Shark-Infested Blogger

May 9, 2010 7:52 PM

Sharks, Red Wings Switch Roles

In the second round series, one team came in as the defending champion who knows how to work every shift and get the most out of every opportunity. The other came in as the team that year after year failed to live up to its potential because it lost focus and intensity, made key mistakes, and did not do the little things it took to accomplish greatness.

The San Jose Sharks have lost three times to a lower seeded team in the first or second round of the playoffs in the last four years--the same number of series wins they have in that time. Their only two wins over a lower seed happened against the Nashville Predators, a team whose payroll barely meets the minimum required in the last collective bargaining agreement and who has thus never made it deeper than six games into the first round; in one of those series, they were missing their best player, goalie Tomas Vokoun.

The Sharks have found new ways to lose each year. In the 2006, they wilted under the pressure of the physical Oilers. In 2007, the folded when the Red Wings stole a game. In 2008, they failed to show up at the beginning of series with proper intensity. In 2009, they failed to adjust when they could not get the puck past Jonas Hiller.

4451994599_b995890370.jpgAnd I heard too often, including on this rant by Sharks broadcaster Drew Remenda (near the end of the segment found in the link provided), that this is a different Sharks team. Yes, they have 11 new players from last year, but are we really going to count scratched players and a backup goalie as changing a team? The reality is only one new face (Dany Heatley) is a marquee player--among the starting goalie, top two lines or two defensive pairs--who gets ample playing time. In fact, among the rest of the new faces, only Manny Malhotra played 15 minutes in any game of this series, including an overtime game and a blowout.

Meanwhile, Detroit has lost only twice to a lower-seeded team in that span: Once in the conference finals to the second-seeded and eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, and once four seasons ago to the eventual Western Conference champion Edmonton Oilers. They were playing for their fourth consecutive trip to the conference finals and third to the Stanley Cup Finals, having won hockey's Holy Grail the first time they went in that span.

Detroit, in fact, is the closest thing to a dynasty in the NHL, having won four of the last 12 Stanley Cups. They have four players remaining from the first championship team--the same number of Stanley Cup champions the Sharks have from anywhere on their entire roster. In other words, the Wings have four players who individually have as many championships as the entire Sharks roster combined.

Not surprisingly, one team won four one-goal games. The other squandered leads in three games en route to a 4-1 series loss. Surprisingly, the team that seized its opportunities was the perennial choker, and the perennial champion choked.

Here are some more statistics that point to Detroit's inability to put the Sharks away and the fact that this series should not only have been closer than four games to one, but arguably should see the Sharks down 3-2 and trying to avoid another Game Six second-round elimination:
  1. The Wings failed to hold a lead in three of the four games they lost: Twice these were third-period leads, and twice they were two-goal leads, one of which they still held with just over 13 minutes left in regulation and absolutely let up in.
  2. Detroit outscored San Jose 15-8 in the first and second periods, but was outscored 7-2 in the third period and overtime.
  3. The Wings actually took two dozen more shots than the Sharks throughout the series, but had six fewer on net because six more were missed and 24 more were blocked. In fact, the Sharks--a team that rarely records even as many blocks per shot on net as another team, much less more actual blocks--had the edge in blocked shots in all five games.
  4. The Sharks are one of the worst teams in the league in giveaways (partially because they hold the puck so much) and the Wings are one of the best in takeaways (largely thanks to the league leader, Pavel Datsyuk), yet Detroit had six more giveaways and six fewer takeaways than San Jose.
  5. The Wings were undisciplined, taking more penalties than the Sharks in three of their four losses (both took four in Game Five). In all, Detroit was whistled for 38 penalties to 28 by the Sharks and 27 to 13 in their four losses, and this led to the Sharks collecting two more power play goals and four more in their four wins--which they won by one goal in each case. There is no question some of the penalties were iffy, but the Sharks suffered from several of those calls, too, and there is no doubt that the Wings committed more of both the ticky-tack and indisputable variety. Moreover, in the waning minutes of the series, the Sharks were called for a penalty while three by the Wings were allowed to slide.
  6. The one advantage the Sharks supposedly had was in net, yet rookie Jimmy Howard (2.94 goals against average, .910 save percentage) statistically outplayed his counterparts (3.30 GAA, .894 save pct), yet the team in front of him could help him to only one win. While it is true that a soft goal allowed the Sharks to tie the game they won in overtime and four of the five shots Evgeni Nabokov faced in the first period of Game Four could not have been stopped--in other words, Howard did not really outplay the Sharks' netminders--there is no doubt he played well enough his team should have won more than they lost.
None of this is said to diminish the Sharks accomplishment of advancing to the Western Conference finals. On the contrary, this is the element that has been missing from this team--the ability to steal games rather than have them stolen from them.

It is a sign that this team is ready to contend for Lord Stanley's Cup. The team they will face will be determined in either Tuesday's or Thursday's matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks; currently, Chicago holds a 3-2 series edge.

When the conference finals will get underway may also depend on the Eastern Conference. The NHL will not want to start the Western Conference finals until they at least know how far the Eastern Conference semi-finals can go for fear that the West representative in the Stanley Cup Finals has to wait over a week for their opponent.

The East could be done as soon as Monday evening or extend as late as Friday should Philadelphia win the next two games. How late it will go will be known no later than Wednesday, so it seems likely that the Sharks will resume action no later than Saturday, a week after their last game, and perhaps as early as Thursday should the Boston win Monday and Chicago win Tuesday.

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