired of having to defend just how important he has been. So on a night when the Sharks drop from 3rd to 8th we’ll, once again, defend Patrick Marleau.

Myth: Patrick Marleau doesn’t perform in the playoffs. Busted: Among active players, Marleau is in the top-5 in the following playoff categories: goals, powerplay goals, shorthanded goals, game-winning goals and overtime goals.

Myth: Patrick Marleau can’t win the big games. Busted: Last time I checked there are 19 guys on the ice and a few coaches who are also involved in the winning of games. Hockey is not an individual sport. Don’t forget, Wayne Gretzky never won a cup after leaving the Dream Teams in Edmonton.

You know who else couldn’t win the big games? Steve Yzerman. Until his 14th season. Marleau’s currently playing  in his 14th season. Through 13 seasons his team has averaged 97 points, with six division banners, 12 playoff appearances and 11 playoff series victories. Stevie Y through 13 seasons: 87 points (’94-’95 season adjusted to 124.76 points to compensate for shortened season), 11 playoff appearances and 10 playoff series victories.

Myth: Patrick Marleau does’t score big goals. Busted: Marleau’s 5th among active players in regular season game-winning goals. He’s 8th among active players in regular season goals. So he doesn’t just score goals, but he wins games with his goal-scoring prowess. But you’re right, the regular season doesn’t matter.

Marleau’s 3rd among active players in post-season goals. He’s 2nd among active players in post-season game-winning goals. So, once again, he doesn’t just score goals, but he wins playoff games with his goal-scoring prowess. If there’s concern about the number of games he’s played, he’s done this in the 11th most playoff games played among actives. As reference, here’s the active skaters closest to Marleau in playoff games played, goals scored and game-winning goals:

Active GP Leaders GP G GWG
Marian Hossa 127 36 8
Patrick Marleau 124 52 13
Pavel Datsyuk 121 32 5
Active Goal Leaders GP G GWG
Nicklas Lidstrom 258 54 11
Patrick Marleau 124 52 13
Henrik Zetterberg 104 49 7
Active GWG Leaders GP G GWG
Jaromir Jagr 169 77 15
Patrick Marleau 124 52 13
Jamie Langenbrunner 137 33 12
Danny Briere 97 42 12

The final thought that stands out: it’s feasible that Patrick Marleau will retire the leader in career regular season and playoff game-winning goals, since the NHL started tracking winners. Marleau has averaged just under seven regular season game-winners since the lockout. Should he continue on this pace, he’ll get the 39 he needs to surpass Jaromir Jagr in about six seasons; at the age of 38.

Marleau’s barely halfway to catching Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull (12 away) for tops in the playoffs, but all it would take to supplant them is a pair of game-winning tallies a year for the next six seasons – a number he has reached or exceeded in five of his last eight trips to the postseason.

Is Patrick Marleau the next Steve Yzerman? No. Stevie Y retired sixth in the NHL in career scoring. But when you look at their playoff numbers and similarities in their teams’ performance to this stage in their careers, it’s tough not to draw the comparisons. Bear in mind, the first time Yzerman won a cup, he was fourth on the team in goals and sixth in assists during the postseason; and only three years removed from the top-seeded Red Wings being eliminated by the 8th-seeded and sub-.500 Sharks in the first round. The same year serious consideration was given to trading him.

So what do you say, can we stop rushing to judge the face of the San Jose Sharks franchise for the past 14½ years?

The Enemy Of My Enemy…

24 Mar

It’s 100% true that the Sharks still have full control over their playoff (and #3 seed) destiny. At this point, they don’t even have to win all their games to ensure they enter the playoffs with at least one round of home ice.

San Jose plays seven of their final eight games against teams vying for a playoff spot. Win those seven games in regulation and it won’t matter what anyone else in the West does; the Sharks will play games one, two, five* and seven* of the Western Conference Quarterfinals at home. Unfortunately, winning those seven games in regulation is likely an impossible task, especially when you look at how the games breakdown. So, let’s look at how the games breakdown, game-by-nerve-wracking-game:

Tonight, Saturday, March 24, hosting Phoenix. Since the 6-3 drubbing on opening night, the Coyotes have absolutely had the Sharks number. Fortunately two of the three matchups have been in Phoenix, so they have less bearing on tonight’s outcome. Additionally, an ill-timed Shane Doan elbow to the head of Stars forward Jamie Benn and the ensuing three game Shannaban, means the Sharks will have the fortune of playing a Coyotes team without their captain. One would like to think that the momentum from one of their more complete games against Boston will carryover and the Sharks will send the desert dogs back home sans any points in the standings.

Monday, March 26, hosting Colorado. Two words: Jamie McGinn. He could have his own post but I’m not sure the McGinn Express will be enough to knock two points off the tracks for San Jose. The Sharks are 2-0-1 this year and 8-0-2 (including playoffs) against the Avalanche since the Dan Boyle oops. Call it exorcising demons or whatever you want, but the San Jose Boyles have had the Avs number over their past ten meetings. This should be another game the Sharks chalk up in the win column.

Wednesday, March 28 at Anaheim. This is where things get a little dicey. The Ducks always play the Sharks tough. The Ducks want nothing more than to play spoiler. And Brian Hayward doesn’t like bus loads of arrogant Sharks fans. The good (bad?) news is that the Ducks will be sitting at home twiddling their thumbs having only played one game in the previous week. Hockey players are creatures of habit and don’t typically like extended breaks. Hopefully excess rest will be the deciding factor – and not the Sharks 1-4-0 record against the Ducks this year. If the Sharks lose this game and finish one, two, three or six points out of where they want to be, blame Anaheim.

Thursday, March 29 at Phoenix. The first of the “yeah, we’re probably going to lose that one’s.” San Jose will be playing the second half of back-to-backs with travel and fourth game in six nights. The Coyotes will have watched two Sharks games on TV since the last time they were in action. Shane Doan will be back and this has the feeling of a game that could go in Phoenix’s favor. However, if the Sharks have won consecutive games against Boston, Phoenix, Colorado and Anaheim, losing in Phoenix won’t be the end of the world. Even if they lose to Anaheim, a loss here probably doesn’t set them too far back.

Saturday, March 31 vs the Dallas BOOOOOOOOO. Dallas coming to town means there is one guarantee. The Sharks organization will try to curtail fans booing the word “star” in the “Star Spangled Banner” by having us sing it. And just as Rick Barry and Chris Mullin learned, when Bay Area sports fans want to boo, we will boo. Dallas will be in a rather ugly stretch of games: night before in Vancouver, three nights prior in Edmonton, five nights prior in Calgary. Let me take that back, Dallas will be putting the final touches on a brutal stretch of games. I always say the third leg of the Northwest Canadian trifecta is one of the toughest road games in the NHL. Playing the next night in San Jose will only compound said toughness. If the Sharks are entertaining the notion of winning the Pacific; this is the kind of game they really should win. Which is not to be confused with a game they actually need to win. The Sharks can win the Pacific without a victory here, but a tired opponent at the end of this kind of trip needs to be put out of its misery.

Tuesday, April 3, at Dallas. What’s more fun than playing the Dallas Stars? Playing them again three days later. These two teams have had some intense battles over the years. Don’t believe me? Craig Rivet pounds Steve Ott. Douglas Murray wants to fight Eric Lindros, settles for Krys Barch. A boxscore with over two and a half times as many penalty minutes as there are minutes played in the game. The list goes on. I’m sorry, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Nolan and Zyuzin and REEEEEEEEECH. Following format, this would be where the prediction comes in. Predict the final meeting of the season between Dallas and San Jose? Sure. Good luck.

Thursday, April 5, at Los Angeles. The second of the “yeah, we’re probably going to lose that one’s.” On the road, following a pair of games with Dallas doesn’t sound very enticing. Add Jonathan Quick and, well, you get the idea. These two teams were expected to be fighting for the Pacific Division crown. If the chips fall correctly, we may get just that. But at this point we’re just as likely to see one team eliminate the other from playoff contention. Yikes.

Saturday, April 7, vs Los Angeles. Two of my favorite hockey moments were from fan appreciation games hosting Los Angeles: Brad/Vinny and R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Yes. That is a standing ovation from the road crowd. While I was a (sigh) Los Angeles resident, I saw a third fan appreciation game between these two teams. The Kings won that one too. Meaning the Sharks are due to even the fan appreciation series, right? My one hope for this game is if it means anything, that a skills competition doesn’t decide it. This one needs to end in 60 or 65 minutes. Not a second more.

By my count that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-12 points. Based on the number of games each of the teams in the race play against each other, and the fact that they can’t all win out, 10 more points should be enough to qualify for the postseason. Conversely, anything less than 10 points may not be enough to qualify for the postseason because of the number of games each of the teams in the race play against each other and the fact that someone will be taking home two points (plus the potential for loser points).

So who are our allies and who joins the axis of evil? Here are the upcoming schedules for our foes, I’ll let you decide who has it how easy:

Los Angeles: 3/24 vs Boston; 3/26 at Vancouver; 3/28 at Calgary; 3/30 at Edmonton; 3/31 at Minnesota; 4/2 vs Edmonton; 4/5 vs San Jose; 4/7 at San Jose.

Dallas: 3/24 vs Calgary; 3/26 at Calgary; 3/28 at Edmonton; 3/30 at Vancouver; 3/31 at San Jose; 4/3 vs San Jose; 4/5 at Nashville; 4/7 vs St. Louis.

Phoenix: 3/24 at San Jose; 3/25 vs St. Louis; 3/29 vs San Jose; 3/31 vs Anaheim; 4/3 vs Columbus; 4/6 at St. Louis; 4/7 at Minnesota.

Colorado: 3/24 vs Vancouver; 3/26 at San Jose; 3/28 at Vancouver; 3/30 at Calgary; 4/5 vs Columbus; 4/7 vs Nashville.

Calgary: 3/24 at Dallas; 3/26 vs Dallas; 3/28 vs Los Angeles; 3/30 vs Colorado; 3/31 at Vancouver; 4/5 vs Vancouver; 4/7 vs Anaheim.

That’s six more times the enemy of our enemy (and thus, our friend) will be the loathed Vancouver Canucks. It’s likely that Vancouver will have as much to say about the Sharks playoff position as anyone outside of San Jose. Playoff races make for strange bedfellows.

Eleven more games where teams fighting for their playoff lives will be playing against each other. Six more nights where at least five of the six teams will be on the ice. And a wild close to the regular season where all six teams will be playing game 82 within six hours of each other. They don’t call it the best time of the year for nothin’!

Losing is a Disease

15 Mar

If you haven’t figured it out by the headline, we’ll be borrowing a quote from The Natural. With the lovable Roy Hobbs and his Knights team mired in the slump of all slumps, a psychologist comes in and speaks, offering up the following words:

“We must begin by asking it: ‘What is losing?’ Losing is a disease, as contagious as polio. Losing is a disease, as contagious as syphilis. Losing is a disease, as contagious as bubonic plague, attacking one, but infecting all. But curable.”

It feels like an appropriate thought, as the San Jose Sharks try to fight their way through what amounts to their worst slump since Joe Thornton joined the team. This group is capable of far better results, but have been stricken by the losing disease. Their offense has fallen ill, preceded by a wretched stretch where defensive acumen disappeared. But most importantly, we must remember: the losing disease is curable. With doses of hard work being administered on a near nightly basis for the next three and a half weeks – that’s 13 games in the next 24 nights – we’ll see if team teal can kick this bug and finally attain the results the hockey world expects of them. I get the feeling things are about to turn.

Just under one in five players polled by Sports Illustrated in the spring of 2010 responded with HP Pavilion being the toughest road building to play in. In part because of the fans who support the team, but more so due to the fact that the Sharks have protected their home ice as well as just about any other team over the past several years. With their next three games and 8 of the final 13 in San Jose, some home cookin’ may just be what the Sharks need.

For as good as their next two opponents, Nashville and Detroit, have played on the season, they haven’t been anywhere near the same team on the road that they have been at home. Nashville has a +1  GF/GA differential on the road while Detroit stumbles in at -15 in that category; while San Jose maintains a steady +19 in their own building. With Anaheim as the third team on this abbreviated homestand; heading to LA on Monday night with six points isn’t completely out of the question. The team the Sharks are chasing in the Pacific, and the all-important third seed in the West, the Dallas Stars, have just one game between now and Tuesday hosting the Blackhawks on Friday evening.

And this is why all hope is not lost for the Sharks in the wild, wild west: if San Jose takes care of business and Chicago, 5-1-1 in their last seven despite playing without Captain Jonathan Toews, can beat Dallas in regulation, the Sharks will have reclaimed their spot atop the Pacific division.

Granted, it’s not the position any of us thought the Sharks would be in two months ago, but with two games left against each Dallas and Phoenix, and three left with Los Angeles; the Sharks still control their own destiny. And you can count me among those who believe San Jose will be hosting a playoff game the second weekend in April. Why? Because even though losing is a disease, it’s curable. And 17,562 finatics may just be the cure.

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