Three is a Magic Number
One of the things that prevents Americans from fully embracing hockey is a general lack of situational tension during the average game. Of course this changes during the playoffs because we all understand what wins and losses mean in a 7 game series, but during the regular season there’s far less definition for the casual fan. In baseball the crowd knows the situation before every pitch. In football it’s before every down. Even basketball has enough late game stoppages to allow fans to understand the situation and predict the strategies of both teams. With hockey its greatest strengths can also be its greatest weaknesses: the games have a much more consistent flow and are a lot less predictable. Pitchers, quarterbacks, and point guards all have the ability to put the ball in their hands when the game is on the line, but that isn’t really possible in hockey. You can’t just make your pitch, or get the ball into the hands of your best player and let him make the play.
So what the Sharks face this week is something rare for the NHL regular season: 7 months of preparation and work come down to 3 games. The pitching coach has just left the mound, the 2 minute warning just ended, and the ball is about to be inbounded. The situation has been reset and we all know what’s on the line. 3 games. @ Dallas, @ LA, and home vs LA. Win and they’re in, lose and face the longest and most tumultuous offseason in the history of the franchise. Sweep all 3 and it’s very likely the Sharks win the Pacific Division, get the 3 seed, and are home for a 1st round playoff matchup against Chicago, Nashville, or Detroit. Take only 2 of 3 and the best case scenario becomes a 1st round matchup on the road against either St. Louis or Vancouver.
The Sharks are coming off a big 3-0 win against Dallas at home on Saturday night to set up this all important 3 game stretch. Joe Pavelski had 2 goals as he continues to be one of the more dependable big game players in the NHL, and Antti Niemi was solid in net to earn the shutout. It’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance and the Sharks need to be aware of that line heading into tonight’s game. They have every right to feel good about themselves after dominating Dallas in a game that was critical for both teams, however they also need to be aware of the fact that the team they’ll get tonight is a lot different than the one they got on Saturday night. Dallas played Friday night in Vancouver, didn’t arrive in San Jose until about 2am Saturday morning, and entering the game were 1-11-2 in the second game of a back to back this year. That’s a team ripe for the picking and to their credit the Sharks took advantage. Now they go on the road to play a Stars team that has had 2 days to rest up, and is just as desperate as the Sharks are for points (they’re currently in 9th place, 1 pt behind San Jose).
How did we get here? How does a team built to win the Stanley Cup, coming off consecutive trips to the conference finals, find itself needing to win the last 3 games just to make the playoffs? Like the game of hockey itself, the answer is multifaceted and complicated. There’s no one thing that you can point to and say, definitively, “That’s why they’re in trouble!” It’s been the cumulative effect of a lot of little flaws and mistakes, akin to death by 1,000 paper cuts. Consider:
The Schedule- I don’t like blaming the schedule as a general rule. Every team has to play 82 games between October and April, and every team has 41 at home and 41 on the road. Having said that, this year’s schedule has been brutal for the Sharks. They played their first game, were off for a week before their second, and had multiple 4 and 5 day breaks in the first half of the year. Since January I don’t think they’ve had more than 2 days off besides the All-Star break and even those have been rare (as evidenced by the 17 games they played in March). The annual tennis trip in February is always a bear but this year’s 9 game trip that included 3 sets of back-to-backs in 17 days was arguably the most difficult one ever. They also had a trip that went New Jersey->Boston->Nashville->Detroit->New York Islanders->New York Rangers, which is the equivalent of an Eastern Conference team going Dallas->San Jose->Phoenix->Colorado->Anaheim->Los Angeles, or something similar. And that almost never happens.
Injuries- Havlat’s injury is the one that makes headlines, and it’s hurt, but there have been others. Dan Boyle played 6 weeks with a broken foot early in the year when the Sharks had their best opportunity to bank points. Douglas Murray missed a couple weeks with a fractured Adam’s apple. There have been injuries throughout the 3rd and 4th lines which have lead to a total lack of continuity throughout the lineup. I’m convinced Ryane Clowe has been playing hurt too (and there could easily be more). The Sharks haven’t had it as bad as a lot of teams in terms of games lost but they’ve had an impact on a team that’s trying to incorporate a lot of new players into specific roles and hasn’t had much practice time since January. Just anecdotally it feels like every time the team gets going someone gets hurt and the lines and roster get shuffled around.
Secondary Scoring- In short: it’s been non-existant. Unless Couture, Pavelski, or Marleau score the Sharks usually don’t. That’s bad. Those 3 players have combined for 89 goals, or 42% of the team’s total for the season. The top 3 goal scorers for St. Louis account for 30% of the Blues goals, and Vancouver’s top 3 have scored 32% of the Canucks goals. Scoring depth is a critical component to team success in the NHL and the Sharks are clearly one of the more top-heavy teams in terms of goal scoring. Part of it could be the injuries mentioned above and the resulting lack of continuity, some of it is some questionable personnel decisions (more on that in a minute), but whatever the case it’s been the single biggest problem for the team all year and it’s something that gradually effects other phases of the game. When the Sharks are tied or behind they have to load up the minutes on the big boys which has a carryover effect into the compressed 2nd half schedule.
Personnel- If not for a fluke hamstring tear the Havlat-Heatley deal would have probably ended up looking pretty good but some of the other decisions haven’t worked out. Michal Handzus has been a disaster, mostly because the Sharks got bigger and slower at a time they needed to focus on getting a little faster. Handzus is solid in his own zone but it doesn’t matter how good you are defensively if you spend all your time in your own end. They haven’t been able to put together a 3rd line that could grind in the corners and consistently get some offensive push, although Daniel Winnik has helped in that regard. It’s not like Devin Setoguchi has been tearing it up for the Wild but Brent Burns hasn’t been the difference maker the Sharks thought he’d be. He hasn’t been bad, just inconsistent for a team that needs more from him.
Then there’s the Colin White signing. It made sense at the time as a low risk move, because at $1 million for 1 year he’s basically playing for the minimum and if there’s nothing left you haven’t cost yourself anything. Unfortunately it’s pretty clear he doesn’t have much left and yet the coaching staff, up until recently, has dressed him every time he’s been healthy ahead of better skating/puck moving defensemen Justin Braun and Jason Demers. There’s no question White has hurt the team, and when you look at the beef the Sharks added (White and Jim Vandermeer) I think most would agree they’d have been much better off if they had put that money towards keeping Ian White rather than trying to get bigger at a time when the best defensemen are those that can skate and move the puck. I didn’t understand the reluctance to keep Ian White at the time and having seen the way the season has played out I understand it even less now. While Winnik and Dominic Moore have brought nice elements to the Sharks, the Sharks had to give up a lot to get both players. Definitely not Doug Wilson’s strongest year.
Doug Wilson has done a lot of good things during his time with the Sharks. He’s done very well in the draft and signing FA college players, and he’s one of the boldest GM’s in all of sports when it comes to making trades. However he has 2 consistent flaws: he hasn’t put together a quality 3rd line and he hasn’t been able to put together 3 solid pairs of defensemen at the same time. He puts a premium value on pairing an offensive defenseman with a defensive defenseman, places an emphasis on size that maybe isn’t needed in the post-lockout NHL, and feels strongly about pairing L and R shots together. Personally, I’d rather get the best players possible and let them figure it out and I think skating is by far the most important physical attribute in the current NHL. For 2 years the Sharks had Niclas Wallin as the big, slow, physical, defensive defenseman who doubled as a pylon against quicker teams. Rather than trying to get away from that, the Sharks decided to sign Colin White instead of retaining Ian White on a deal that wouldn’t have had an adverse salary cap impact. Ian White doesn’t fit into the mold of what Doug Wilson wanted despite the fact that he’s a superior player to Colin White, Niclas Wallin, and Jim Vandermeer.
Last year Vancouver beat the Sharks by retrieving the puck and moving the puck up the ice to the forwards before the Sharks could get in on the forecheck and challenge for possession. Instead of trying to create a similar dynamic by acquiring good skaters and puck movers on the back end they went back and got a player (Colin White) almost identical to the one they lost (Wallin). Doesn’t look like the lesson was learned.
In his must read “30 Thoughts” column this week, Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) mentioned that one coach told him one of the problems for the Sharks was that by trading away Setoguchi and Heatley they gave up 2 players who have the ability to score easy goals. That’s left them with a smaller margin for error that has come into play while the team has struggled to score since the 1st of the year. It’s an interesting theory and likely an unintended consequence of the roster redesign that Doug Wilson implemented last summer.
Goaltending- Statistically Niemi hasn’t been bad at all, though like Burns he simply has to be better. He has let in some extremely soft goals and even worse, has done it at the worst possible times. There have been a steady stream of deflating goals on the shift following a Sharks score. It’s not Niemi’s fault the team isn’t scoring as much as last year or the 1st half of this year, and yet that doesn’t change the reality: the Sharks need more from him.
Penalty Killing- It’s been awful all year. Part of it is coaching, part of it is personnel, and part of it is simply taking too many penalties. One of the big problems has been that despite signing Handzus and intending to use guys like Desjardins and Mitchell as penalty killers the coaching staff has once again reverted to using the top 6 as killers, which leaves them tired late in the game when the Sharks need to mount a comeback or score the game winner. I’m not a huge fan of the passive kill tactic and I’m even less so when it’s played the way the Sharks have been doing it this year and letting so many passes go right through the box. The Sharks still have a combined % close to 100 on special teams but the PP is 4th and the PK 27th. Not good.
Coaching- The Sharks simply do not make tactical adjustments. When a team is playing them well and anticipating their moves it’s never “let’s try something else,” it’s always “let’s try to do it better.” This has been a consistent problem even going back to Ron Wilson’s days as Sharks coach and I can’t for the life of me understand why. I also question whether the puck control/puck possession style McLellan wants to play is the best way to utilize players with gamebreaking speed like Marleau and Havlat though that’s a minor quibble. The Sharks players, coaches, and announcers talk about the need for more ugly goals and getting back to basics but the truth is they get their fair share of ugly goals and the real problem is that they don’t get any easy or pretty goals. There’s little offensive creativity and while they lead the league in shots per game the overwhelming majority of those shots are no real threat to the goalie. They don’t make goalies move side to side (again, something that goes back to Ron Wilson) and they haven’t been generating any odd man rushes.
Turnovers- For whatever reason this team has a real propensity for throwing the puck towards the middle of the ice at no one in particular. As a fan in the arena you can actually see it happening and know that it’s going to lead directly to a goal or an odd man rush against. They also have a real knack for turning it over high in the offensive zone and in the neutral zone which, again, is a pretty sound strategy for giving up odd man rushes against. Niemi needs to stop some of these (the Dustin Penner goal the last time they played in LA being a perfect example) but the team also needs to stop giving up the opportunities. What’s so frustrating is that most of the time you can’t even tell what they were trying to do because it’s not like there’s an open player and the pass just didn’t get through. These “passes” all too often appear aimed at no one.
Which brings us back to games 80, 81, and 82. There’s no more time for moral victories. No more time to take solace in playing a solid game or great individual performances that result in a loss. No more time to point towards the future. The future is here now and nothing in these next 3 games matters aside from the results. It’s put up or shut up time, and it starts tonight in Dallas.
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