Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Game For Men

Right thinking hockey fans are hoping for a Detroit v. San Jose Western Conference finals series in the near future. The Red Wings, as is their habit, dominated from start to finish in the regular season and won the President's Cup. They are the franchise by which all others measure themselves.

The Sharks certainly view the Wings as the team that sets the pace in the West and in the entire NHL. Their season was going "OK" when in mid-February they hit a stretch of 5 losses. Along with the usual tinkering with the lines the team made a big acquisition when they picked up Brian Campbell from Buffalo. From February 21 on the Sharks posted 18 wins, 2 OT losses and 2 outright losses. An incredible 38 points in 22 games. So, they entered the second season, The Stanley Cup playoffs, as the hottest team. Their regular season record was second only to Detroit's. That's why they need to meet in the conference finals: The Best v. The Hottest.

But something has happened on the way to that series. Sure the Red Wings stumbled last night against Nashville but they'll be fine and lead that series 2-1. The problem is with San Jose. They lost game 1 to Calgary and, to most SJ fans it was clear what happened: they started the game skating like it was still the regular season while the Flames were playing playoff hockey. By the time the Bay Area boys got it going it was too late, Calgary held on to win 3-2. Lesson learned? It sure looked like it in game 2 as SJ shutout the Calgarians at the Shark Tank. Then Sunday night game three began in Calgary with the Sharks full of jump and scoring a quick 3 unanswered goals in the first 3 and a half minutes. The Saddledome was dead in red.

Until... a brutal hit (no elbowing penalty? what tha??) on captain Patrick Marleau by Cory Sarich woke up everyone connected with the Flames. Patty, for his part, responded well. He stayed out there bleeding through his shifts and playing hard. But something was missing--- nobody took it upon themselves to pay Sarich back for his efforts against the captain. The Flames kept chipping away until finally former Sharks fan favorite Owen Nolan scored to put the Calgary crew ahead 4-3. Calgary earned their series lead of 2-1.

Right after the game goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, said: "You have to be men to play this sport, not a bunch of boys, and we looked like a bunch of boys out there and they were looking like a bunch of men." Nabby is not a popoff. He's pretty quiet, prepared every night, and wants to be between the pipes for every game. That quote is huge to Sharks fans. By Monday afternoon he was saying, about what the team talked about at practice, "We just talked about certain situations and how to respond - like a man. We have to come out and play a character game and do the right thing at the right time and not to let anybody push us around. All I can do is make saves. I can't go and hit the guy, I can't do something else. I think I just have to find a way to stop the bleeding." What did Douglas Murray think about Nabby's critique? "Yeah, we get a 3-0 lead and a lot of guys felt it was going to be easy after that. You've got to finish teams off. Teams are too good. A 3-0 lead after five minutes means nothing. I know exactly what he was saying and I couldn't agree more." Coach Ron Wilson, what say you? "I'm glad Nabby said that. It doesn't have to be me. The most important thing is for the guys to hold themselves accountable and challenge each other to rise to the occasion."

Will the Sharks show the toughness it takes to win playoff hockey? We'll start getting the answer tonight at 10PM EDT.

UPDATE: Sharks win game 4 on Joe Thornton's goal with 7.3 seconds left in regulation. It's now a best 2 out of 3 series and SJ has the home ice advantage.

UPDATE2: Sharks win game 5 with spirited play, hard hitting, and scoring from Cheechoo, Pavelski and Patty Marleau. 3-2 advantage Sharks as the series returns to Calgary Sunday night.