Inside Sharks/Conference Final Preview

Inside Sharks, by Tom Walker

If you happened to pass within a couple hundred miles of San Jose last Thursday evening, that roaring whisper soaring through the nighttime sky was the collective sigh of Sharks fans everywhere as the final second ticked off the HP Pavilion scoreboard with the boys in teal holding on to a 3-2 lead over the indefatigable Detroit Red Wings, eliminating their Motown nemesis in seven games to advance to a Round 3 date with the Vancouver Canucks for the Western Conference Championship and a shot at the Stanley Cup.

As recently as May 4th, San Jose’s fans were basking in the glow of a 4-3 road victory at The Joe, where Devin Setoguchi’s overtime game-winner punctuated his first career playoff hat trick as the Sharks took a commanding three-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven Round 2 contest. It was a time of high anticipation and confidence – and perhaps even a little understandable cockiness – on the part of the faithful.

And yet somehow it was almost as if this is exactly where Detroit wanted them.

In the opening period of Game 4, the Red Wings peppered Sharks netminder Antti Niemi with three goals, including two from captain and future Hall of Famer, Nicklas Lidstrom, before rookie winger Logan Couture put San Jose on the scoreboard with his third playoff tally. The Sharks continued to claw back into the game, with Dan Boyle and Dany Heatley lighting the lamp in the second and third periods, the latter tying the game at 1:14 of the third. For the next 17 minutes, the Red Wings battled for their survival while the Sharks grinded for the sweep. At 18:33 of the third, it was Detroit’s Darren Helm who slipped the puck past Niemi to breathe life into his team for one more game.

For Sharks fans, the loss was largely greeted with a measure of indifference, as if the hockey gods were merely affording them the opportunity to enjoy witnessing their team’s 2nd round victory by sending the series back to San Jose.

Devin Setoguchi drew first blood in Game 5, putting the Sharks up 1-0 in the first period. He was followed in the second by Joe Pavelski, whose goal briefly stimulated thoughts of closing out the series until Niklas Kronwall made it 2-1 less than a minute later. Logan Couture opened the third frame with his fourth playoff goal in front of an electrified Shark Tank crowd. And then it happened. The Red Wings remembered that they were the Red Wings. And the Sharks remembered that they weren’t the Red Wings. And before the period was over, Jonathan Ericsson, Danny Cleary, and Tomas Holmstrom had found the back of the net to send the series back to Detroit.

Game 6 began as a goaltender’s duel, with Antti Niemi and Jimmy Howard shutting down their respective opponents for the first two periods. In the opening minutes of the third, Logan Couture made it three consecutive games with a goal to give the Sharks a 1-0 lead. As with the prior match, however, the Red Wings mounted a comeback led by goals from Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm adding an empty-netter for good measure to force a deciding Game 7 in San Jose.

Many words come to mind to describe the general feeling of the greater Bay Area entering into last Thursday’s contest. If anticipation, confidence, and cockiness represent the euphoric mood of May 4, perhaps panic, fear, and déjà vu capture the cautiously optimistic mood leading into May 12th.

The Sharks got off to a quick start in Game 7, with goals from Setoguchi and Couture giving San Jose a 2-0 first period lead, extending Couture’s goal streak to four consecutive games. Henrik Zetterberg halved the Sharks’ lead with the second period’s lone tally, setting up a third period winner-take-all showdown with San Jose hanging on to a 2-1 lead and looking for a hero.

Enter Patrick Marleau.

The former Sharks captain had been held pointless in the series, a statistic which caused former teammate and current Versus commentator Jeremy Roenick to pontificate after San Jose’s Game 5 loss: “An unbelievably poor effort from Patrick Marleau. A gutless, gutless, performance by Patrick Marleau. Count them – zero points in this series. And he had a game like that.”

Jeremy Roenick rips his former teammate, Patrick Marleau.

And this wasn’t Roenick’s first public tongue-lashing of Marleau. During last season’s playoff run, he had this to say about whether the Sharks should re-sign him in the offseason:

“When’s Patty Marleau gonna come out and hit somebody in a playoff game ? When is he gonna come out and start showing why he was so good in the regular season ? Not just scoring goals, but playing physical and being emotional in a playoff round. Look at the way Shane Doan came out in Game 1 against Detroit. He hit everything that he could possibly get his hands on to show his team how they need to play. When is Patrick Marleau going to do that in a playoff round?

“I would not sign Patrick Marleau again if they did not get past this round and he falls short of being anything but spectacular. He’s been there too long and they have not won with him there, they need to go out and try to do something different. Patrick Marleau is a guy that you can dispose of and get some good people for.”

Ouch.

Sounds like a bit of sour grapes from one of hockey’s greats whose last shot at hoisting the elusive Stanley Cup was dashed in 2009 when the President’s Trophy-winning Sharks were eliminated by the 8th seed Anaheim Ducks in the first round. Roenick called it a career, and the Sharks found a new captain.

(For an excellent read on the Roenick/Marleau feud which includes the above-quoted excerpts, check out this link to Jason Plank, Managing Editor of “Fear the Fin,” which provides an in-depth analysis : Click Here )

Patrick Marleau - Series winning goal against Detroit in Game 7

So it is against this backdrop that the table was set for a “history will be made” moment in front of an announced crowd of 17,562. At 12:13 of the third, Marleau netted a rebound off a shot by Setoguchi to give the Sharks a 3-1 lead. It may not have been the prettiest highlight goal of Marleau’s career, but perhaps none has ever offered more relief to the veteran forward. And more importantly, it held up as San Jose went on to win 3-2 and vanquish the Red Wings.

Quickly checking in on the rest of the playoffs, it was two weeks ago that I lamented having correctly predicted a mere three of eight opening round series. Replicating the selection process with a pathetic coin flip, I had performed no better than the coin. Round 2 reflected modest improvement for this columnist as we review the results.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Vancouver Canucks (54-19-9, 117 pts) vs #5 Nashville Predators (44-27-11, 99 pts)
Prediction: Nashville in 7
Coin toss: Nashville
Actual result: Vancouver in 6
Bottom line: The Predators gave it all they had for two rounds, and the Canucks were simply the better team.

#2 San Jose Sharks (48-25-9, 105 pts) vs. #3 Detroit Red Wings (47-25-10, 104 pts)
Prediction: San Jose in 7 (yes, you can look it up!)
Coin toss: Detroit
Actual result: San Jose in 7
Bottom line: The Sharks really were the better team. By a thread. And the Red Wings might be the 2nd best team in the league.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Washington Capitals (48-23-11, 107 pts) vs. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning (46-25-11, 103 pts)
Prediction: Washington in 5
Coin toss: Washington
Actual result: Tampa Bay in 4
Bottom line: “Electrifying” appropriately describes Tampa Bay’s outright domination of the Capitals. This is why the regular season doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the playoffs.

#2 Philadelphia Flyers (47-23-12, 106 pts) vs. #3 Boston Bruins (46-25-11, 103 pts)
Prediction: Boston in 6
Coin toss: Philadelphia
Actual result: Boston in 4
Bottom line: The Flyers will always wonder how things might have been different in 2011 with a healthy Chris Pronger at the end of the season. It’s why they traded for him and paid the big bucks to extend his contract. Kudos to Boston for owning the series.

As of this writing, the Conference Finals are barely underway, however my picks were published at Inside Sports at the conclusion of Round 2. Following is the brief rundown:

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

#1 Vancouver Canucks (54-19-9, 117 pts) vs. #2 San Jose Sharks (48-25-9, 105 pts)

Vancouver recovered from its seven-game gauntlet with the Chicago Blackhawks to win their 2nd round match-up with the Nashville Predators in six games. Even so, if ever there was an argument to try to win one’s conference during the regular season, it is manifested in the fact that the President’s Trophy winners needed 13 of 14 possible games against the lowest available seeds to advance to the conference final. San Jose likewise required 13 of 14 games to join the Canucks, but had to do it the hard way against far superior firepower, particularly from the Detroit Red Wings. I got burned picking against Vancouver in the first two rounds and was rewarded favoring San Jose in the first two rounds. The Canucks took three of four from the Sharks during the regular season, but we see how well that worked out for the Capitals against the Lightning. I see no reason to change course now.

Prediction: San Jose in 6 – Coin toss: Vancouver

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

#3 Boston Bruins (46-25-11, 103 pts) vs. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning (46-25-11, 103 pts)

Readers of my April 20 column will recall a discussion of ROW, SOW, and SOL. If the Bruins and Lightning had played in the same division with each other, it would have actually mattered. Of Boston’s 46 victories, 44 came in regulation. Tampa Bay won six times in OT, matching the Bruins in the overall win column, but not in the tie-breaker. Both teams laid waste to their Round 2 opponents, sweeping the Flyers and Capitals respectively. The Bruins took three of four from the Lightning during the regular season. Shall we mention the Capitals again? Though Tampa Bay has already dominated Boston in Game 1 of the series, I’m stuck with my published prognostication.

Prediction: Boston in 7 – Coin toss: Boston

Off The Ice

Derek Boogaard dies at age 28

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and teammates of New York Rangers winger Derek (The Boogeyman) Boogaard who was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment last Friday. The native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan played 5 full seasons with the Minnesota Wild prior to signing with New York for the 2010-2011 season which was cut short due to a concussion. Boogaard was 28.

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