By Stu Hackel
The Sharks play their biggest game of the season -- perhaps a franchise-defining game -- tonight when they host Vancouver in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. San Jose's demolition in Game 2 was so one-sided at 7-3 that it had the Versus postgame show derisively playing "Sweet Georgia Brown," the Harlem Globetrotters theme song, under the highlights of the Canucks snazzy puck movement. That would make the Sharks the Washington Generals, the stooges.
The lack of respect accorded the Sharks is, unfortunately, part of their image as a good regular season team that's never quite good enough in the postseason. They've never gone beyond the third round and, while no shame should be attached to dropping four close games to the eventual Stanley Cup champs, as they did last season, they are indeed chronic underachievers.
At some point, however, if you want to be champs yourself, you have to win a series against a strong opponents and unless the Sharks find the next gear to make it a 2-1 series and then do it again to tie things up, there will be another long summer of questioning at the Shark Tank.
The questions are going to start with some of the team's key forwards, namely Devin Setoguchi, who hasn't looked like a first line winger; Dany Heatley, once a playoff ace who now seems to vanish in springtime; and the entire third line of Joe Pavelski, Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell, who are getting massively outplayed by the Canucks' third line of Maxim Lapierre, Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen (a trio that routinely gets the puck deep and has Sharks netminder Antti Niemi scrambling in his crease when they're not putting the biscuit past him). Ryane Clowe could be better, too, although we suspect he's playing with a pretty significant injury that kept him out of Game 6 against Detroit.
"You've seen the effects that some of these players can have on a game," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "You haven't seen that in the first two games. I think it's evident from some of them."
There's been too much one-and-done for San Jose, not enough attack zone time, not enough pressure on Roberto Luongo. If you're not getting the best out of six of your top nine forwards, that's a pretty sure recipe for elimination.
Which brings us to Ben Eager, whose runaway train act got most of the attention in the aftermath of Game 2. It started with a fight between San Jose's Patrick Marleau and Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa (video) which apparently set Eager off. He challenged the Canucks bench, thinking Bieksa was picking his spots and attacking a nonfighter. In retribution, Eager went out early the next period and smashed Daniel Sedin into the boards.
Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, who has been terrific in answering fan inquiries about officiating during the playoffs on TSN's website, thought this hit could have gotten Eager a major penalty and a game misconduct for hitting from behind, but the call was a boarding minor. That not only triggered a parade of Sharks to the penalty box, it also kept Eager around for more mayhem -- a tripping call that led to a Canucks power play goal (video), as well as his own inconsequential tally that he punctuated with a taunting celebration on top of Roberto Luongo...
...and a trip to the penalty box that gave new meaning to the notions of sin bin and good penalty.
The teams exchanged unfriendly words about Eager's and Bieksa's behavior afterward, and the coaches got into it the next day, so it could be a pretty charged atmosphere in Game 3. But even in San Jose, no one was excusing Eager's over-the-top conduct. McLellan endorsed his energy -- especially because so many other Sharks had so little -- but not the way he applied it.
And San Jose's media didn't protect Eager, either. Ray Ratto of CSN Bay Area called him "a mess of hyperactivity." Daniel Brown in The San Jose Mercury News called Eager's fight, name-calling and taunting a "brat trick" and "the symbol of the Sharks' implosion as the Canucks took a 3-2 third-period lead and turned the game into a rout."
It's refreshing to read such honesty about an on-ice altercation. Too often, local writers and broadcasters in some NHL cities make excuses and give blind, uncritical support after a player crosses the line of acceptable conduct, operating by three main rules: The home team is always right, the referees are always wrong, and everyone on the other side is either a goon, a cheap shot artist or a diver.
In any case, the Sharks' main flaw was not Eager's etiquette, but a failure to execute in all areas of the game. "They had more battle to their game than we did," McLellan said, adding the turning point was the tie-breaking goal late in the third period by Bieksa.
“We have a set forecheck. We've practiced that since September," McLellan said. A player gets skating, all of a sudden it's in your net. You can't chase this team. They're too good. You have to play with them or ahead of them. From there it started to unravel.” We wrote earlier this week about San Jose's problems when facing a mobile defense corps, and there it was again.
The Sharks have bounced back before this spring. They had a huge one-game comeback against the Kings and didn't fold when the Red Wings rallied to tie the second round at 3-3. If they have it in them to do it again, they can finally shed their old image. With the Sedins and Co. once more flashing their wizardry, it will be San Jose's toughest task yet.
B's-Bolts Battle: All it takes is one mistake and a series can change in a moment. The Bruins and Lightning play their Game 3 on Saturday afternoon, following Boston's very convincing 2-0 win on Thursday. The B's early goal allowed them to settle into a safe defensive game, something they haven't done much of in this tournament, and it was the result of two Tampa Bay defensemen, VIctor Hedman and Brett Clark, both chasing Milan Lucic in the corner and no Lightning forward coming down low to pick up David Krejci.
From then on, the Bruins frustrated the Lightning all game long in what was probably Boston's best game of the playoffs.
On Ottawa radio Team 1200 this morning, Sports Illustrated's Pierre McGuire said it could have been the best game that Claude Julien has coached so far in the playoffs. "He had his matchups going all night long, in particular Chara and Seidenberg as much as possible against Lecavalier, St. Louis and Purcell," McGuire said. "You could see the frustration points for Vinny Lecavalier last night going up against that behemoth that is Chara.
"And then the way they had their cycle game going, I thought it was a huge point...they have to get engaged on the cycle, they have to keep pucks below the icing line and break down the Tampa defense, force Tampa to play defense rather than offense. And I thought that worked fantastically well.
"And then I think the third thing he did extremely well was they played within themselves, they played Boston Bruins hockey and (Julien) got everybody on the same page. And getting Patrice Bergeron back helped so much. Because that moves Rich Peverley down to the fourth line, playing with Gregory Campbell and Dan Paille, and that's a heck of a fourth line. Then you can play four line balance and you can really wear out Tampa Bay."
Thrashing toward Manitoba: Despite a report in The Globe and Mail that it was a done deal for the Thrashers to move from Atlanta to Winnipeg -- announcement early next week -- there were quick denials of the story's main points that an agreement had been reached, that any announcement had been scheduled, or that the NHL Board of Governors had already approved the transfer of ownership and relocation. TSN had a report on the denials last night.
Still, there is widespread belief an agreement will eventually be reached to sell the club and then the NHL owners will act. The Hockey News' Ken Campbell reported on its website that issues holding the deal back involve how much of the reported $170 million sale price will go to the Spirit of Atlanta group and how much will go to the NHL as a relocation fee.
But the Globe and Mail report had Winnipeggers literally celebrating at the intersection of Portage and Main last night (and here's 15 minutes of celebration video from TSN's website; plus more from The Winnipeg Free Press website). The Mayor of the 'Peg, Sam Katz, said today (quoted by Canadian Press) that the return of the NHL is now "just a matter of time."