Monday, May 6, 2013

On A One-Sided Affair: Sharks Dominate Canucks 5-2, Take 3-0 Series Lead in the Shark Tank (and I'm Back!)

Sharks take 3-0 series lead by beating Canucks 5-2
Sharks center Logan Couture, looking distinctly satisfied. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(Yes, it's been a long time--but I'm going to have another go at this blogging thing, and we'll see how it pans out. This is an opinionated recap, with a few observations here and there.)
[Also, it's ridiculously late, and NHL videos are a pain to embed, but I'll try to incorporate them in the morning.]

What I saw tonight shocked me.

I’ve been a passive follower of San Jose for a few years--beyond passive, even. My stance on the Sharks is the same way it is with most Western Conference teams. I like them but don't feel passionately for them, I read the news on them every day, and I watch them when I can. More like a barely-occasional follower. I like Thornton and Marleau and Boyle as players, and I like the way this team is built on paper. However, the viewing opportunities are limited, and I’m a Capitals fan first and foremost (ROCK THE RED) so the bulk of my time is devoted to them.

With this limited direct contact, I go by what the media says about this team (and, to my shame, most West Coast teams) more often than not, and track the numbers when I can. But what the media has said about the direction of these teams over the season runs completely counter to the message that this three-game battle has proclaimed: the Sharks have arrived. The Vancouver Canucks, on the other side, have devolved into an undisciplined team, taking penalties at will and simply being outmuscled and outwilled by a rather determined team from SoCal.

My studying obligations (for final exams, whose significance will be zero in 20 years) took me away from the game for small parts of the first and the second period, but I was around to see the reaction to Marleau’s high-sticking of Ryan Kesler, and the outrage from the Sharks bench that Kesler stayed on the ice. My limited hockey knowledge brings an NFL analogy to mind, and I’m of the opinion that he would sit out the shift; a very animated Sharks assistant Jay Woodcroft seemed to share my opinion. But Kesler stayed on, and played through a largely uneventful power play.

Refereeing decisions and Kesler trickery aside, this game was littered with cheap shots. At the 14-minute mark in the third, Kesler slashed at the back of Scott Gomez’s head after Gomez was deposited on the ice following a check. The reportedly tame Sedins both threw cheap shots in the 3rd period (Daniel on Logan Couture, Henrik on #15 in front of the net). Vancouver didn't hesitate to buzz the Sharks net after play had stopped, and this led to some chippy encounters. But the referees kept pulling Canucks who lost their cool away from the scrum, and sending a few to the box, Zack Kassian among them.

Most importantly, the Sharks had the grit to respond. Their responses weren’t all about turning cheeks—Tommy Wingels tackling a Canuck in front of the net after a frozen puck stoppage was one of the more memorable images of the night—but it was more disciplined than the guys in white. Logan Couture’s response in the third period will most likely grab headlines and dominate blogs, and it's a great subplot: after taking the punch from Mssr. Henrik off of a faceoff, he proceeded to score 20 seconds later on the ensuing power play, taking the pass from Joe Thornton before pulling the trigger and putting it past Schneider into the far side of the net. This is revenge at its sweetest. Couture, the game's First Star,  had a night to remember all over the place, winning 15 of 18 faceoffs and getting two assists to go with his two goals.

            The Sharks were gaining the offensive zone at will, and had the 38 shots on goal to show for it. The San Jose forwards seemed to be playing at a different gear, especially Joe Pavelski. Pavelski, of whom much ado was made for his goalless playoff drought (14 games), answered the call with 2 goals, the first off a one-timer on a 5-on-3 advantage to open the scoring, and the second a fantastic deflection to make it 2-0.

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The team was good on defense; admittedly, I have a less refined eye for evaluating this. They blocked shots and they pushed the Canucks' attack to the outside, but they were a backdrop for the one-man show that is Antti Niemi.
Since I’m an East Coast viewer—I don’t like to think I’m East Coast-biased, but I just don’t have the same chances for watching teams out west—I haven’t had the chance to see Antti Niemi’s prowess on display before this past week. As was stated earlier, those Sharks viewing opportunities have been rare, and every time the Sharks are on the telly Niemi seems to either give up fluke goals, or give up goals in bunches, so I’ve fallen victim to the surface narrative: the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks gave him up after a stellar run because it was such an aberration, so he must have run his course as an elite starting goalie. But this year the numbers support him (.924, 2.16 GAA; top-10 numbers), and this series has shown me his prowess for staying at home, scrambling in front of the net, and stopping second-chance shots. Tonight, the Finnish goaltender was beaten only on a Dan Hamhuis goal generated by an uncalled slash/lumberjack chop from Derek Roy, and an admittedly pretty one-timer from Alex Burrows. He stopped everything else, kicking away second chances and keeping rebounds to a minimum.

Niemi's performance was almost rivaled by Andrew Desjardins' 1-for-1 performance in this game: Desjardins snagged a not-quite-legal glove save on the goal line in the 3rd period that would have made the final tally look a little more respectable had it been called.

On its surface, Game 3 in this Sharks-‘Nucks series was won by the team with the better discipline: any team that goes 5-for-7 on the penalty kill isn’t going to win too many games. But this game was won by a surging Sharks team that dominated everywhere—the faceoff dot(s), in front of the net on both ends, and in the crease--and kept attacking until the final whistle. I’ve had the privilege to see all 3 games of this series, and this Sharks team is simply fun to watch.

Most likely, we are watching the end of an era for this talented Sharks team; multiple articles float in the Internet-ether about how the core of this team might very well be broken up by next year, and many writers were speculating that it could have been dissolved by the trade deadline. This squad will most likely continue to fly under the radar until the Canucks and their goalie carousel controversy debate circus sideshow situation are officially eliminated. But San Jose is living up to their potential now, at least in the first half of this series, and I love it. I’ll be watching Game 4 and all subsequent games with great gusto.

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