Sharks Gameday: Bigger than Bill Brasky
COL leads 1-0
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The buzz word of the day Thursday morning was the neutral zone. During San Jose's game one loss to the Colorado Avalanche, the Sharks were presented with a team willing to clog five men between the bluelines and stand up forwards entering the zone, a team that was dictating the play. Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco did an excellent job of getting his players to buy into this gameplan from the drop of the puck, resulting in a usually potent San Jose offensive attack to become disoriented and largely ineffective for the middle half of the game:
Against a team that stacked five men in the neutral zone all night it was equivalent to a self-inflicted gunshot wound-- the Sharks were unable to generate the speed in the neutral zone necessary to beat that defensive alignment, and instead were content to whip low dump-ins around the boards where Craig Anderson calmly played the puck up to his waiting defensemen.
This is one of the issues that plagued the team during the Anaheim series-- an unwillingness to alter execution that is not working. There were few Sharks who realized that a high cross-ice dump to the far corner is the best way to beat this system if San Jose as a whole is having trouble moving their feet through the neutral zone, especially when one considers how well Anderson played the puck tonight.
It is not a decision that one can make after crossing the redline-- at that point, your wingers have slowed their approach into the zone in order to avoid going offsides and do not have the speed necessary to establish a strong forecheck. This is something the team needs to acknowledge in practice tomorrow and learn to commit to a system that is able to adapt. Once that high cross-ice dump goes into the corner with wingers generating the speed that will be able to retrieve the puck, Colorado will be forced to ease up on clogging the neutral zone and allow San Jose to enter the zone without dump-ins. If they can do this in game two it will go a long way towards generating scoring opportunities.
There is a clear and concise difference between the dump and blindly chase strategy San Jose employed tonight when compared to dumping the puck in with a purpose.
Word from the coaching staff Thursday afternoon indicated they were taking the necessary steps to remedy these problems. As mentioned in our recap, focusing on keeping the puck away from Craig Anderson by putting it into the far corner with a high and soft dump will allow the Sharks to give themselves time and space to enter the zone and break down the Avalanche defense. While Anderson may not have the puck-playing fortitude of a Marty Turco, keeping the puck away from him and isolating the Avalanche blueliners is essential.
The winds have been blowing on breaking up the top line for game two, and Todd McLellan himself stated that the possibility of this occurring was still being decided. My thought process on this has been consistent all season-- playing HTML together puts all of your offensive juggernauts into one basket, and allows an opposing team to focus on shutting down one line.
However, Todd McLellan has decided to run his big guns together, and has done so since Joe Thornton came back from injury. He needs to stick with that at the beginning of tonight's game in order to provide some stability in the locker room. Right now it seems as if the mental game is just as big of a factor as the technical one.
If the top line comes out flat in the first half of the game tonight, by all means you reconfigure them. The stakes are too high to continue to roll with something that would then be sputtering for two straight games. But one game does not define a series. You need to trust in your previous decisions for at least twenty more minutes before going to Plan B.
Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton refused to push the urgency envelope yesterday. Both were quoted in the morning paper as saying that tonight is not a must-win game for the club, while acknowledging that heading to the Pepsi Center without the series tied would dig a deep hole.
According to statistical website Who Wins, tonight is a very important game. Throughout the history of the NHL, the lower seeded team wins the series 75.7% of the time when they take a 2-0 lead back to their home arena. And as San Jose Sharks broadcaster Randy Hahn mentioned in an interview with Fear The Fin before the playoffs began, flexing your home-ice advantage muscle will be a key to this series.
Sometimes I think Marleau and Thornton make it harder on themselves when it comes to dealing with the media. There is enormous pressure on their shoulders right now, compounded even further by the loss in game one. It is as if an anvil gets dropped on them at this time of the year as multiple Bay Area outlets, who pay no attention to the regular season, begin to flock to HP Pavilion like dogs in search of raw meat. I couldn't tell you how many questions the team has had to answer from reporters asking about last season instead of the series at hand. What I can tell you is that it is probably one too many.
Sure there is a story there. But it is one that has been beaten to death.
That being said, Marleau and Thornton can't give off the appearance that they are hedging their bets in the event that the Sharks lose tonight. It is like saying, "I may have a life-threatening illness but at least I'm still alive" when you are headed into six-hour surgery. There needs to be a realization that this is a turning point for both teams, and one that will dictate whether or not a split at the Pepsi Center could put a second round appearance for Colorado within reach.
Nothing the Sharks say to the media will change how they prepare for tonight. Talk is cheap. They are professional athletes and wouldn't have reached this level if they were not committed to being the best that they can be. They will motivate themselves in their own way. But I think quotes like these definitely effect how the building prepares. The tension in HP Pavilion will be a factor tonight, and as evidenced by the boos that came cascading down from the rafters in game one, it will be a factor every single home game. And that bleeds into the players. So play the part and put it on the line publicly.
"We approach every game as a must-win. We didn't get it done in game one, and there is no excuse for that. I'm ready to drop the damn puck right now, because frankly, there is nothing I want more than to shove the questions about my character right back into every goddamn critic's face."
When they figure out how to tap into the darkest depths of their souls, not a man nor mountain will be able to stand in their way.
Tonight is as close to a must-win as it gets.
Go out there and take it.
Prediction: Sharks win 3-2. Goals by Setoguchi, Pavelski, and Blake. A power play goal careens in off of Scott Hannan's skate, and the battle of ex-organizational members stands tied at one.