Do You Optimists Still See No Problem with the San Jose Sharks?
Sharks fans seem blissfully content to point out that their team has the best record in the league, and all too quick to assume that problems in post-seasons past are not going to continue. Most comments to my articles and most poll responses indicate an undeterred expectation of success and rejection of problems as being disconcerting.
Perhaps their view is that I am all-too quick to assume that every problem is systemic, not isolated. And I will agree with them that every team has problems, so are ours so much worse?
Not worse than Detroit's. The only reason I would rather be Detroit than San Jose right now is that I would currently have the Cup, a legitimate chance to keep it, and there would be no monkey on my back.
But they absolutely do not have as good a chance of repeating as we have of taking it from them. Detroit has serious problems in net and their defence is thus not the Cup-worthy one they entered last postseason with.
Not worse than Boston's. The Bruins have an even larger monkey on their backs than San Jose, who at least routinely makes it to the second round.
They have some of Detroit's questions in net, with two goalies who have limited playoff success and prior to this season were not consistent. There are questions about resiliency, since this year they have rarely come back from a third period deficit.
Not even worse than Calgary's. The Flames have this made for the playoffs mystique that facts simply do not back up. They made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004, but since have not made it out of the first round.
Chicago and Washington have no playoff experience. The Rangers and Canadiens are a mess and might not even make the playoffs. Vancouver has not made it out of the second round in two U.S. presidential administrations.
Pittsburgh started so far back that their road is going to be tough. They are still young, their roster has morphed leaving questions about how they will gel, and they are not a great defence.
They have an experienced and dominant goalie who will be rested and have a good offence in front of him for the first time in his three-time champion career. They have an upgraded blueline and a system that enabled them to retain the third-best defence in the Eastern Conference despite the loss of their Hall of Fame goalie for more than half the season.
Are they unbeatable? No. Are the Sharks the most likely team to do it? Yes.
But my problems with the Sharks continue. The reason I think they are indicative of larger issues is that there are similarities of this team and last year's.
Both teams had such success (last year after the trade for Brian Campbell, this year up until January) that they could believe they would inevitably win. This leads to the team not playing a full sixty minutes, and that is a bad habit to get into.
Playoff teams are opportunistic, especially those that make it into the second round. They take advantage of those lapses, and a goal surrendered (and along with it, momentum) is harder to make up for than it is in the regular season against lesser competition.
Last season, the Sharks laid an egg in their first game hosting Dallas, then seemed to assume it wouldn't happen again—it did. One of those games was lost because Patrick Marleau jumped out of the way of a Mike Modano power play shot instead of blocking it, in the process screening his goalie, it exemplified how the team's lack of dedication.
The round before, the Sharks were flat in a couple games. In one, they jumped out to a three-goal lead over Calgary and relaxed. The Flames responded by taking it to the Sharks physically, and fought their way back to a 4-3 win because San Jose was unable to recapture the momentum.
The series became a seven-game meat-grinder that left them worn down, leading to a 3-0 second-round series deficit for a team too battered to come back from that hole.
Fast-forward to 2009. The Sharks did the same thing in this game, the first time they blew a three-goal lead in the regular season in 13 years. I have written a recap of the game for The Hockey Writers.
Let me make it clear: this is not just about losses. Every team goes through losing streaks, and every team has bad months.
In the playoffs, I would apply Vince Lombardi's famous quote, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." But for the regular season, I would use his less famous theme, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."
How you play shows how ready you are, and this team is not ready. To showcase their problems, I go back to three games before they started losing.
The Sharks have played 19 games since their big win over Detroit January 17, and have struggled in 14 of them despite going 9-5-5. (In the playoffs, that is 9-10.) Here are the highlights of their struggles in this stretch prior to Thursday's loss:
- They did not show up until late in the third period against Vancouver and were bailed out by Evgeni Nabokov, scoring only on a last minute (literally) goal with him pulled before winning in overtime.
- Ilja Bryzgalov, who trails Evgeni Nabokov with the 28th-best save percentage and the 33rd GAA, stops 27 of 28 shots he faces.
- They came out flat against Chicago at home, giving up a goal on their first shift, ending their 13-game winning streak over their foes, and taking just their second home loss in regulation, 4-2.
- They blew a 2-0 lead against Carolina to lose their second straight game at home.
- They gave up multiple goals in the first period in Columbus, and were unable to recover from it; it was the first of five consecutive games in which they allowed the first goal.
- It took them over 50 minutes to score their only goal against Marc-Andre Fleury, who is 21st in save percentage and 25th in GAA.
- They gave up three early goals to Buffalo, then blew a lead with seconds to go, promptly losing in a shootout.
- They gave up another three goals in the first period and six goals for the game in New Jersey, including a third period lead for the second game in a row.
- It took more than two periods to score at home against the second-worst team in the league and another mediocre goalie (Kari Lehtonen, 29th in save percentage and 40th in GAA).
- They managed just 24 shots and one goal against a Dallas squad that had four of their top six players out with injury or illness.
- They were dominated 4-1 in Detroit by Ty Conklin, who is ranked 17th in save percentage.
- They were held scoreless for 58:42 of a game against Alex Auld, ranked 25th in save percentage, scoring only on the power play.
- Once again, San Jose surrenders three first period goals and cannot score more than twice on 48 shots against back-up goalie Jaroslav Halak (20th in save percentage, 32nd in GAA).
- Manage just 25 shots and one goal while surrendering four at home to a Dallas team coming off a five-game losing streak on their six game homestand.
So why is everyone still so confident? Here are several excuses I have heard:
- The Sharks have players out with injury. Okay, so why has Dallas, missing much more than the Sharks (who are only without role-players), managed to get back into the playoff chase? And are we expecting the team to be healthy in the playoffs, or are we only going to expect the Stanley Cup if they are?
- We've run into some great goaltending. At what point does the cavalcade of mediocre goalies stumping the Sharks start to become an offensive problem instead of opposing goalie play? Because in nine of these 19 games, the Sharks have failed to score more than two goals.
- It's just a temporary funk. Is six wins in 16 games (20 percent of the season) a temporary funk or a pattern forming?
- This team is not the one who lost the last three years. True, but it looks awfully similar at this point.
- They are still the best team in the league. Okay, but in 2006, the Sharks were the best team in the league after acquiring Joe Thornton. In 2008, the Sharks were the best team in the league after acquiring Brian Campbell. The more things change, the more they stay the same...
- The regular season means nothing in the playoffs. I go back to patterns that exist now that have been our undoing in playoffs past. Todd McLellan always talks about the process and playing sound hockey because he knows the games do matter.
- They're still getting points in a lot of those losses. Are there any rewards for overtime losses in the playoffs? Isn't the playoffs what really matter? 'Nuff said.
They lost a lot of those games on the road. Yes, but they have lost four of their last seven at home, too.
We still have one of the best road records in the league. True, but we have fewer quality wins on the road than they have home losses (see here). And that record includes overtime losses as a plus, which as I said, means nothing in the playoffs.
These difficulties test them, force them to scrap, and prepare them for the playoffs. HERE I WILL AGREE, and if we can solve these problems in the next five weeks, we will return to our status as an irresistible force.
A team feeds off its fanbase, so beware what you project. Overconfidence encourages a team to have the same; perhaps demanding better will result in improved play.
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