Friday April 16th, 2010

SAN JOSE -- What, the Sharks worry?

Sure, the NHL's Lords of the Regular Season dropped a Game 1 heartbreaker to the 8th-seeded, we're just-happy-to-be-here Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night, gagging up a ghastly last-minute goal that reduced 18,000-or-so teal-clad faithful to mortified silence.

That didn't necessarily mean these are the S.O.S. (Same Old Sharks), as one hardboiled Bay Area columnist put it -- the winter Adonis who has turned, every spring for the last four, into a 98-pound postseason weakling. It didn't mean that GM Doug Wilson's offseason acquisition of hulking sniper Dany Heatley; his overhaul of the club's third and fourth lines -- his injection of "sandpaper" guys, abrasive two-way dynamos like Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol -- had been for naught.

Here's what it meant, according to center Joe Thornton, who did not seem remotely stressed as he peeled tape off his skates following Thursday's practice:

"Yeah, we just had trouble getting through the neutral zone to be honest with you," explained Jumbo, channeling Jeff Bridges' The Dude from The Big Lebowski. "So we worked on that a little bit today, and, you know, hopefully it'll all be good tomorrow."

See? Simple. Nothing to worry about.

Thornton was referring in particular to San Jose's woeful second period, during which the Sharks were outshot 12-3, then booed off the ice by a vocal minority of fans who have seen this movie before. What, exactly, ailed the Sharks during those god-awful 20 minutes? Todd McLellan, the club's candid, uber-competent second-year head coach, put it this way:

"Our passing was poor, we had no speed, we didn't get in on the forecheck, we spotted the puck poorly." Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

So the Sharks polished up their passing in the neutral zone, then set about convincing themselves, and those posing them questions, that their backs are NOT against the wall; that Game 2 is NOT a must-win situation; that just because of their grisly playoff history, they are NOT under asphyxiating pressure that will be ratcheted up to DefCon 1 the instant the Avalanche take the lead tonight. If you suggested otherwise, you were being very un-Dude. (Warning: strong language.)

If the Avalanche take the lead tonight. Heatley, Thornton, and Patrick Marleau -- the so-called Gold Medal line that played intact for Team Canada in Vancouver -- were less than Olympian in Game 1, failing to produce a single point. Each disappeared for dismayingly long stretches. That said, they did generate a flurry of superb chances in the first period. Sooner or later, those guys are going to solve the well-traveled Craig Anderson, 28, who minds the net for Colorado after being claimed off waivers by three teams and traded twice before the Avs signed him as a free agent last summer.

On Wednesday night, the erstwhile journeyman was a hero, stopping 25 of 26 shots and often serving as a third Colorado defenseman, intercepting many of San Jose's ill-advised dump-ins, then deftly feeding the puck to his forwards. If the Gold Medal Line can't solve Anderson soon, watch McLellan break them up. When he alluded Thursday to "some individuals that need to give us more," it wasn't tough to figure out who he was talking about. That may have explained Marleau's pique following yesterday's practice. Normally stoic -- which is one of the reasons Wilson relieved him of the captaincy last summer -- Marleau got right up to the edge of bristling at one point. Asked if the Sharks needed to be on guard against that familiar, creeping, "Here-we-go-again" feeling -- he made no attempt to disguise his displeasure with the question.

"No, things are good" in the room, he replied, a mild edge in his voice. "I know you guys always want to bring that up. Things are good."

It irked him, apparently, that some doubters dared to discern a linkage between San Jose's most recent Game 1 pratfall and the club's recent history of premature capitulation. Just because the Sharks have spit the bit against mostly lower-seeded teams in the first or second rounds of the last four postseasons, it doesn't mean this group of guys is destined for a similar fate. "This," Marleau points out, "is a totally different experience."

He's right. A first-round loss to the 'Lanche, with it's unproven goalie, undersized corps of defensemen and overall inexperience would be infinitely worse than San Jose's abrupt exit from the first round of last year's playoffs. Eighth seed though they were, the Anaheim Ducks came into last April on an infernal roll, behind the play of a sizzling goaltender, Jonas Hiller.

McLellan insists that he doesn't need his own goalie, highly regarded Evgeni Nabokov, to stand on his head in this postseason. "He has to be a very good Nabby ... very good, very solid," says the coach. "He doesn't have to be Superman."

Nabokov was more than solid in Game 1. TJ Galiardi's slapper from the point, on a power play, wasn't his fault. And the game-winner was a fluke.

The circumstances that led to it, however, were not.

For what seemed like several eternities in the penultimate minute of play, the smaller, quicker Avalanche kept the puck away from the Sharks, who were outworked, and who could not buy a clear. Finally, as San Jose captain Rob Blake tangled with Galiardi on Nabokov's doorstep, Avs winger Chris Stewart wristed a low-percentage shot toward the goal. The puck caromed off Blake's left skate and into the back of the net. Just like that, the Sharks found themselves in a familiar position: in a playoff hole to a team they were supposed to clobber.

I personally am anticipating a five-goal eruption from the Sharks tonight, with the Men of Teal taking the series in six. Should the Avalanche rise up again, however, stealing a second game in this building, even Marleau may find himself thinking, Here we go again.

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