Sharks Gameday: The Lion's Den
Sharks lead 2-0
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On the surface, the minutes leading to today's 4:30 start should be a breeze. The Sharks are on a five game win streak and playing some phenomenal hockey, up 2-0 in a series for the first time since that one time they were up 2-0 in a series a couple years ago that ended in a way I don't quite recall. Joe Thornton has asserted himself in every single area, the defensive unit has limited their mistakes, Detroit hasn't been able to capitalize on their transition game, Nabokov has held the fort, and the Sharks are out-battling the Wings for nearly every loose puck.
And at this point, Joe Pavelski might be bigger than The Beatles.
Things are as good as they have ever been in the last five years. The fanbase is riled up, people are losing their minds throughout the festivities. And like the sea that has swallowed so many dreams before, a song from the Sirens has begun to float through the air into the collective eardrum of the city. Rumblings of a sweep on the radio, a broom this, a broom that, the melody enveloping the minds of the faithful. It is the sweetest of syrups, the slyest of sedatives.
We cannot forget.
Tonight the Sharks march into the Devil's Lair. It has been the cruelest of hosts during the past nineteen seasons, a proverbial wasteland where the malnourished and weak are slowly separated and devoured. This is the arena where dreams go to die. The demons weaving amongst the rafters above. The cold, unforgiving sheet of ice below. The Red Army lining up eye to eye, wooden bayonets poised at the ready. Many have fallen here, torn limb from limb under piercing lights, casually thrown aside like the masses before them. And if history repeats itself? If history has provided a compass to navigate this treacherous terrain tonight?
Then history has damned our very souls.
We cannot forget. We cannot allow the Hockey Gods to witness a conglomerate of men and women forget all of the lessons that have been learned over the course of nineteen seasons. This diaspora, our diaspora, requires respect and a patient understanding of what is rising just over the horizon. The opposing forces we go into battle with tonight are much more than an unusually large collection of tin foiled fear mongers who wield their complaints like a club. We are battling history, and a group that history has always seemed to smiled upon.
These are the obstacles San Jose must overcome. The greatest test of their physical and mental fortitude has yet to be administered. As the old saying goes, "You're not out of a series until you lose a game at home, especially when that home houses some of the greatest horrors your opponents have ever seen." The Sharks are prepared for this battle, likely more than they have ever been. They have shown their respect and paid their dues, kept their heads down and refused to focus their efforts on anything but the next shift, the next stride.
It is up to us to do the same.
One thing the Sharks have done extremely well this series is shut down Henrik Zetterberg. While Pavel Datsyuk has continued his wizard-like ways, Zetterberg has been a near non-factor during the course of the first two games. After compiling eleven points against Phoenix, including six goals, he has been held off the scoresheet against San Jose and limited to a mere five shots on net.
The reason for this is twofold-- Todd McLellan has asked Douglas Murray and Dan Boyle to log the majority of minutes against Zetterberg on the backend, with Joe Pavelski's line taking most of the forward duties against the talented Swede. Both of these units have worked harmoniously with one another in taking out one of Detroit's most potent offensive threats. With two one-goal games separating the teams at this juncture, one could make the case that the lack of Zetterberg has been the biggest factor during this young series.
McLellan's newfound craze for hard matching at home has a lot to do with that. Last season he was content to allow Randy Carlyle to put whoever he wanted out on the ice at a given moment, paying little attention to who would be facing who. This season he's running ghost units before faceoffs, forcing Mike Babcock to show his hand, and adjusting immediately by changing entire units at a time. It is as if the butterfly has burst from it's cocoon.
Tonight, McLellan will get no such luxury. This is an area where Mike Babcock flourishes, and with Zetterberg's lack of production thus far, he will likely try and get him some more favorable looks. Demers and Huskins, who have played well but are obviously the weakest pairing on the backend, will be Babcock's targets. With Marleau on the third line however, it makes it much more difficult for Babcock to truly exploit San Jose-- one of the many reasons, especially on the road, that splitting up the big three of Heatley, Marleau, and Thornton provides a better opportunity for the Sharks to win hockey games. It makes trying to decipher matchups and isolate weak spots all the much more difficult.
I assume he will go that route again tonight.
Speaking of isolating weak spots, McLellan has identified his fourth line as one. As we mentioned after game one their minutes were extremely low, and that trend continued in game two-- Helminen, Nichol, and McGinn all saw less than four minutes at even strength in a tilt that was close all the way through. The bottom line played a huge role in a victory against Colorado, but against a more finesse team, McLellan has evidently decided they will be a liability if given too many minutes. And while the amount of power play opportunities could be a factor in the reduction of ice time for line four, I believe this decision is rooted more in McLellan's confidence with his depth. It will be an area to focus on tonight considering it is likely the Sharks will not amass 12:54 in man-advantage time ever again. Trusting them to eat a couple more shifts on the fly should prove to be beneficial.
Thus far, this series has been won and lost with special teams. The Sharks were a +2 in this area on Thursday, and a +1 on Sunday. Even strength shots over the two games are dead equal at forty three apiece, with the Wings a +1 at evens in the goal scoring department.
Say what you will about who is carrying the play, who is dominating whom. This series is essentially even right now in terms of even strength play. As has been mentioned throughout Fear The Fin, Detroit will likely receive the favorable calls here at Joe Louis. These matters will even out, as they always do. In order for San Jose to take a stranglehold on this series and obtain victory tonight, Nabokov must be even better than he already has, and the penalty kill must continue to reduce the amount of time and space Detroit's skilled forwards have with the puck. Continue to pound the body at evens and work the low cycle because that tires the Red Wings. A simple road game, no matter how cliche, is essential.
One of the reasons Nabokov may have had such difficulty in Joe Louis Arena over the years (.903 SV%) is that the boards are extremely lively and kick pucks back out to the crease with astounding frequency. His game is built upon aggressively challenging shooters, and with these boards playing their tricks, his ability to do so is reduced. Striking a balance between not playing too deep and trusting your defenseman to cover the back door will be a fine line that must be walked. Much more than so than HP Pavilion, where the home crowd can incite a three goal outburst in less than two minutes, Nabokov will determine the outcome of this game. San Jose lives and dies with him tonight.
This is a wonderful opportunity the Sharks have in front of them. If there was one team in Sharks history that could go into Joe Louis and raise some hell, this is it.
History can be made. Here's to hoping it will.
Prediction: Sharks win 3-2. Goals by McGinn, Boyle, and Marleau. Pavelski has four assists and makes such a sweet pass on Marleau's goal that the scorekeeper gives him both the primary and secondary.