Sharks Drop Game 2, and Few Thoughts on European Openers and Referees

After winning the first game of the opening season series against Columbus Blue Jackets, the Sharks came short in the second, as Ethan Moreau scored 1:46 into overtime. As the Sharks are flying back to California, the coaching staff, the players and the rest of us have a number of things to think about before the play resumes a week from today. 

In a way, this game turned out similar to the game on Friday. Both games ended with 3:2 score. Joe Thornton was the best Shark on the ice in both games. Another Sharks netminder was making his debut today. Just like Niemi, Niittymaki looked confident and in control during some plays, and inconsistent and scared during the others. The sporting arena was half empty yet again. And just like yesterday, the referees did their best to steal the show.

The first period opened with teams exchanging goals within a minute of each other. Devin Setoguchi broke the scoreless tie with a power play goal, as he shot the puck with a one timer from one of his favorite spots between the two circles. The Blue Jackets responded shortly after, as Rick Nash found a hole in Nitty's pads from a short side. Nitty didn't hide he was embarassed it went in during his post game comments, noting "that was a bad goal. It just found a hole somewhere, I don't know where.  I would do the same thing again and again. I felt it hit my glove and somewhere here (tapping left thigh) and I was hoping it would stay there but obviously that didn't happen."

After trading chances for the next 40 minutes without scoring, Kristian Huselius got on the scoreboard at the start of the third period to put Columbus ahead. After receiving a timely cross ice pass from Nikita Filatov, Huselius used a wrist shot to capitalize on one of many power plays that happened in that game. After scoring a similar goal earlier in the game, this time it was Setoguchi who paid the price for taking a penalty earlier. 

But it didn't take long for referees to send someone else to the box, and this time the Sharks went on a power play. And what a power play it turned out to be. The Sharks did not give up a puck for almost a minute, and the possession resulted in Joe Thornton scoring on a quick pass from Dany Heatley to tie the game at two. 

If giving Joe Thornton a "C" was a way to make him shoot more (he has 6 shots over two games), why didn't Sharks' management do this earlier?

Yet again it was the power play that carried the Sharks in this game. It leaves some concerns about even strength play, but perhaps this is to be expected. Coach McLellan has been juggling the lines since the training camp began and Sharks' centers have to play with the wingers they have never played with. It's also on the power play that the chemistry of last season for Marleau-Thornton-Heatley and Pavelski-Setoguchi-Clowe begins working again. With more practice time, the even strength lines will start clicking again. Otherwise, McLellan can always revert back to those lines that worked in the last stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs last spring. He's clearly experimenting right now. 

But it was once again Heatley in the spotlight later in the overtime that ended it all for both teams. Sharks forward was carrying the puck through the left side of the neutral zone. Seeing himself under pressure from two Blue Jackets players, instead of passing it to one of the opened Sharks on the right, Heatley kept carrying it and then lost it. The resulting counter attack ended in a breakaway by Ethan Morrow, who shot the puck past Niittymaki's glove. Not the smartest play by the Sharks' winger during 4-on-4 play in the overtime, but we'll blame on the reindeer steak he might have eaten a night earlier and move on. 

While it was not the ending the Sharks hoped for, the return to North America with three of the four available points is a one positive we can all be satisfied with. The team now gets a much deserved rest until they play in a home opener against Atlanta next Saturday. 

Couple more points are worth mentioning here. 

For years I was someone who was for NHL teams opening their season in Europe. There are likely as many hockey fans in Europe as there are in the United States, and NHL would not be the same without European influence. It's only fair that the League gives back to these European countries and loyal fans by sending the teams to play there. When I was growing up in Europe in the 80s and 90s and watching NHL on TV, it was always my dream to see a live NHL game. Now the league makes it possible every year for fans of the game who do not live in North America.

But I must say that this Sharks trip left me disappointed in this European initiative.

First, the start time. I understand that the league can't do anything about starting the games later, but why could they not delayed the games and played them on the weekend? Like most of you, I was also stuck at work on Friday and could not watch the opening game live. We wait for four months for hockey season to start again, and then can't watch it in prime time or on a weekend. I ended up learning the score while still at work, and watching the game this way proved to be just as boring as watching a game from 20 seasons ago. 

Second, NHL needs to be reasonable when it comes to ticket prices. As David Pollak wrote on his blog, the cheapest tickets to the game were $110. This is almost how much the cheapest tickets were to the Western Conference Final in HP Pavilion last May. I can't blame the Swedish - even in a wealthy but a socialist country like Sweden, $120 a ticket is not a small price to pay to attend a sporting event. As a result, the arena was half empty and quiet for two nights in a row. 

Finally, something has to be said about how the referees acted on both nights. 

In two games, they called a total of 33 penalties. For comparison, we saw just 15 penalties in the last two games of last season against the Blackhawks. Yes, the players are still trying to get in shape now and penalties do not matter as much in game #2 of the season as in game #97. Some of those penalties resulted from mental errors and sloppiness. But other penalties were either those the referees will ignore later in the season, or non-existent altogether. We see this regularly at the start of the season as referees come out fresh out of their camps wanting to enforce the rules. But the number of penalties called in those last two games was simply unreasonable. The refs were disrupting an otherwise good game, confusing both the players and the fans. 

With that said, I couldn't be more happier that the hockey is back. 

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