San Jose-Vancouver: After Sharks 4-3 Loss, Where Is the Leadership?

John PhenAnalyst IIIJanuary 4, 2011

Niemi couldn't stop the 44th shot in a wild loss
Niemi couldn't stop the 44th shot in a wild lossJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In a theme that's been surprisingly common this season: Yet another team reversed its recent fortunes in the confines of the Shark Tank on Monday.

For many teams, headed to San Jose meant a extremely loud crowd and a tough road test from a very talented and tough at home Shark team. Teams that have had a tough go of it in San Jose have found a far different team this year and last night's game was no different.

The Canucks had last tasted victory at 525 West Santa Clara on April 7, 2007, and it took almost four years for them to win again. The Sedin twins and the red-hot Vancouver Canucks looked dominant and took advantage of yet another inconsistent showing from the Sharks.

The San Jose Sharks notched some signature wins against other dominant Western Conference teams buoying hope amongst fans in an extremely erratic season but have yet to beat the Canucks this year. These Canucks are on a tear, posting a ridiculous 15-1-2 record the last 18 and 8-0-1 in their past nine road contests.

For a Sharks team coming off an extended road swing that saw them play 13-of-19 games on the road, while going 8-5 during that stretch.

This would have been a terrific game to show that things are starting to come together for the Sharks after starting the new year with a 1-0 shutout over the Los Angeles Kings.

The Canucks had come off of a tough battle versus the Colorado Avalanche and would be playing their second game in two days, a prime chance to notch another signature win.

The Canucks had completely destroyed the Sharks on Nov. 26 in a 6-1 bloodbath that had coaches scratching their heads.

"They're probably the hottest team in the league and maybe the best team in the league right now," McLellan said before the game. "The last time we played them, the gap between the two teams was significant, and we'd like to close the gap."

Rather than putting together a complete game for the first time against such a quality opponent, the Sharks continued their defensive miscues throughout the night. The Canucks looked dominant during long stretches, embarrassed the Sharks in their own zone for most of the second period and controlled play all three zones for the better part of the game.

In the end, a controversial third-period goal provided the winning margin, but the poor defensive focus across the board was apparent all night.

The Sharks would allow a season-high 47 shots to a Canuck team that could have easily been gassed from the high altitude and tough game versus the Avalanche the night before.

Did I mention that Roberto Luongo would take the night off? Backup Cory Schneider would stop 32-of-35 shots in the victory.

Antti Niemi would put together his finest game of the season and is definitely getting his game into gear and stopped 43 shots in the loss.

This game was not as close as the final score might indicate and was painfully clear to anyone really paying attention. The San Jose Sharks just are too turnover and mistake prone right now to build on any offensive success, the moment they have a spark something just shoots them in the foot.

In the first period, Jason Demers would take the puck from behind the net and attempt an ill-advised pass to Joe Thornton up the middle of the ice. Thornton would then lose the handle as Vancouver's top line would take advantage with a quick passing play by the Sedin twins.

Daniel Sedin would net the first goal of the night at 6:09 of the first period, skating free as Niclas Wallin would get caught skating ahead of the play, a first round of costly mistakes that was the theme of the night.

Ryane Clowe would net the equalizer at 5:08 of the second period, tipping home a wild shot from the boards by Jason Demers. Clowe's hustle really shined on this goal, after chipping the puck deep, outskating the Canuck defence and then posting up front for the tip in goal.

Just three minutes later, however, the Canucks would skate down the ice unimpeded on a completely blown coverage as a cross-ice pass from ex-Shark Christian Erhoff would find Edler wide open.

Half-hearted backchecking effort by Dany Heatley would leave Edler with too much room in that situation on the power play.

Patrick Marleau would roof the power play tally to tie things up at 12:18 by taking a puck loose in the crease and snapping it past a prone Schneider with assists to Heatley and Boyle. Marleau has found his game of late, posting his fourth goal in six games after a 10-game November dry spell.

The Sharks would take the lead as Heatley would take another of his patented double shifts and dish it to Jamal Mayers who would sneak it over Schneider's shoulder at 15:21.

The Canucks would provide the equalizer again just a shade over three minutes left as Murray would somehow forget where he was and Jannick Hansen would slam home the rebound at 18:35.

These late goals before the end of the period is a horrible trait and not one conducive to championship play. Late goals are not forgivable and the fact that they keep happening despite the skaters on the ice is not a good sign.

And then the controversial game-winner in the third as Alexandre Burrows would deflect a shot from the point from Keith Ballard on a clearly obvious high stick.

"A real obvious high stick, but it's unreviewable. That's what I'm told," said McLellan. "Had the puck gone into the net directly off a high stick, that would have been a different story."

That was all the Canucks needed to get the win and extend to a NHL-leading 55 points at this stage of the season. It's pretty clear that despite this game being close and entertaining, the Sharks are simply not much of a match for the Canucks right now. The Canucks were struggling in similar fashion early in the year but have managed to right the ship and it's started with their top line.

One has to honestly wonder where is this team's leadership? Where is the change in culture that was supposed to occur once Thornton had taken the reins? I had written and been excited about Joe's selection to captain, but needless to say things haven't exactly worked out as we've envisioned.

Tensions post-game would boil over as Ryane Clowe would make some pointed comments in regards to the lack of effort.

"We just want to cheat at times. That's how it is. They're not afraid to play a sound defensive game, and they'll stick to it." Clowe continued, "We've got guys who want to do it occasionally but not all the time, because that's hard work."

It's pretty clear that this issue has been boiling under the scenes for some time, and honestly it's a question for many Sharks fans. Where is this team's defensive focus? where is the leadership and accountability? It hasn't been evident consistently all year, Joe Thornton would post a -3 this game and didn't look all that interested during long stretches.

While Ryane Clowe didn't call out any names, it's pretty clear he is speaking about the top six skaters and thank goodness for his refreshing candor. It's accountability and leadership such as his that is needed more in this locker room and has been sorely missing during our playoff flops.

Coach Todd McLellan was brought aboard to bring in his version of "Red Wing" hockey, where defensive responsibilities go across the board, for every skater. And yet we still see signs that not all of the top six skaters buy into the program on a consistent basis.

Thornton, Marleau and Heatley aren't known for their defensive prowess, and when the going gets tough, their deficiencies become exceedingly apparent.

What is the real issue here? Who knows? But it's something that needs to be addressed before any talk of a postseason can occur. One merely has to glance at the Red Wings and their almost embarrassing depth and ability to plug in any player and have success in the system.

That's because even their stars buy it, understand and live it and the Sharks' stars don't quite yet on a consistent enough basis. Time or the grasp of the system just does not apply anymore if you want to reach for excuses.

Time will tell if they ever will.

What Worked

The line of Clowe, Ferriero and Couture still look like the best line on the team, and as they go, the Sharks go. The top line is world class when the puck is going in the net and things are good. When they aren't, I just don't see the fight and focus in other areas on a consistent enough basis.

This Canuck team is so similar to the Sharks on many levels that it's frightening, but the Canucks are the ones that have overcome their early seasons inconsistencies to become a complete team, not the Sharks.

What Didn't Work

Do you really need to guess? Coach Todd McLellan would mix up the defensive pairings once again but with little to no change. Multiple times the second and third pairings would commit some pretty horrific mistakes—on the fly, unforced, defender in their face. You name it, they'd commit it.

Demers continues to be Pandora's box on the blueline, and whoever he is paired to just isn't stay-at-home enough to cover for the youngster's mistakes.

Coach McLellan needs to maybe sit the youngster down to prevent him from losing any more confidence. His play leading up to the Sedin goal is yet another sign that he is playing too tentatively to make the right choice in his own zone.

He needs to take a seat and maybe watch the game from a different angle because the "play him and let him learn" tactic isn't working. He looks shaky and in doubt, and that's harming him instead of helping him develop his game.

You would be remiss to not notice that the coaching staff is making sure Murray and Boyle are out to close out the periods late. They see that the Sharks need help maintaining focus late in the period and despite these changes we still allowed the Hansen goal with just 1:25 left in the second period.

Torrey Mitchell, Derek Joslin and Joe Pavelski would not play, and Tommy Wingels would be reassigned to Worchester and Andrew Desjardins would play his first NHL game.

UPDATE : Ryane Clowe would speak the day after the game and stand behind his strong postgame remarks.

"I absolutely stand by what I said," said Clowe, one of the Sharks' assistant captains. "We need to find some consistency in our game."

"I guarantee you right now there's guys that don't feel that tired after that game," Clowe said, describing the effort as "terrible."


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