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.