By Stu Hackel
The Sharks, who will try to even their series against the Canucks tonight, were happy for the two-day break after Sunday's Game 1. Coming off their incredible series against the Red Wings -- six one-goal games and one de facto one-goal game by virtue of an empty netter, the first time that has ever happened in Stanley Cup play -- there was bound to be an emotional letdown if not some fatigue.
“You always want to get back on the horse as quick as you can, but in this case I think the extra day will help us,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said on Monday. “Take advantage of it today physically, and tomorrow we’ll have a real good skate and if we don’t perform better mentally and physically in Game 2, we’ll end up with the same results.”
The Sharks led going into the third period of Game 1, but couldn't hold the lead, something they've done habitually. If it concerns McLellan going into tonight's game, he's publicly minimized the importance, noting that the Sharks had also staged some comebacks of their own this spring. He admitted the Canucks had been better in the third period of Game 1, but that was the extent of it. Perhaps it's only a concern for the media.
"Someone said it last night that we've blown a couple of third-period leads," said Logan Couture after the Sharks' opening loss. "I hadn't even thought of that until that was said."
The general consensus about how Vancouver's 3-2 win went was that the Canucks got better as the game progressed and the Sharks swam the other way. In truth, the Canucks were the better team from the outset and the gap widened over 60 minutes. After the game, McLellan said of his team, "We were like dogs chasing cars down the freeway. We weren't catching anybody. We put the puck into very poor spots. They eventually beat us at the type of game we wanted to play. They laid it in behind, they won a lot of races, they sustained offensive zone time."
McLellan has made much about the placement of the Sharks shoot-ins in Game 1, that they were too easy for the Vancouver defensemen to pickup and start plays the other way. Look for San Jose to make that part of the game harder for the Canucks tonight.
The Sharks were aided early on by Roberto Luongo's giveaway, which led to Joe Thornton's goal (video) late in the first period. But while that might have deflated the home fans, it didn't deflate the Canucks, who got a great game from their third line of Raffi Torres, Maxim Lapierre and Jannik Hansen, who evened the score inside two minutes of the second period. It was the kind of goal that the Canucks execute well, off the cycle, dominating the boards and going to the net, this time with Lapierre providing the finish.
If should have been clear from that play how sluggish the Sharks were. Almost every time a Canuck handled the puck from the point of that faceoff in their zone leading up to the goal, they were unchallenged physically. When the Sharks did try to forecheck just after the draw, they were shrugged off easily. The entry into San Jose's ice was too easy, the play along the wall was unimpeded, and Lapierre had a clear path to the net. Hansen found him with a pass from below the goal line.
...which should be studied by anyone who feels that when a puck-carrier has his head down in the neutral zone, the checker has no choice but to thrust his shoulder into the guy's chin. Higgins put his shoulder squarely into Pavelski's chest, expertly separating him from the puck and flattening him in textbook fashion.
And even though the Sharks took the lead with a power play goal on Patrick Marleau's great tip (video) of a Dan Boyle shot, the momentum shifted for good following a wild scramble late in the second period. It didn't result in a goal, thanks to desperate defending and goaltending by Antti Niemi. Still, it tilted the ice in Vancouver's favor and the clear Canucks' margin on the third-period shot clock (13-7) seemed even less one-sided than the actual run of play.
The tying and winning goal for Vancouver had something in common: important plays by defensemen. When you look at the tying marker by Kevin Bieksa, a blueliner not known for his offensive output...
...there are all sorts of things that go right for the Canucks: the great little chip pass by Henrik Sedin past Boyle that Alex Burrows swoops in to pick up; the play by Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray to charge Burrows leaves the front of the net exposed; and the excellent vision and pass by Burrows to Bieksa. But Marleau, the winger who should be near Bieksa, is way behind the play. He's out of the picture. Now look at Thornton high in the zone: a good defensive read would have had him picking up Bieksa, but he's watching the play down low and not what's coming from behind him. Bieksa gets that pass because he's open to get it.
Now here's the game-winner by Henrik Sedin on the power play and, again, it's a great play by a Canucks defenseman -- Christian Ehrhoff -- that sets it up. But watch Thornton.
He chases the puck behind the net, circles it, and when he comes out the other side, he goes to the slot. Ehrhoff has no one near him when he gets the pass from Kesler, who'd won the puck along the boards from Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Sedin goes to the net and Vlasic tried to catch him, but can't be two places at once. But it's the pass to Ehrhoff and the pass from Ehrhoff that make it all happen, and Thornton -- who has been generally excellent all postseason -- was again slow to react to a defenseman high in the zone.
This might be considered a one-game aberration, except that these plays were somewhat reminiscent of goals surrendered by the Sharks in the previous round, where their opponent worked the puck down low, then went up high to a defenseman. It resulted in a scoring play like this Game 6 tip-in by Henrik Zetterberg, who was set up by Valtteri Filppula's pass to Niklas Kronwall, whose shot Zetterberg tipped in.
The Sharks forwards, especially Torrey Mitchell and Couture, were just spectators on this play. A pair of goals by Nick Lidstrom were similarly scored when he drifted into the slot unwatched and took passes from teammates along the boards.
The point here is that the Sharks may be susceptible to these plays when facing a team with a mobile and active defense corps, as both Detroit and now Vancouver have. San Jose is a good team defensively, but not the fastest among the four remaining clubs in the playoffs. You can bet that Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff are well aware of it and McLellan may have to make some adjustments to his defensive zone coverage to help prevent those types of plays.
What may help the Sharks most tonight, however, is that extra day of physical and mental rest. They shouldn't be overawed by this stage; they played a good conference championship round last year against Chicago although they were swept in four rather close games. Each of their lines was outplayed by Vancouver's in Game 1 and McLellan said he especially needs a better outing from Couture's line, although not the rookie center as much as his wingers Ryane Clowe and Dany Heatley. "We had a bad game. You probably won't see that type of game for us anymore the rest of the playoffs," Clowe said (quoted by David Pollak in The San Jose Mercury News). "We've been pretty consistent, especially five on five, as a line."
Clowe, it's worth recalling, missed Game 6 against Detroit with an undisclosed aliment and was questionable for Game 7. He may have emptied his tank in that game and was not a factor in the opener against the Canucks. Heatley is one of the less gifted skaters on San Jose and the pace of this round could be problematic for him -- especially because of the slumbering Sedins' awakening in Game 1. These are two teams that rely on their top nine forwards and all of them will have to pull their weight.