Sharks Gameday: Insert something catchier than our last three gameday titles. Seriously, those were just horrible excuses for creativity.
|1-2-1, 3 points||4-2-0, 8 points |
|15th in Western Conference ||3rd in Western Conference |
| || |
The Sharks stink right now. That much is for certain. Turnovers have killed them for the better part of the last one hundred twenty minutes of hockey that they have played, the defense hasn't bailed out the goaltenders, and the goaltenders haven't bailed out the defenseman. In the offensive zone the Sharks have looked fine outside of the giveaways at their own blueline-- their power play entries last night were fairly subpar, but once they gained control of the puck in the zone they moved their feet and opened up some shooting lanes. A post here and there killed whatever momentum they could try and wrangle out of the situation, but it's not like the well has completely dried up in this regard. I'm not concerned about even strength scoring just yet-- the forwards on this team are way too talented to really struggle in this area of the game.
Essentially, it's the blueline and netminders that still are big question marks for this team. I hate to be that guy that comes in here and says, "I told you so", but really, what else you can say? I think the vast majority of us were aware of these issues headed into the season, and therefore, I don't see any real reason to be blown away by the performance thus far. Of course it's frustrating (and judging by a brief perusal of the comments yesterday, to say people are frustrated is quite the understatement), but it's not anything we didn't touch upon time and time and time and time and time and time again before the year began.
Which is fine, obviously. The beginning of the season always signals the rebirth of hope, and it's an exhilarating feeling to grab that by the horns and ride off in pursuit of the golden skylines filled with dancing unicorns and lollipops the size of redwood trees. But don't forget the analysis of this summer, because when you do, it sets you up for a blindside hit right between the numbers.
If you're in my boat, you kind of just try and ride this out until the weekend is over. By then you have a decent idea of what the team is going to give you over the year. Four games is a pretty small sample size as we mentioned in our game recap Tuesday night-- seven is as well, but while it may not be enough to make any concrete conclusions, it is large enough to consolidate the information into a workable data set. A more informed opinion if you will.
The travel aspect shouldn't be ignored, but it's definitely not a crutch either-- the team had a week off to prepare for these two games, and while you can make the case that practice isn't enough to get you into game speed (valid), Carolina was coming off the exact same European trip that the Sharks just went through. Hard to hang your hat on that when the circumstances for both teams were extremely similar.
There's no doubt this team improves over the course of the year-- even with the blueline unable to consistently complete a decent outlet pass out of their zone, the Sharks are a good team who will make the playoffs. They'll be better than they were against the Eastern Conference titans (!!!) of Atlanta and Carolina.
The question is how much better they will be, by how much they will improve. Tonight is the night we start to figure that out.
I'm going to go ahead and assume Antero Niittymaki gets the start tonight in Colorado-- I was very surprised to see Niemi in net against Carolina on Tuesday, and after a nine goal outing over the past two games, Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan will recognize the fact that he needs to give another Finn the chance to get some minutes under his belt. With a back to back this weekend we should see Niittymaki twice in the next three games.
As we've covered before, Niemi is prone to giving up juicy rebounds in the slot, something that's pretty much a death wish with the current play of the blueline. He has this really strange habit of bending over at the waist and leaning over his skates with his core and shoulders, a trait that means he is prone to getting beat up high with shots directed at the corners. He doesn't play the puck well at all, which means that there's even more responsibility placed on the defenseman to hit their breakout passes and move the puck up the ice. With everyone from Boyle to Wallin keeping their head above water at best (and causing seizures at worst), it's a situation that doesn't bode well for success.
Niittymaki's different in that he controls the puck better off of shots-- you're not going to see the mad scrambles in front of the net off rebounds like you do with Niemi, and he is more aggressive in challenging shooters than Niemi will be. Niemi's MO is to stay deep in his crease and let the defenseman clear the puck (which worked well in Chicago with their excellent defensive corps.), but in San Jose, that's a tough sell. Niittymaki will take a little pressure of the blueline in this regard and allow the Sharks to slow the play down in their defensive zone. That's probably going to be a big key to tonight's game-- limit the rapid chances in succession, slow it down, and push the play into the offensive zone where the forwards can take over and dominate possession time like they did last April.
San Jose is going to have to ride the hot hand all year long, and right now, it's pretty clear that Niemi isn't that guy (not that he's gotten any help from his blueline, I should stress). The hope here is that Nitty can string together some of his infamous hot streaks and put the team on his shoulders.
Colorado's quietly doing what they did last season to some degree-- Craig Anderson has been excellent thus far with a .925 SV%, and the team still bleeds shots against (averaging 34.0 per). The difference is that they've managed to get the puck to the net more thus far, with a young offensive corps improving on their pretty porous production in this area last season. Chris Stewart has come out like a man on fire this year with five goals, while the usual suspects (Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny) log points and the rest of the team's support group (Milan Hedjuk, TJ Galiardi, Ryan O'Reilly) contribute on the score sheet.
It's a fun game to reignite some bad blood from last postseason, and an emotional kicker that could jumpstart the Sharks to getting back to where they want to be.
Prediction: Sharks win 4-3. Goals by McGinn, Heatley (x2), and Murray (where he uses that confusing 2:45 of power play time to actually do something with the puck). Adrian Dater calls for Rob Blake to be suspended, for just about the same reasons he used last postseason.