I have a few thoughts about the depressing collapse of the Sharks on my new blog.
Friday, April 3, 2009
I have a new blog. This is my official last post at Team Teal in the Twin Towns.
Writing this blog was great fun and very rewarding. It's clear from a quick glance at the archives, however, that it had been a long time since I had posted here. I take that as a sign that it's time to move on to other things.
My new blog, Close Personal Friends With the Duke!, is intended to be more general in its subject matter. Skate on over and check it out.
Many very sincere thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my puckhead ramblings over the past year or so.
Friday, January 2, 2009
The NHL held its second New Year's Winter Classic outdoor game in as many years yesterday. The Detroit Red Wings defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 6-4 in front of more that 40,000 fans at Wrigley Field.
Talk about an event going off without a hitch! Everything about the game was just about perfect. All of the decisions the league had control over (the teams involved, the venue) turned out to be right on the dot, and the things that no one has any control over (i.e., the weather) cooperated as well. By all accounts the ice conditions were excellent, and the absence of any snow on the rink (picturesque as it was last year) permitted the pace of play to be much higher than it was during the last Winter Classic in Buffalo. Scoring was commensurately higher--let's face it, ten goals is better than two, when it comes to holding the interest of the casual fan. Could even a player as gifted as Pavel Datsyuk have produced a goal quite this beautiful in last year's ice conditions? Almost certainly not.
Perhaps it's just the afterglow of the event's success, but I no longer have any reservations about making this an annual event, as I did last year. The Winter Classic represents an opportunity for the sport of ice hockey to step up and genuinely be in the spotlight for one day a year. (And yes, I do think it is possibly to effectively compete with that traditional sporting occupant of New Year's Day, college football...certainly as long as the NCAA adheres to its current, absurd method of determining a champion, which dooms all New Year's bowl games to being meaningless exhibitions). The fact that its occurrence on the calendar (provided it is always held on New Year's, as it should be) is set far in advance will allow people to plan events around it, as they do for the Super Bowl. I had a few friends over for last year's game and a few more over for this year's game, and I hope to make it an annual tradition.
With the fatalism of a long-time NHL fan, of course, my thoughts immediately turn to an obvious question: How will the league screw this up? Certainly the very worst move the NHL could make would be to stage some sort of exhibition game--such as the NHL All-Star Game--as its annual outdoor event, rather than a meaningful regular-season game. As I've mentioned in this space before, the All-Star Game is inevitably an intrinsically flawed event, and in my opinion ought to be phased for something better, anyway. (Both this year and last year, non-hockey fans have asked me, with respect to the Winter Classic, "Does this game count?" When I respond in the affirmative, their interest level immediately goes up...you can see it in their faces.)
I've heard some talk from some quarters about doing precisely what I opposed in the last paragraph, but as near as I can tell there is no movement in the league's front offices for any such thing. More worrisome to me is the potential for the game to be staged someplace that doesn't have genuine, honest-to-goodness winter on 1 January...such as Ross McKeon's suggestion, in the sidebar to this article, that an outdoor game be played in Las Vegas. "No doubt, the players and fans would enjoy the Sin City setting," McKeon writes.
Um...sorry, wrong. I am in general a big advocate of Sun Belt hockey (I root for a team from California, for crying out loud) and I don't have an ideological opposition to playing hockey in climates with no natural ice, as do some hockey fundamentalists. But much like a Green Bay Packers game from Lambeau Field in December, the aesthetic that comes with the "Winter" part of the Winter Classic provides much of the appeal, especially for the casual fan. As much as the snow mucked up play in Buffalo last year, it was unquestionably positive from an aesthetic point of view. So places like Boston, New York, Montreal, and (ahem) the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul should all be candidates for the next several years. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tampa Bay? Not so much. Maybe, if the event truly becomes well-established over the next decade or so...maybe then you consider putting it someplace warm, just to mix things up a bit. Until then, though, let's keep it cold.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
I tuned in to the game between San Jose and Vancouver last night at just about the midpoint of the second period. (I have been reading Dave King's memoir of his year coaching Metallurg of Magnitogorsk in the Russian Super League, entitled King of Russia...I was in one of those reading grooves and wanted to push through to the end. It was good...maybe in the future I'll provide a review in this space.) By this time the Sharks had built a 5-0 lead, which I was pleased to see. What I was less pleased to see was the way in which the Canucks controlled the play for the remainder of the second period and indeed the game.
The game ended 5-0 because the two best players on the ice last night were Evgeni Nabokov and Vancouver goalie Curtis Sanford, who relieved starter Cory Schneider after the Sharks scored their fifth. I felt very good about Nabokov's performance--he made some tough saves and always looked in total control of his net. His focus was still exceptionally sharp, even though his team had a huge lead.
Combined with his seventeen third-period saves against the Rangers on Saturday, instrumental in preserving that 3-2 win, it's been a great couple of bounce-back games for Nabokov after looking dreadful in the high-profile 6-0 loss to Detroit last week. Like those of defensive backs in scrimmage football, the mistakes of goalies are obvious on the scoresheet and critical to the outcome of games. There is nothing that can send a team into a lengthy slide quite like a stretch of poor play from its top goaltender. Since every goalie has the occasional three-sigma-bad game that just doesn't go his way, the ability to get right back on the horse is crucial. Nabby has done that, and he looked in top form last night; that's why he's one of the best in the world.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
The outcome of the big Sharks-Wings tilt in Detroit tonight? Wings 6, Sharks 0.
Hopefully we can leave all the excessive and factually misleading* gushing about the Sharks' "historic" start behind us, now.
The Sharks played reasonably well for the first ten minutes tonight. Then Evgeni Nabokov gave up a couple of featherbed-soft goals and they folded like Superman on laundry day.
Best case? This is a wake-up call that serves to remind the Sharks that however many points they have, they are not the league's best team.
* The Sharks only set a record for total points through thirty games because there are ways of getting points now that didn't exist several years ago. If all of their overtime/shootout wins were counted as ties (as they would've been in the past) their record would be more modest.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
You hear it all the time, when two rival teams who are playing well collide during the regular season..."playoff atmosphere". Usually a term used to describe the feel, the buzz, surrounding the game--and the potential for the teams to meet in the postseason--the characterization often cannot be extended to the play itself.
However, Thursday's game between San Jose and Anaheim--which the Sharks won 2-0--transpired much as a playoff game would transpire. It was a tight, nasty, very competitive game from start to finish, with the Ducks effectively preventing the Sharks from engaging in the type of free-flowing hockey that San Jose has used to such good effect so far this season. Evgeni Nabokov played exceptionally well; his counterpart in the Anaheim net, Jonas Hiller, played okay, too, although he maybe let in one soft one. The dislike between the two teams, which has existed for years and been amplified in recent seasons when both clubs have been amongst the league's elite, was palpable from the start and only grew as the game went along, punctuated by a good fight between George Parros and Jody Shelley (winner: Shelley) and finally coming to a head in a scrum in the last minute that saw dozens of penalty minutes handed out. Even though the teams don't meet again until March, a dark cloud of unfinished business hung in the Tank as the players skated off.
As a Sharks fan, I found this to be the most satisfying win of the year so far. The Sharks will meet teams during the regular season against which they can impose their superior offensive talent and fire forty or fifty shots, and that's outstanding, but the playoffs ain't going to be like that. Playoff hockey is a tight-checking, very physical affair, and Thursday's game was a great dress-rehearsal for April. It was very encouraging to see the Sharks play full-bore for sixty minutes of tough, often ugly, always physical hockey, and very encouraging to see them bite back when the bullying Ducks (much like the Flyers teams of the '70s, dirty cheating has served Anaheim well) attempted to push them around. (Although there's a very fine line between refusing to be bullied and falling into the trap of playing the other team's game and finding oneself constantly shorthanded).
The Sharks were a difficult and no doubt unpleasant team to play against on Thursday night, and that's a good thing. Much like baseball, in which the reptilian fear of getting hit by a pitched ball is fundamental to the way in which the pitcher-batter duel plays out, and is therefore fundamental to the sport, you want teams that step on the ice against you to feel a lurking dread and to be acutely aware that there is nowhere to hide. (Teams obliged to play the Flyers when they were winning Stanley Cups were frequently afflicted by "the Philly Flu".) For all of their talent in the past several seasons, one has rarely had the impression that the Sharks inspired much fear in their opponents. Perhaps that is changing...and a welcome change it would be.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
The Sharks defeated the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals last night 7-2. The margin suggests a more lopsided game than what actually took place.
The Capitals are in the midst of a difficult road trip and were missing two of their most talented players--offensive D-man Mike Green and team goal-scoring leader Alexander Semin--due to injury. Even tired and short-handed, the Capitals controlled play for much of the evening and held an edge in shots-on-goal until relatively late in the game. San Jose's second goal was a gift from Washington--in soccer, it would have been scored "Own Goal: Shaone Morrisonn"--and their last goal came with less than a minute left in the game, long after the outcome was no longer in doubt. Despite taking advantage of early opportunities to score three quick unanswered goals, the Sharks still demonstrated that they don't know quite what to do when they get a big lead...the Caps came out and were clearly the better team both at the start of the second and the start of the third periods, getting goals in each sequence that allowed them to sniff a rally. Really, without Morrisonn's own goal and with a few key stops by Caps goalie Brent Johnson, the final score would've reflected the much closer game that this actually was.
On the other hand (it occurs to me I write those four words a lot...one has to, writing about this team) there are substantial reasons for Todd McLellan to be happy about last night's game, outside of the obvious. Although criticism of the Sharks for allowing the Caps to get back in the game is warranted, it's worth noting that San Jose followed up Washington goals with goals of their own, righting the proverbial ship and keeping the Capitals from building too much momentum. (In that nightmare game against Calgary in the playoffs last year, once the Flames got their first goal one could not avoid feeling that the Sharks, win or lose, were at a minimum not going to score again that night.) Hopefully this is a sign that the team is at least improving its ability to play with a lead, something that's been a persistent problem.
The production from the blue line continues to be extraordinary...Rob Blake had in what my opinion was his best night as a Shark (four assists) and is one of a remarkable three San Jose defensemen (the others are Dan Boyle and the suddenly blossoming Christian Ehrhoff) who are amongst the top five in the league in scoring, as of this morning. That particular part of McLellan's preseason plan has gone about as well as anyone could've possibly hoped.
And at the end of the day the Sharks did exactly what they needed to do with their opportunities. You get a tired team nearing the end of a road trip in your building when you've had a chance to rest up, and you have to clobber them...the Sharks did. (And as a fan of a Western Conference team, I pretty much have a cry-me-a-river attitude when it comes to road trips by Eastern Conference teams...gee, sorry you guys have to travel out of sight of the Atlantic Ocean for once.) You get a 5-on-3 at a crucial juncture, you need to capitalize on it...the Sharks did. Ice hockey, as I've said in this space numerous times, is really all about taking advantage of those islands of opportunity in a sea of broken, anarchic play. By this measure, the Sharks were a great team last night, worthy of their 17-3-1 record.
The fact that they've accomplished this while still having room for improvement...right now, writing in November of 2008, it really seems that the sky is the limit for this team.