Monday, May 31, 2010

Setting Expectations

After the 6-5 lightshow witnessed in Game 1, here are four things to watch for in Game 2:

1. Physical Play

The wide open style of play in Game 1 has both coaches concerned with their teams ability to limit the amount of mistakes made in the defensive  and neutral zones. An increase in physical play will tighten up the game, which I think will favor the Flyers. Chris Pronger did a tremendous job in playing a shutdown game against big Dustin Byfuglien and I think that with Dan Carcillo in the lineup tonight, the Flyers will enjoy the similar benefits with his style of play.

2. Goaltending:

Both goaltenders did not have great games obviously and there will be a lot of focus tonight on who will respond stronger. There is more pressure on Michael Leighton to comeback with a strong game after being chased in Game 1, but the Flyers have all the confidence in him to respond which is why he is getting the start tonight. I think nerves were present for both goaltenders so we'll see them play tonight with more confidence and focus.

3. Mike Richards:

Absent from the scoresheet, as were each team's top line, I think Mike Richards will respond with a huge game. It may not be from a scoring standpoint but with Richards' ability to lead his team with relentless forechecking and physical play, he will rally the charge for his team to even this series.

4. Defense:

Tying into my point on 'Physical Play', the defense between these two teams have got to get better. Poor zone coverage lead to too many turnovers and second chances in Game 1. With tighter defense, each team will be able to do a better job controlling the pace of the game and clearing the zone. Game 2 won't be as entertaining as far as scoring goes, but we will see more of a complete hockey game.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

It Is Time

The Flyers and Blackhawks will get underway in within one hour to battle for the Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks were predicted by many to make it to the finals but the Flyers have emerged from the #7 seed to overcome predictions and probabilities.

This will be a true test of character for both teams having young forwards and "inexperienced" goaltenders.  The Blackhawks will rely on their speed in transition along with their skill players to set the tone. The Flyers will need to remain consistent with their tenacity - attacking the opposition to create their scoring opportunities.

I'm going to go against the grain and predict a Flyers victory in 7 games. I believe in this team. Disposing of the Devils in round 1 and defying the impossible with a comeback for the ages against the Bruins in round 2, the Flyers do not possess the word "quite" in their vocabularies. Their series win over Montreal along with the adversity faced throughout all of the postseason, is convincing enough for me to believe they have what it takes to win. The task will not be easy, by any means, as the Blackhawks certainly have the components to prove me wrong.

Now, let the puck drop and watch as history is made.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How Sweep it Is; 'Hawks take series 4-0 at home.

Unfortunately for the Sharks, their loss in the Western Conference Finals was to a team that was just outright better. The Blackhawks showed different aspects of their game in each of their four wins of the series. They were able to hold a lead, dominate an entire game, respond after giving up a late lead, and show resiliency after being down early in a hockey game. These components are impressive for a team that will compete for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1992 when they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Finding themselves down 2-0 to the Sharks today in Game 4, the Blackhawks were able to overcome the deficit and injuries in order to complete the sweep. The Sharks definitely controlled the pace for the first half of the game and I thought that the lazy tripping penalty taken by Devin Setoguchi would put the crowd and the Hawks right back in the game, except that the Sharks were able to extend their lead to two with a shorthanded goal by Patrick Marleau.  Things looked promising for the Sharks until a 4 on 4 goal scored by Brent Seabrook got the Hawks back into the game. If this goal was the catalyst for the Hawks, I'd say their 2nd goal scored by Dave Bolland was the turning point in this game.

With the puck sent deep into the San Jose zone, Logan Courture failed to engage Bolland behind the net and instead tried to make a play on the puck allowing Bolland to lift Courture's stick and escape with the puck. Physical contact on Bolland there would allow the Sharks' defense to body-up and position themselves to cover loose players and battle to get the puck out of the zone. 

From that point, the Sharks were playing on their heels lacking offensive pressure and taking bad penalties. It was one of those penalties that led to the go-ahead goal by big Dustin Byfuglien while Dany Heatley sat in the box for his second penalty of the game. How many times in this series have we seen Byfuglien score with assists from Kane and Toews? Giving this line too many opportunities to score throughout the series and no one should be surprised with the outcome.

Kris Versteeg added an empty net goal to lock up the win for the Blackhawks with a 4-2 final in front of their home crowd.

With the Philadelphia Flyers up 3 games to 1 in their series returning home to face the Canadiens, it looks like they will represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals.

Now turning to the offseason and with the upcoming draft, what will the Sharks do to shake things up? Patrick Marleau, who was by far the best Shark in this series, becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. It will be an interesting off-season indeed in the San Jose.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tilted Ice; Hawks and Flyers go up 2-0

I thought that the fever I had over the weekend skewed what I saw from Game 1 of the Sharks and Hawks series. Though I knew I couldn't fully grasp what went on during the game, I did not feel like the Sharks played well enough to win from about the 2nd period mark until the end of the game and also thought they had difficulties containing the Blackhawks. I chose not to write about it after I saw the shot count and just thought maybe Niemi just stole Game 1 for the Hawks.

After watching Chicago win their 7th straight road playoff game last night, I don't think I was as delusional as I thought - I saw a lot of parallels in games one and two. The Sharks had difficulties executing on offense and containing the Chicago defense. There were many instances when the Sharks would either fumble pucks on received passes or just miss the net on scoring opportunities. The Blackhawks' defense, in my opinion, has been absolutely superb in this series - particularly in Game 2. They continue to activate in transition and are talented enough to get back into position on failed rushes up the ice.

One thing is for sure, the Sharks are in big trouble. With Nabby's confidence to be seemingly decreasing and with the series heading to Chicago, Game 3 appears to be a must win situation for the Sharks. Having two days off in between games should certainly help the Sharks refocus and watch some video but the pressure is definitely building.

I guess San Jose is not in as bad of shape as Montreal - the Canadiens haven't even scored a goal in their series against the dominant Flyers. Fever or not, I was not delusional when watching the 6-0 thumping on Sunday evening. The Flyers continued their success last night, shutting out the Canadiens for the second straight game. As that changes venue to Montreal, there are now question marks in goal for the Habs as Jacque Martin may turn to Carey Price to replace Halak as the starter for Game 3.

Game 3 for the Eastern Conference Finals is Thursday while the Western Conference Finals resume on Friday

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Blockbuster Matchup

The Sharks and Hawks will kick-off the 3rd round of Stanley Cup action Sunday, when they take to the ice in a much anticipated matchup thats leaving many scratching their heads on predicting the outcome.

Both teams have depth up front in the forward position which will stress the importance of line matchups for McLellan and Quennville especially when the series moves to Chicago. There's no doubt that the Blackhawks possess a more talented and threatening blueline, but the Sharks hold the edge in goaltending.

This series will feature 14 Olympians, many of which were teammates in February, and is expected to be hard hitting and high tempo.

Game one can be seen at noon pt on NBC

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

'Hawks Seize the Day; Advance to Conference Finals

I don't think any NHL city experiences an actual holiday where their teams' season ends, unless its the last day of the regular season in Columbus (apologies to my family), but the Vancouver Canucks were knocked out of Stanley Cup contention on exactly the same day as they were a year before by the same team.

Chicago came out blazing, with relentless forechecking, winning loose pucks, and getting shots on net - they had Vancouver running around in their own zone. Of course, that style of play will open things up allowing scoring chances for the opposition, which the Canucks started taking advantage of but could not produce. Roberto Luongo came up huge for the Nucks early on and it was very clear that he came to play.

With an injury to Alex Edler late in the first period, Vancouver's defense was shorthanded for the second straight game and noticeably began to wear down. Troy Brouwer's first career playoff goal was a result of a pinch by Shane O'Brien followed by a lacksadalsicle backcheck from Kyle Wellwood, resulting in a straight lane to the net and easy tip-in by Brouwer. Teams talk all year about the importance of shifts after giving up a goal and how a team will respond. Well, flat-footed and as about as sharp as a bowling pin, Kevin Bieksa missed a routine puck off the boards allowing Kris Versteeg an easy path to the net. Just like that, Vancouver surrendered two goals in 36 seconds. 

With all the momentum in their favor, the Hawks kept pouring on offensive opportunities while remaining responsible on defense. Any attempted rush by the Canucks, forced the puck-carrier to rush through defenders without support leading to...well... nothing. A slashing penalty called on the Blackhawks toward the end of the period seemed to be the Canucks' opportunity to get themselves back into the game, however, it only resulted in a shorthanded goal on a great individual effort by Dave Bolland.

Down 3-0 to start the third, Vancouver came out playing with a sense of urgency - as they should have. A great recognition for defenseman Shane O'Brien to step up on a rush, allowed him to sneak a shot passed Antii Niemi to close the gap to two goals. The goal sparked some life and offensive chances for the Canucks only to see their clear desperation taken advantage of by Partick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien. The two scored goals just 25 seconds apart silencing the crowd at GM Place and put the Hawks up 5-1.

Chicago Blackhawks Day in Vancouver was complete and the Hawks will now travel south the play the Sharks. Series preview to come.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sharks Respond Big

The San Jose Sharks did a spectacular job in answering questions of how they would respond after losing 7-1 in Detroit with a 2-1 win to eliminate the Red Wings from the playoffs. Patrick Marleau broke the 1-1 tie 6:59 into the 3rd period, which would prove to be enough for his team win the game and end the series on home ice in front of 17,562 fans.

The Sharks dominated the first period of play outshooting the Red Wings 15-6 and hammering the Wings' defense with punishing body-checks leading to their scoring opportunities. In a conversation I had with TSN's Chris Cuthbert during warm-ups, he mentioned that when speaking with Mike Babcock, Wings' defenseman Brad Stuart was questionable because of the injury he sustained in Game 4. It looked like the Sharks did a tremendous job in targeting Stuart with check after check, wearing him down. It was also very noticeable that the Sharks aimed to play this game with much more defensive responsibilities as the defense did a great job gapping and the forwards were picking up their assignments in their own zone.

The Wings responded in the 2nd period, establishing their style of play and applying offensive pressure, outshooting the Sharks 14-3. Brian Rafalski broke the scoreless game 2:40 into the frame, with what we've seen all series from the Wings - screens in front of Nabokov. A breakdown in the defensive zone for the Sharks lead to the goal after some great forechecking by Todd Bertuzzi and Henrik Zetterberg allowed Johan Frazen to get the puck to Rafalski at the point for a shot. Joe Thornton lost his stick on the play allowing Bertuzzi to stand in front of Nabokov unmolested inhibiting his ability to see the shot. The lead, however, would only last 2:14 when Thornton tied the game off a reboud in front of Jimmy Howard while the Sharks were on the powerplay.

As the 3rd period began, the Sharks looked hungry to close out the series at home and worked hard in generating scoring opportunities. Joe Pavelski made a nice move on Niklas Kronwall, who had trouble with a bouncing puck, resulting in a penalty shot for Little Joe. It looked to me like nerves took over when his attempt sailed way high over the glove and net of Jimmy Howard. You could feel the concern of the entire arena that the penalty shot would be the best chance the Sharks would have, but then...A great job by the Sharks top line and a poor reverse by Brian Rafalski allowed Thornton to find Marleau open in the slot and Jimmy Howard did not stand a chance on stopping that shot. The Wings played with a sense of urgency and desperation for the remainder of the game while the Sharks clogged the middle of the ice blocking shots and clearing the zone. Evgeni Nabokov looked outstanding, especially down the stretch, and ended the night stopping 33 of 34 shots faced.

I found it amazing that the three players with perhaps the most pressure and scrutiny came up the biggest for San Jose. Nabby with his performance and response from Game 4, Marleau with the game-winning goal, and Jumbo Joe with the game-tying goal and the beautiful setup on the game-winner.

The Sharks advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2004

I want to send out a special thank you to Rick Peckham and Daryl Reaugh from Versus for giving us a chance to watch them work and for being so friendly before and after the game.

Sidney Cosby Tim Hortons Commercial

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Seeing Red

I think what we saw during the 7-1 blowout the Sharks suffered at the hands of the Detroit Franzens was a combination of defensive breakdowns and Evgeni Nabokov not being spectacular. Nabby didn't play poorly, he just did not play amazingly like we've seen him of late. The first four goals of the game happened in such a short span that the Sharks could never recover.

Lets take a look at what happened on the first four. Here's goal 1:
We've seen the Wings get bodies in front of goaltenders when getting shots through right? No surprise here, but we have also seen Nabokov being able to pick up pucks through traffic and making tremendous saves, especially in this series, it just did not happen here.

Onto goal 2:
A defensive breakdown by the Sharks just 2:10 after giving up the first goal puts the Wings up 2-0. You see three sharks converge on the puck-carrying Zetterberg, leaving Franzen wide open in front of the net. His big body and net presence contribute to his first of four goals on the night.

On goal 3 we see a combination of lack of a backcheck and below average goaltending:
At first I thought this was a result of poor gap control by the defense allowing Bertuzzi the amount of space to gain entry into the zone and room to move into the middle of the ice. But if you watch the end of the video, the Sharks defense just completes a line change so Rob Blake was just preventing Bertuzzi from driving wide and on net. The error is on Sharks forwards who get caught at the Wings blueline in transition, and Torrey Mitchell does a poor job backchecking. Instead of keeping his head on swivel and picking up Franzen, the trailer, he commits to the right wing who is already covered by Vlasic allowing Franzen to receive the puck in the slot with speed. It was a great shot by Franzen but I've seen Nabby make saves off shots like that especially when challenging shooters.

Clearly rattled at this point, the Sharks inability to clear pucks out of dangerous areas lead to goal 4:
There was nothing Nabby could do on this goal, no one pick up the rebound which allowed Franzen a follow up to his initial shot on goal.

The Wings did what they had to tonight and the Sharks need to develop amnesia as the series shifts back to San Jose. Game 5 is Saturday night.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Turning Point

When a playoff series concludes, there is usually a moment one can look back on and identify as a key instance that would shape the way the rest of the series would play out. For the San Jose Sharks, that moment was realized last night when Patrick Marleau scored 7:07 in overtime to put his team up 3-0 against the Detroit Red Wings. Both teams knew that heading into the overtime period locked at 3-3, that the next goal scored would be the most important goal of the season. If Detroit scores, the series becomes 2-1 with a huge momentum swing in Detroit’s favor. If San Jose scores, they hold a commanding lead in the series which a comeback from a 3-0 series deficit has only happened once in post expansion Stanley Cup playoff history. The latter held true and the Sharks now have the Wings with their backs against the wall.

Now the Sharks must continue to do the things that have been working for them – winning faceoffs, getting pucks deeps, and getting pucks on net with traffic in front. They know that they cannot write-off this series as being over now that they’re up 3-0 because if any team is capable of turning this around, it’s the Red Wings. After coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the 3rd period last night, the victory must be a huge confidence boost for the Sharks who have to figure that they are in the head of rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard.

The Red Wings will focus on the task in hand – win their next game. They know they cannot win the series in just one game or think about winning the next 2 or 3, they must focus on one game at a time. Though it is easier said than done, the fact that they were up by two goals in the 3rd period has to be in the back of the players’ minds.

The series continues with Game 4 tomorrow night at 7:30 pm et in Detroit. The Wings look to avoid being swept for the first time since 2003 when they were swept by Anaheim in round one.