Shark-Infested Blogger

March 11, 2010 7:02 AM

Bad News for Sharks this Spring

We all know the story: the last four seasons, the Sharks have the look of a serious contender. Yet every year, Sharks fans see their team wash away before the last snow has melted in Edmonton and Calgary.

So every year we are left to ask ourselves, "Will this year be different?"

Last season, I spent time on both sides of this debate, becoming increasingly pessimistic as the playoffs approached. It took just two months (even with the All Star break) for me to go from elated to doubting. By the trade deadline, I was openly saying the team needed a trade and outlining problems so many of my readers refused to acknowledge, and they were the very same issues that surfaced in their first-round loss to the Ducks.

Yet despite seeing the problems, I never would have imagined that first-round loss. I even saw enough at the end of the season to return to optimism, and despite my own recognition that there were reasons in previous years to think everything would be different, I decided it was again and predicted the Sharks would win the West.

And still I have reasons to believe it will be different again.

San Jose is having to struggle much more to win games, and thus have figured out how to grit them out more than overpower their opponents. In years' past, they very much resembled this year's Team Canada, losing focus and intensity when they had leads or played lesser opponents and counting on their vastly superior talent to bring victory in the end.

That works in the regular season, which is why over the past three seasons, no team has a better regular season record. In the playoffs, the team that wants it more almost always wins, and teams used to overwhelming find it difficult when the opposition is not only better, but can focus their gameplan on you for an entire series.

This should provide a little less overconfidence, as should the first-round exit last year. Moreover, the players have to know what we do: 12 of them are free agents at the end of this season, so this amounts to a last chance as a team unless everyone comes back for no pay raise--about as likely as the Sharks not losing a game in the playoffs. And with the lack of success this roster has had when it counts over the past few seasons, it is almost as unlikely this team as is will be wanted back if they fail again.

In other words, there should be no problem with urgency or complacency. Yet the Sharks have been out-worked or lost focus on key moments since the game before the Olympic break, a stretch of nine games. They have started slowly, giving up the first goal in 12 of their last 13 contests.

But there is an advantage to this year's Sharks in the makeup of the Western Conference: There are likely to be three newcomers to the playoffs (Colorado, Phoenix, and Los Angeles) and one that has never made it out of the first round (Nashville). These teams will not be as prepared for the mental and physical rigours of the second season as the Sharks will, and to some degree San Jose has each of their numbers, both this season and in the recent past.

Despite their collapse, the Sharks should be able to hang on to a three-point lead with a game in hand to win the Pacific Division, guaranteeing them a top-three seed. As they are also five points and a game in hand ahead of Vancouver, they are likely to be a top-two seed in the West.

What this means is they should match up against one of the inexperienced teams in the first round. However, there is some risk of matching up against the Detroit Red Wings or Calgary Flames, and a very remote possibility that Dallas or Anaheim could still sneak in.2435508829_571850f872.jpg

If the Sharks play the Flames they get an inconsistent team that has even less playoff success than the Sharks: Calgary has bowed out in the first round in every season after the lockout, including losing to the Sharks two seasons ago. This is a team I would expect San Jose to beat.

Given that, I see only four teams as capable of winning a second-round series: San Jose, Chicago, Vancouver, and Detroit; let's focus on the latter three as threats to the Sharks getting the monkey off their back.

The Sharks have struggled against Chicago and Detroit, going 1-2-1 against each. More disturbing is how they have looked: both teams have blown out the Sharks in one game and both Sharks wins among those eight games have been questionable--a shootout (not available in the playoffs) over the Wings and a stolen game in which they were out-shot 47-14 against the Hawks.

Detroit has their low seed not because they are a marginal team, but because they have battled injuries all season. All this has done is increased the team's grit and resolve while resting some of its roster for the games that matter. With a full compliment, they may be the second best team in the conference; with their championship pedigree vs. the playoff history of the Canucks and Sharks, I would pick the Red Wings to beat either in the first round.

The good news is that Detroit will likely have to play one of the other two good teams to get to the second round, so the Sharks may never face them. They also will not have to face Chicago until the conference finals, which would be as far as San Jose has ever gotten.

The bad news is San Jose relies too heavily on their top goalie, and he will once again be worn down when the playoffs come, and may already be wearing down now. If he or the team's only puck-moving defenceman, Dan Boyle, go down to injury, getting out of the first round will be difficult.

Even should they advance, the workload on Nabby is going to come back to bite the Sharks. No goalie other than Martin Brodeur has won a Stanley Cup without getting at least 20 games off during the regular season since Mike Richter (68 games played) in 1994. And while the same can be said of Roberto Luongo and Vancouver, he is a younger player more apt to handle the workload.

So what does this mean in terms of odds of victory in each round?

For the first round, there is almost a 50 percent chance the Sharks face Detroit and over a 60 percent chance they lose to the more accomplished foe. There is very little chance they lose to anyone else, so I put their odds at advancing to the second round at about 60 percent.

In the second round, the likelihood is that if Detroit has advanced it was done at the expense of Chicago, who I believe is better than their rivals. For that reason, I consider the likelihood that Detroit is a second-round opponent to be under 20 percent, and again give the Sharks just under a 40 percent chance of winning that series if it does fall as such--I will assign a three in 40 (27 in 360) chance of the Sharks specifically beating Detroit in the second round.

However, if the Sharks take the top seed, they are about 50 percent likely to play either Los Angeles, Phoenix, or Colorado in the second round, all of whom will already feel their season was a success. Thus they will not only lack the experience of San Jose, but the urgency. This adds up to about a one in three chance (120 in 360) San Jose beats one of these three foes in the second round.

The Sharks could fall to second in the West and come up against Vancouver in the second round. This series would be nearly a toss-up, with Vancouver having a better goalie and more depth but the Sharks having home ice and a bit more experience and top-tier skating talent.

But a lot of the reason that Vancouver has done poorly historically is the lack of scoring depth, and that is more an issue for the Sharks, who rely on the top forward line for about 40 percent of their goals. Moreover, Vancouver has shown more mettle in enduring their long road trip in preparation for the Olympics while still holding the division, and they are not suffering from lackluster play; I would give the Sharks only about a four in nine chance to win this series, leaving a two in nine chance (80 in 360) that San Jose over Vancouver specifically is a second-round result since this match-up is about a 50 percent likelihood.  

Finally, there is very little chance (say just over five percent) that any other team advances to the second round and plays the Sharks, and virtually no chance that San Jose falls to that team. I will assign the probability of San Jose beating someone else in the second round at five percent (18 in 360), making their overall chance of advancing to the third round at under 40 percent (235 of 360 of winning if they reach the second round and 60 percent to get there in the first place)--still about as good as Vancouver's chance and better than anyone but Chicago's.

From there, it gets very bleak. Chicago is the most likely to be there, and very likely to beat the Sharks if they are. San Jose has been badly overmatched in the season series and has less playoff success to draw on than Chicago. They are also playing better as a team, with their struggles being against better teams and still not as severe, as they have passed the Sharks in the standings.

The better team may have Brian Campbell back and has more players it relies on. While Nabby is a better goalie than Huet, he may not be by that point in May: Including preseason and the Olympics, he will cross the 90-games played threshold in this series--too much for a 35-year old player.

Of course, there is a chance San Jose plays someone else, but that team would likely be Vancouver--I do not see anyone else making it this far, and it would almost be impossible for them to not have played San Jose earlier. Even this series would be a disadvantage for the Sharks.

Thus, at the end of the day, I place San Jose's chance at less than one in 12 of making the Stanley Cup Finals. Most of the teams they would be likely to face (Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Washington) would still be favoured in that other words, don't bet on the Sharks to hoist the Cup unless you get 40:1 odds.

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