Sharks Gameday: You Just Crossed Over Into...The Neutral Zone



6:00 PST
Canucks lead 1-0
Series Preview - Game One
98.5 KFOX,
Five For Fisting

The thing about a two day break is you kind of exhaust all your material by the time the next game shows up. We covered Vancouver's defensive pairings yesterday morning and the Sharks special teams in the afternoon, leaving us with the job of piddling around and trying to make an observation here or there to get you through your work day.

This is the point in the story where you start Youtubing cats or something.

As many of you have already heard Joe Thornton challenged Ryan Kesler to a fight during the opening faceoff in game one, a request that Kesler denied. The story of Thornton's defensive and leadership renaissance has been one that's been beaten to death by now, but during the postseason, that kind of leadership can't be underscored enough. It's a clear message from the Sharks Captain that he's going to be engaged all series and expects the same from his teammates.

Somewhat lost in the story is the relationship Thornton and Kesler have going back to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Kesler guaranteed a win in the first game between Canada and the United States (a prediction Team USA delivered on), as well as delivering some strong words for the Canadian National Team before the tournament began. Coupled with the fact that Kesler is one of their harder players to play against in the League, a centerman who is just as rough and physical as he is offensively gifted, and you have a situation where a matchup against Thornton will be delivering some good drama all series long. And expect even more of that tonight.

The term "must-win" is thrown about quite loosely by the media (I'm as guilty as any), but game two is going to be extremely important for San Jose lest they come back to HP Pavilion facing an uphill climb. The old saying used to go "you're never in trouble until you lose a game at home", and while that might be true on some level, the lack of home-ice advantage in this series presents a situation where the Sharks could still be in trouble if they didn't lose a game at home.

As we stated during the Detroit series a 3-1 series hole poses quite the hole for a hockey club. And while we're jumping a whole three games head of ourselves here, it's logical when you connect the dots-- San Jose loses tonight and they're playing two damn near must-wins in games three and four:

For high seeds who take a 3-1 series lead the benefits have been considerable. In the second round the leaders have gone 42-3 (93.3 W%) and overall they have gone 144-12 (92.3 W%).

>> Fear The Fin, May 3rd

Now of course you can make the case that the Canucks have already mucked up a 3-0 series lead this postseason as well as the fact that the Sharks have done the same-- with the amount of parity in the National Hockey League nowadays these types of occurrences are going to become more and more common. A team who takes a 3-1 or 3-0 series lead hasn't necessarily been the dominant force their record would indicate in the first three games. Comebacks are definitely possible, history will break through and get it done.

But a 2-0 hole is a 2-0 hole regardless of whether or not the games come on the road or at home, and a 2-0 hole means you're tasked with winning 4 out of the next 5 games or you're headed golfing. Against a team as deep and talented as the Canucks that's not an especially attractive situation.

So what are the keys to getting that done? It all starts with the battle in the neutral zone, and that all starts with the play at both ends of the ice.

San Jose did a good job of restricting Vancouver from entering the zone in game one but the defenseman got hung out to dry once the Canucks started chipping the puck past them and beating them to loose pucks. Continued forward support through the neutral zone and deep in the defensive zone is going to be a key to containing Vancouver's entries and cycle game, while at the same time being cognizant of overcommitting down low and thereby allowing the blueline to pummel away from the point. It's a fine line to walk and will require the Sharks forwards to be on their best behavior as possible. Vancouver is so mobile I hear "Hello, hello, hello" in decreasing octaves every time they take the ice*.

*That's probably the stupidest joke I've ever written.
On San Jose's side, that means generating speed in their entries. We again go back to the mobility of the Vancouver defense to emphasize this point. If the Sharks aren't getting off-wing speed on their entries the dump and chase is going to quickly turn into the dump and chase the other way, as there probably isn't a better unit in the League that can retrieve pucks and move them out of the zone. If San Jose can start pushing the Canucks blueline back in expectation of a dump-in they can begin to carry the puck in a lot more, something that would go a long way towards establishing zone possession time and wearing down Vancouver's legs.

While there are many tweaks that both teams will make heading into tonight, there is no doubt in my mind that the neutral zone is going to be the most important area of the ice in game two.

Jason Demers did not practice with the team yesterday. His return for game two is questionable. We'll see if this story develops throughout the day (hint: it will be a "game-time decision"), but the loss of Demers cannot be underscored enough-- he's a big part of that blueline, and a large reason why the defense as a whole has been looking more and more like a top end unit. With both Huskins and Wallin in the lineup San Jose's skill set is definitely reduced.

Rogers Arena should be rocking something fierce tonight. Always enjoyed the event staff's music selections-- pretty sure I caught some classic Kings ("Pistol of Fire" maybe?) on Sunday night, and outside of offering to work in some marinara sauce and four live squirrels during lovemaking, that has to be the quickest way to my heart.

Prediction: Sharks win 4-3. Goals by Couture, Clowe, Pavelski, and Setoguchi. Rogers Arena plays "California Waiting"* after the game (get it? Because the series is going to California!) and I poop myself with excitement.

*The cut off Holy Roller Novocaine, not the one off Youth and Young Manhood. Because that version sucks.