Why are the Anaheim Ducks leading the San Jose Sharks 3-1, out-scoring them 12-6, in a year where virtually everyone outside of Anaheim thought the Sharks were a lock to make it to the Western Conference Finals?
Let’s toss out the sour grapes reasons regularly heard from Sharks fans and analyze the reality of the situation. (i.e, the Ducks have no class, are just lucky, are thugs, goons, cheaters, ad nauseum.)
The answer comes as no surprise to Anaheim fans.
The Anaheim Ducks, quite simply, are a better hockey team than the San Jose Sharks. To quote Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times, the Ducks are giving the Sharks "a lesson in ferocity."
In fact, if not for a phantom hooking call on Corey Perry in the third period of Game 3, this series would already be over in four games with the Ducks dominating the Sharks as easily as the Redwings took out the Blue Jackets.
Sportswriters and fans continually repeat the same delusional nonsense in explaining Anaheim's “unlikely” 3-1 lead:
- The Sharks are the better team but Jonas Hiller’s otherworldly play has saved the eighth seeded Ducks against the superior Sharks offensive onslaught.
- The Sharks are the better team but, for some unexplainable reason, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton haven’t shown up yet.
- The Sharks are the better team, but the Ducks are just too dirty for the Sharks to deal with. The league should suspend Pronger, Perry, and the rest of the Ducks because they are too physical and the Sharks should be granted a second round berth by default.
- The Sharks are the better team and its just one loss (I mean two losses, I mean three losses,...) and the Sharks superior skills will eventually win out over the pugnacious style of the Ducks.
These reasons, of course, are not true.
The reasons the Ducks are leading 3-1 in the series are as concrete and explainable as why tears of disappoinment freeze on a Sharks fans face when the temperature drops below 32 degrees F.
- Anaheim defenseman Francois Beauchemin’s (#23 in above photo) return to the lineup after a five month injury rehab, and the late season acquisitions of defensemen Ryan Whitney, Sheldon Brookbank, and James Wisnieski have transformed the Ducks defense from a ragtag bunch of "just-guys" (Montador, Huskins, Hedican) circling around between Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermeyer (#27 in above photo) shifts to a three-line force of All-Star defensive pairings. No offence intended to the Sharks' Rob Blake and Dan Boyle. They are both very good defensemen. But they are two versus the Ducks six. And they are not in the same league as Pronger and Niedermeyer, at least not defensively.
- On the occasions where the Sharks offense has penetrated the Ducks D, Hiller has come up big. The Sharks have outshot the Ducks in the series by a wide margin but many of their shots and passes have been rushed and ill-advised. Sharks center Joe Thornton likes to slow the game down and control the pace but the Ducks checkers are collapsing on him so hard and fast he is forcing shots and passing sooner than he normally would, thus allowing Jonas Hiller unfettered lines of sight to make relatively routine saves. (And occassionally, spectacular ones.)
- The Ducks penalty kill is something like 13-of-15 and its not just about Niedermeyer and Pronger. In Game 1, with 4 minutes left and the Ducks leading 2-0, Pronger and Niedermeyer sat out the last two minute PK of the game. Ducks coach Randy Carlisle let Beauchemin, Wisneiski, Brookbank, and Whitney handle the entire two minute kill in order to save Pronger and Niedermeyer for the last two minutes of even strength play. Can you imagine any coach having the confidence in his third through sixth defensemen in a 2-0 game with four minutes left against the Sharks on a power play...in the playoffs?!!? That's amazing to me. Add Nokeleinen, Brown, Carter, Marchant, RNiedermeyer and George Parros to this squad and you have a defensive juggernaut in the making. They NEVER quit and rarely miss assignments.
- The Ducks have two good goaltenders. The Sharks have one. Nabokov is a great regular season goalie but he doesn’t have the stamina of a Marty Brodeuer (Who does?) The Ducks have made a living off of having two great goaltenders on the roster over the past few years. The Sharks need to take more care to save Nabokov for the playoffs. They are good enough to win with Boucher in the regular season against lesser teams and rest Nabokov for the playoffs. The Ducks have to win 13 more games to win the Cup. The Sharks have to win 15. Both Hiller and Giguere are fresh and up to the task. Nabokov already looks beaten.
- Ryan/Getzlaff/Perry have out-skated Marleau/Thornton/Setoguchi thus far in the series, in large part because the Ducks defensemen play better defense than the Sharks' defensemen do. If you get past Ryan and Perry's forecheck without turning the puck over (check out the third goal in last night's game for how relentless these two guys are on the forecheck), you still have Getzlaff, Niedermeyer/Beachemin or Pronger/Whitney to deal with, along with Ryan and Perry's back check.
- The Chops. Andrew Ebbett and Drew Miller were brought up from the Iowa Chops to play with Teemu Selanne. After losing Andy McDonald to the Blues last year and Chris Kunitz to the Pens this year, Anaheim finally has a couple guys who can make plays and skate at Selanne-velocity, something Doug Weight, Brendan Morrisson, Travis Moen, and Sammy Pahlsson tried but couldnt do effectively. Teemu, even at 38, is still too fast for most centers.
There is a reason why Anaheim fans chanted “WE WANT THE SHARKS” the last home game of the season. Knowledgeable Ducks fans knew all along the Ducks matched up well with the Sharks (and didnt want to travel to Michigan yet.)
It’s not over yet. The Sharks are a great team and have won three in a row many times this year. But beating this particular Ducks team three straight games, with the defense they are putting on the ice, is going to be a tall order to fill.
If the Sharks can pull it off, they will deserve all the accolades heaped upon them.
Thus far, the accolades have been premature.
But, as has been often said in sports, "That's why they play the games."