CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS RIGHT WING #88 PATRICK KANE - FILE PHOTO
SAN JOSE SHARKS INCREASED SECONDARY SCORING IN LAST HALF OF JANUARY
- The San Jose Sharks (35-10-8, 1st Pacific, 1st NHL) face off against the Chicago Blackhawks (36-13-4, 1st Central, 2nd NHL) for a heavily anticipated battle between the two top teams in the Western Conference
tonight at HP Pavilion. The Sharks answered an embarassing and out of character 7-2 loss
to Chicago Nov. 25, one where they allowed a franchise worst 3 short-handed goals against, with a 3-2 win
at the United Center on the back of a sparkling 45-save performance by Evgeni Nabokov.
The Sharks are rolling on a 5-game unbeaten streak, having registered 15 out of a possible 16 points in the last 8 games. A subtle lineup change against Edmonton, and possible a shaved head by Devin Setoguchi, mixed up the offensive attack for the Sharks and has produced results. Manny Malhotra joined center Joe Pavelski and right wing Devin Setoguchi on the second line. Instead of trying to shoehorn Setoguchi in to the Milan Michalek role from last season, where the second line carried the Sharks down the stretch, Malhotra and Setoguchi add speed to each wing to the playmaking U.S. Olympian Pavelski.
Dropping a blue collar 6-foot-2, 225-pound Ryane Clowe to the third line along with Scott Nichol and Jed Ortmeyer has created a perfect "grind line" that does most of its work in dirty areas. After ending a 9-game goal scoring drought, Clowe said it was not a change in "chemistry" that resulted in the success, but a change in the environment and a change in linemates that helped him mix up his play. After going 6 games without a goal from anyone not on the top Marleau-Thornton-Heatley line, Pavelski, Clowe and Setoguchi all broke scoring droughts and helped the secondary scoring actually outpace primary scoring over the last 6 games.
The Sharks penalty kill has been well documented, Marleau-Pavelski, Nichol-Ortmeyer, and Thornton-Heatley have clicked to the point that the PK is measured by the number of shutouts instead of a percentage. They have held opposing power plays scoreless 9 times in the last 12 games. Goals against per game have also dropped from 2.06/gm to 1.3/gm in the last 2 months, and shots against slightly from 31.5/gm to 31/gm.
According to San Jose Mercury News beat writer David Pollak
, Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle is expected to miss his third game tonight with an upper body injury. Earlier this season on his blog Boyle mentioned that this season was "the toughest year for me yet physically." He began the season slowly with a non-reported broken thumb, and he suffered an awkward lower body injury trying to check Phoenix Coyotes forward Taylor Pyatt in the final seconds of a 2-1 win on December 12th. Boyle is expected to be replaced in the lineup by Jason Demers.
To adjust to the Boyle injury, defenseman Rob Blake and Marc-Edourd Vlasic also joined new defensive partners. Blake scored his second goal in 4 games after a 16-game drought, and Vlasic scored for the first time in 36-games against Anaheim. The third pairing of Kent Huskins and Monteal waiver acquisition Jay Leach continues to improve. Leach has settled into a sound defensive role in San Jose with 10 starts in the last 12 games.
Also added to the lineup according to Pollak, AHL Worcester Sharks leading scorer
Logan Couture. Couture's addition to the lineup at center may be a hint on the Sharks possible postseason configuration, as day-to-day salary cap considerations do not apply. His addition also speaks to the depth of Chicago up front and on defense. While San Jose has the size and the girth to beef up for opponents like Calgary and Anaheim, for up-tempo teams like Chicago and Los Angeles a different tact may be in order.
- Hawks, Sharks put clash in perspective
- Scott Burnside for ESPN.com.
The Sharks, of course, are cognizant of the fact that finishing the regular season ahead of the pack guarantees exactly nothing. They were the Presidents' Trophy winners last season, finishing five points ahead of Detroit in the West and one point ahead of the Eastern Conference's top team, Boston. The Sharks were then dispatched in six games by the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round. See ya. Thanks for coming out … again.
If anything, one would imagine the Sharks would be in a hurry to get back to the playoffs, to rush through the final 29 games of this regular season in an effort to begin the task of redeeming themselves after another disappointing playoff turn. But Pavelski said they're still aware of the importance of finishing first and earning home ice, even if it didn't matter much last spring.
"You have to play every night," he said. If you don't, you can find yourself falling down the standings pretty quickly.
- Len Ziehm of the Chicago Sun-Times reports
that the Blackhawks are gearing up for first place in the NHL. "Up to this point, it's the biggest game on the trip. It sets up first place. I know they'll be ready to play us," Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville told the Sun-Times. On the game preview
at the offical Blackhawks website, Dave Bolland is listed as questionable and defenseman Brent Sopel is listed as probable. ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers notes that the Blackhawks know the stakes
for the regular series finale in San Jose.
The inconvient backstory headed into tonight's SJ-CHI matchup is a series of personal photos
several Blackhawks took after a recent road game. Blackhawk forwards Patrick Kane, John Madden and Kris Versteeg were pictured with their shirts off in the back of a limo with a pair of women looking on.
"For us, obviously, it's not the way we want to represent the team. It has been discussed internally with the team and it has been figured out inside this locker room," Kane told the Chicago Tribune
End of story. The players and the team take a few lumps via blogs, TMZ and ESPN, then it will be business as usual Thursday night against San Jose.
"I'm 21 years old, but it's probably time to grow up a little bit," Kane added. Part of being 21 years old is making mistakes, unfortunately for Kane he has to make them in front of a media fishbowl.
- TheHockeyNews.com writer John Grigg penned an article last week on the Top 10 unrestricted free agents for 2010
. Numbers 2 and 3 on that list should be of interest to fans in San Jose, they were goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and left wing Patrick Marleau respectively. On Marleau, Grigg's noted that he had the C "stripped" only to respond with offensive numbers on pace for the best of his career. On Nabokov, Grigg's noted that Nabokov is at his usual place among the league leaders in wins and games played, with "gaudy" GAA and SV% numbers for the 9th round (219th overall) 1994 San Jose draft selection.
The discussion surrounding the future for both Marleau and Nabokov has been held to a minimum locally, and with the national and Canadian hockey press. Five straight incomplete postseason efforts weigh heavy on the franchise, and there appears to be an unspoken "wait and see" approach between the players and the team with regards to the future.
Marleau, despite leading the NHL with 35 goals
, has developed into one of the top two-way players in the league. He has adopted his speed and power game to dramatic effect on the penalty kill, and his consistent back pressure 5-on-5 inspires linemates teammates to do the same on a regular basis. Bristling at the mention of being "stripped" of the captaincy in the offseason, the media and fans in San Jose characterized it as more of a change in leadership than a removal.
However you want to frame that offseason move or his current performance, the question of what the future holds remained for the most part unasked until a recent Sharks pre-game Shark Byte
interview with color analyst Drew Remenda (full interview here
). In the interview, Remenda put Marleau on the record regarding the early playoff exit to Anaheim, how he approached the change in captaincy, how he has adapted to playing on the "Team Canada" line with Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley, and what the future holds for him after 2009-10.
[DR] Lets go to the playoffs last year, playoffs don't go very well and you and Joe Thornton take the heat. Is that fair?
[PM] I think a certain part of it is. Obviously being one of the top players on the team, that is where the spotlight is, where it usually starts and ends. That's part of the territory.
[DR] Do hockey fans overrate the captaincy?
[PM] Probably not. People wear it for a reason, because they have certain attributes and bring things to the team. That part of it is right. Maybe there is a little more read into it by fans on the other side of things.
[DR] Were you bothered being replaced as captain?
[PM] We had lots of talks about it. I am here to win, so whatever the team feels it will take to win I am game for. It was one of those things that was talked about all summer. The bottom line is that I want to win.
[DR] People outside this game thought you would slide a little bit because the C was taken off, was that a motivating factor?
[PM] Yes. You really don't need it. I am still the same person, I am still going to do the same things in the lockerroom whether I have it or don't have it. I would gladly wear it again. It is not a burden of any sort.
[DR] What is the motivating factor behind Patrick Marleau this year?
[PM] You want to play your best, there is probably a little bit of that in there (show up the critics). To be honest with you, you hear a lot of things but frankly I think I am a pretty good player. You want everybody to be able to realize that, and you want to be able to show that to everybody.
[DR] Discuss playing with Joe Thornton?
[PM] Playing with him last year and this year, the more you play the more you find that little bit of timing, that little bit of seperation between a defender and he will find you. He has got that great vision, and he is always ready to release the puck. You don't get passes like that from too many other players in the league.
[DR] Have you had to change your game playing with him?
[PM] A little bit, from center to wing. A lot of the plays go through the centerman, so he has the puck a lot more. I find myself wanting to get him the puck and wanting to get open as opposed to when I play center and maybe hanging on to it a little more and try to find open guys.
[DR] Discuss the change in play under head coach Todd McLellan?
[PM] Each day Todd comes to the rink he has a focus on what he wants to accomplish, what he wants to get done as a team. The main focus is getting better every day. He has a way with players, he reads them well. He knows when a player needs to be kicked in the pants or patted on the back. He knows how to do that with this team, he has a good feel for the team. He makes the game fun for myself, he is always challenging you in a good way. It keeps guys engaged.
[DR] Do you look beyond this year, you are an unrestricted free agent, have you ever thought about any other team but the San Jose Sharks?
[PM] No, I haven't. Right now the focus is on this team, on winning. Right now I can't really focus on that until the end of the season. That's where that is at.
[DR] Nothing ever phases you, do people mistake that for a lack of passion?
[PM] I am sure they do. If people want to find something to pick on you about, they will find something. Personally, people who know me, teammates and friends, they know where my passion is and how badly I want to win.
Marleau does not mention it, but he suffered the first knee injury of his career at the end of the 2008-09 regular season. This blog labeled him at playing around 60% when he returned for the first round against Anaheim. Up tight against the salary cap
, Marleau could join teammates Joe Thornton and captain Rob Blake to take less than market value and sign a contract similar to his last extension (2yr/$12.6 million). In his 12th season as the face of the franchise Marleau still has a ways to go to match a one-team icon like Steve Yzerman
(22 seasons with Detroit), but at only 30 years old he is just entering the sweet spot of his career.
The situation regarding Evgeni Nabokov is a little more cloudy. Nabokov was given an opportunity in goal after an injury to then-starting goalie Steve Shields in 2000-01. He went on to register a 32-21-7 record in the regular season and earn a Calder Cup as the top rookie for his efforts. Nabokov fiercely battled Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala for several years to cement himself in the #1 role, a position it would be difficult for him to relinquish. On pace for his 3rd straight 40+ win season, Nabokov (and former goaltending guru Warren Strelow) helped develop a prestige and a cache about the starting goaltender position in San Jose that will remain long after his playing days are over.
The excellent Sharks blog Fear the Fin noted the Nabokov is currently on pace for 71 starts
this season. Peaking heading into the 2010 Winter Olympics next month, both GM Doug Wilson and head coach Todd McLellan have said that figure should dip as backup Thomas Greiss carries a little more of the load down the stretch run. Fear the Fin also pointed out that the last goaltender to win a Stanley Cup with more than 70 starts was Martin Brodeur in 2003 (73), that the average number of regular season games for Stanley Cup winning goaltenders post-lockout is 44.75, and that Nabokov's save percentage has increased in the past when he has started less games (in 2004 and 2007).
Described repeatedly as a "workhorse" in goal, occasionally questions about rest/work ratio or stamina and conditioning, are raised in the playoffs because of the large regular season workload. It may have been a slightly noticeable issue at the tail end of his rookie season in 2000-01, even though he held a potent St. Louis offense to 2 goals or less in the opening WCQF playoff series 4 times. Since that season, the work Nabokov has put in with the Sharks strength and conditioning staff has had a noticeable impact on his performance on the ice. Along with improvements in playing the puck, in shutting down wraparounds, in communication with the defense, in the the proper balance of aggressive play and patience, Nabokov has continually worked on specific weaknesses to develop into a solid well-rounded netminder.
All of those individual traits will be taken into account by a thorough Sharks front office. As a goaltender ages, a lack of mobility in the hips, a lack of explosive speed and other subtle factors can slowly lead to a degridation in play. The single biggest mistake an NHL general manager can make is giving an enormous salary cap hobbling contract to a goaltender who can not deliver year over year for a majority of the term. The second largest mistake an NHL general manager can make is not having elite NHL-caliber goaltending prior to the drop of the puck on opening night.
San Jose Sharks EVP/GM Doug Wilson, and Evgeni Nabokov himself, may be in a similar "wait and see" position based on 2009-10 postseason results. Jonathan Willis at thescore's Hockey or Die blog examined the Top 10 highest paid goaltenders
in the NHL. Willis notes that 4 of the 10 high dollar contracts are delivering less than expected (although Niklas Backstrom and Cristobal Huet's inclusion are debatable). Number 10 on that list at $5.375 million, Willis says of Evgeni Nabokov "On pace for the best season of his career".
The prevailing opinion in some hockey circles is that the Sharks might need to choose between a Marleau and a Nabokov, but if each re-signed for the status quo, and there was no drastic change in the salary cap, the Sharks would have roughly 10 million to sign 6 roster players (4 forwards and 2 defenseman). Manny Malhotra is a UFA forward who signed at a greatly reduced rate for 2009-10 and may be due a raise moving forward. The organizational depth in San Jose could fill out the roster with young developing talent under contract like Jamie McGinn, Benn Ferriero, Frazer McLaren and Logan Couture. Asking players to sign for less than market value is one thing, asking them to maintain the status quo is another. Signing both Marleau and Nabokov in the face of heavy demand around the league would be an enormous accomplishment for GM Doug Wilson, at this stage in his tenure it still remains a possibility.
- Nabokov's new Team Russia mask photo
- Bay Area Sports Blog.
- Unusual shot at Nabokov by David Shoalts in a Globe and Mail discussing the Toronto Maple Leafs offseason goaltender possibilities: Clock’s ticking on Leafs' goaltender choices
. In a near league wide list that included the likes of Thomas Vokoun, Pekka Rinne, Dan Ellis, Martin Biron, Chris Mason and Marty Turco, Shoalts also included pending UFA Evgeni Nabokov with the addendum:
"Other attractions on the unrestricted free agent side include Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks, who is said to have few friends in that dressing room. But it is hard to imagine him wanting to play for Wilson again."
This may just be a one-off comment that makes it into a weekly notes column, but it deserves a little more analysis. Former Sharks and current Toronto head coach Ron Wilson once said of Nabokov, "he knows more about goaltending than I do". He added that except for the occasional tweak, Nabokov was the one who told him when he was and was not ready to play. In Nabokov's case, that would mean he was ready for 82 games.
On that comment about friends in the dressing room, it is no secret goaltenders sometimes live in their own ecosystem. Former San Jose Sharks goaltender Ed Belfour (insert groan here) oftentimes had lengthy discussions between himself and his goal post. Regarding Nabokov, he has meshed well with the locker room in San Jose. In an interview
with friend of the blog Mikhail Bykov and Puck Daddy's Dmitry Chesnokov, Evgeni Nabokov described Joe Thornton, "Joe is such a team player, that I think he is willing to spend more time with the guys than his own family. You know how they say that the team is your second home? I think for Joe it is the first home."
That may have changed somewhat with Thornton's subsequent marriage to Swiss girlfriend Tabea Pfendsack, but it is still a peek inside the Sharks locker room from Nabokov himself. Add to that the heated ping pong battles between teammates, and it clearly becomes evident it is a non-issue.
- How do the NHL, AHL and ECHL Differ, a Goalie’s Perspective
- Mike McKenna for InGoalmag.com.
Therein lays the biggest difference: the speed of the game isn’t that different, but the intelligence and skill of the game is. While the puck may not physically move any faster, the rate at which plays are made and the creativity associated with them improves at every level.
The best way to describe this, from a goaltender’s perspective, would be to envision killing a penalty with the opposing team already in your zone. Imagine yourself, on your goal post ready to explode, puck in the corner and in possession of an attacking player. In the ECHL, there might be one or two viable options available for the opposing forward given their skill set/mental makeup. A top-end AHL player might have two or three options. But an NHL player – whose level of experience and ability to read the play (again think the game) surpasses those in the minors – might be able to create a third or even fourth option.
A great example of this type of player, whom I was lucky enough to grow up watching in my hometown of St. Louis, was Brett Hull. Everyone remembers Hull for his wicked shot, but very few realize just how good Brett was at getting open in the offensive zone. This is truly what set him apart from the rest of the snipers in the NHL: his mental game was every bit as good as his physical, if not better.
Very interesting read. An archive Sharkspage photo of Mike McKenna with the ECHL Las Vegas Wranglers is available here
- Brian Burke quote of the month
2 weeks ago on HNIC, "Your goal in this league is to make the playoffs. If it's not, do something else. Go drive a truck."
- Puck the media posted a Versus press release on the newly redesigned Versus.com website
- San Jose based blogger Mike Chen will helm SBN's fromtherink.com
as James Mirtle stepped down to cover the Toronto Maple Leafs beat for the Globe and Mail
. Joining Chen will be a pair of Carolina bloggers, and one each from the Rangers and Pittsburgh blogosphere.
- Awesome note from the KHL via Puck Daddy
ESPN360.com will bring international hockey fans exclusive coverage in the United States of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) All-Star Game live from Minsk-Arena in Minsk, Belarus, this Saturday, Jan. 30th. Beginning at 8:20 a.m. ET, fans will be able to watch their favorite international teams and individual stars take the ice, as Team Yashin, comprised of Russian and Belarusian players, will face off against Team Jagr, comprised of international players, in KHL's second annual mid-season showcase event. ESPN's Steve Levy and former NHL player and coach Barry Melrose will call the game for ESPN360.com.
[Update] Marketing 101: Advertising a 2010 return of Forumla 1 to Canada
, Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Buemi drives a Red Bull F1 car through a pond hockey game, takes a turn down the snow laden streets of Montreal, and smokes the tires on the start/finish line. Sold. Tune in June 13th, and if it all possible try to catch the BBC broadcast.