San Jose loses second straight, fall into 2-0 series hole against Chicago
The Sharks dropped to 0-5 all-time in HP Pavilion during the Western Conference Finals tonight, succumbing to a quick Blackhawks team that managed to capitalize on their opportunities throughout the course of the sixty minute affair.
The tale of the tape was similar to game one-- the Sharks came out strong and put the pressure on Antti Niemi during the first period, but the Finnish goaltender once again proved his critics wrong and managed to make eleven stops in the period to stonewall San Jose. After that the Blackhawks carried the play for the majority of the game, with brief pockets of Sharks chances falling to the wayside under a steady Chicago defensive presence in front of the net.
Patrick Marleau had a pair of goals for the Sharks. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Toews, and Troy Brouwer chipped in for the Blackhawks during the 4-2 victory.
Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who was victimized on at least two bad goals, made 18 saves in the affair; his counterpart across the ice slammed the door shut with 25 of his own.
The first period began with a 2 on 1 for Chicago, as an errant dump-in was gobbled up by Patrick Kane. Kane sprung Toews and Byfuglien on a two on one into the Sharks zone as Dan Boyle made an ill-advised line change with the puck headed up the ice. Douglas Murray was able to make a strong play on Toews due to Byfuglien's lack of skating ability, and the chance was averted.
San Jose's first great opportunity of the game came six minutes in, after the fourth line (who looked great tonight in their increased minutes) threw their body around in the offensive zone and allowed the second line to come in for a quick change to capitalize on a tired group of Hawks. Ryane Clowe sent a centering pass to the front of the net where Devin Setoguchi, who had leveled Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson seconds beforehand, was stymied by a magnificient kick save in tight to keep the score knotted at zero.
San Jose continued to push the pace in the early first, with Joe Thornton looking strong in the corners and fighting off Keith and Seabrook, who were paired against him all night. He continued his strong play as of late by setting up his teammates, but as has been the case this entire postseason, both Marleau and Heatley were unable to cash in on those opportunities during the early going.
San Jose had a chance to take the lead when Patrick Marleau leveled Kris Versteeg down to the ice at the blueline, setting up a potential two on zero with Dany Heatley. After gaining control of the puck amidst Versteeg's flailing limbs, Marleau attempted to push the puck into some empty space in order to a) retrieve his own pass off the boards or b) get the puck to Heatley who was covering the far-side defenseman at the point. Whatever the case may be, Marleau's attempt was unsuccessful, and led to Chicago's first goal.
Managing to get up and beat both Sharks to the pucks after finding a faceful of ice greeting him after his fall, Versteeg climbed back into the play and chipped the puck to Duncan Keith, who quickly found Andrew Ladd breaking into the Sharks zone.
With a toe drag reminiscent of Ryan Getzlaf's heartbreaker last year during San Jose's series against Anaheim, Ladd changed the angle on his shot and beat Nabokov high far side to give the Blackhawks a lead they would never relinquish. There was a slight screen set by Niclas Wallin on the play, but that should not play any part in the analysis of the goal-- Nabokov was aware of the puck's location, evidenced by his glovehand just coming up half a tick too slow, and a shot from above the circles will be one the Sharks goaltender would like to have back.
Immediately following the goal, Ben Eager drew a hooking penalty behind the net from Wallin. Eager initiated the contact from behind and spun Wallin around, seemingly grabbing his stick to procure the penalty. The Sharks managed to put in a brilliant kill immediately afterwards, and avoided another as Joe Thornton committed a huge slash on Dave Bolland in front of the linesman as Chicago was entering the zone.
Chicago continued to push the pace of the game, and once again reduced the Sharks ability to control the neutral zone by sending a winger aggressively up the ice on the breakout to push back San Jose's blueliners. It is a gameplan Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators has used with moderate success against the Sharks over the years, and one that was effective again tonight.
The second period began much like the first, with Chicago's defensive group blocking shots and tying up sticks in front.
It would take them seven minutes into the period to capitalize.
Patrick Kane entered the zone, pulling up at the circles to find a trailing Brian Campbell. Using the speed Sharks fans know far too well, Campbell dangled down below the circles and threw a puck to the feet of Evgeni Nabokov. Sprawling to keep the puck out (replays later showed it was on the goal line), San Jose eventually knocked it out of harm's way behind the net and around the boards.
However, the Blackhawks weren't done. Campbell flew in from the point with a solid, physical pinch on Joe Pavelski, a player who he had undergone some extracurriculars with earlier in the game following a post-whistle scrum. That pinch was instrumental in keeping the puck in, and likely contributed to the eventual Blackhawks goal.
As we mentioned in the series preview, Chicago loves to use the high cycle to generate scoring chances. No player is better than this than Patrick Kane, who took the puck up from behind the end line to between the circles, whipping a shot at the net that was deflected by big Dustin Byfuglien in front. Evgeni Nabokov was caught standing upright when the puck hit Byfuglien's stick. It was similar to the first goal of game one in that Nabokov did not recognize the shot and failed to fight through the traffic in front of him, resulting in a situation where the puck was on him too quickly before he could make a save. Utilizing the butterfly in that situation to take care of the lower part of the net would be beneficial, as it is very rare a high shot from the point will get through the massive upper torsos crowding around the crease.
The period continued onward, and the first signs of Sharks frustration began to creep through. John Madden got a chance in front of Nabokov, who made a great sprawling save to keep the puck out. During the ensuing post whistle scrum, Douglas Murray took a swing at Adam Burish laying prone on the ice, an extremely ill-advised penalty to take at that point in the game.
As it turns out, it would come back to haunt the Sharks.
Duncan Keith capitalized on the power play, ripping a shot from the point as Torrey Mitchell was just slightly off his angle and unable to get into the shooting lane. Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews fought to the front of the net and deflected the puck past Nabokov, with Byfuglien also playing a big role and helping to generate traffic in front of the net.
San Jose would fight back however, after David Bolland was called for a hold behind his own net. According to an unsubstantiated rumore, Joel Quenneville was trying to get Versteeg into the box but Todd McLellan would have none of it. The ensuing power play saw a great pass from Joe Thornton through the aforementioned Versteeg's wickets, finding Patrick Marleau who blasted a sick wrister past Niemi short side to cut the lead to two.
The buzz after that goal was notable, but unfortunately, San Jose could not capitalize and headed into the third period down by a pair.
Antti Niemi caught a break early in the third, making a potentially momentum changing save when Duncan Keith tried to Alexei Semenov a shot from the point. The deflection rocketed towards the net where it was always meant to be, but Niemi's stick handle barely caught the edge of the puck and pushed it just wide of the far post.
Chicago began to focus on clogging up the neutral zone, keeping their shift shorts by dumping the puck in and changing. However, what was usually a one or two man forecheck in deep did an excellent job of cutting down San Jose's breakout, combining aggressive individual play with team-wide defensive responsibility.
That defensive responsibility was not prevalent on San Jose's end of the ice however, as Niclas Wallin committed an egregious turnover behind the net when the defensively underrated Marian Hossa picked his pocket. Hossa sent the puck up to Hjalmarrson, who hjalammered* the puck into the Sharks net. There was contact with Nabokov on the play, but the replay showed Evgeni well out of his crease and a conscious effort by Troy Brouwer to avoid contact. There was no doubt that it would count, and there was little doubt that the goal would be the one which broke the Sharks back.
*I'm deeply sorry for that.**
**Come to think of it, it is kind of catchy in a morbid sort of way.
Patrick Marleau would add another with five minutes in the game, but it would not be enough, as San Jose would go on to drop their second straight at home and dig themselves into a rather large 2-0 series hole.
- For all of the accolades San Jose has received for their calm heads during these playoffs, accolades that were definitely well deserved, that type of calm headed approach was not visible tonight. Between Douglas Murray's aforementioned penalty in the second, and Joe Thornton's terrible slash on Dave Bolland with eleven minutes remaining in the third down by three, responsibility and composure were not there. I would also liked to have seen Rob Blake avoid the box and rely on Nabokov to make a clutch save with two minutes left in the third, due to the fact San Jose was down a pair, but that's probably nitpicking at this point-- the game was likely over anyways, and that just sealed the deal.
- I'm one of the biggest Marleau apologists around-- I still want him back next season for the right price, and truly believe that he is an unfortunate scapegoat when it comes to Sharks fans. That being said, despite his two goals tonight, he needs to be better and more aggressive in his play. Constantly getting bodied off the puck down low, not being strong with his stick on second chances and centering feeds, choosing to stick to the perimeter on odd mans instead of lowering his shoulder and driving hard to the net-- all these are symptoms of the Sharks as a whole right now, but Marleau sticks out due to expectations. As well as Heatley. He's been getting his chances, but just isn't burying them right now. San Jose needs these two guys to score big goals when the score is close, not when a 3-0 deficit is already in the bag.
- Again, a two goal game from Marleau is probably not the best time to bring this up, and probably clashes with conventional critiques, but it's a point I feel needs to be made.
- I thought Joe Thornton had a really good game in the offensive zone. He's setting the table for his scorers and playing with a lot of gumption out there. Very little I have to complain about the big man.
- Nabokov was bad tonight. Not much more you can say than that.
- He's definitely not the only one to fault here. It just was a generally poor performance after the first period from San Jose, and the giveaway numbers tell the story. 20-6 in favor of the Hawks. Yikes. Just an all around porous defensive game, and I'm not sure you can look at one player and say he was the worst offender.
- Todd McLellan will have an even harder time getting his top line away from Keith and Seabrook on the road, and that phenomenal pairing is going to be a huge hurdle for San Jose to jump over in these next two games. All the more reason to break the top line up in my eyes. They just aren't getting it done in the defensive end, and need to spread out their output in order to get away from Keith-Seabrook.
- Tonight was a near must-win, and it's a huge hole the Sharks have dug themselves into. Taking two in Chicago will be an extremely tough task, especially with the United Center screaming for blood on Friday night. Should be quite the atmosphere.
- Coach McLellan did a better job of utilizing his fourth line tonight, and I thought they brought some bright spots to the game. He started shifting his big guns (Thornton, Marleau, Heatley) with them intermittently as the game went along, and they generated some energy and chances. Whether or not he'll be comfortable playing them that much on the road is another story.
- Logan Couture, least amount of ice time amongst forwards. No clue what that is all about. Literally, I couldn't tell you.
- Speaking of atmosphere, I find it very interesting that the boo birds have returned on some level or another to HP Pavilion. It truly boggles my mind how you can boo a team that has gone to the Western Conference Finals. Just fucking can it. It's annoying, and makes us all look like idiots. Bringing it out during the Colorado series was bad enough, but against Chicago, this deep in the postseason, suck it up and save it for the car ride home. It's probably a small conglomerate of people, but regardless, they're all fools.
- We mentioned that special teams would be a key in this series, but I have to say, I did not expect the Sharks to be outscored by such a wide margin at even strength. They're literally getting killed out there...
- ...in terms of results. Chances have been there however, even amidst the muck that was tonight. That being said, at this point in the season, it doesn't matter. Need those chances to go in, and need that presence in front of the net with strong sticks, and bodies willing to take punishment.
- Dark days on the Western front. Things get brighter on Friday at 5. Bring your A game from the couch.