December 18, 2008
Heading into their showdown in Detroit this evening, nine points separate the first-place San Jose Sharks and the second-place Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference standings. But what do the standings really tell us, right?
It's still Stanley Cup champions versus playoff underachievers. Original Six versus California Three. Teacher vs. student. It's still the Detroit Red Wings people expect to see challenge for the Cup in the postseason, while the Sharks -- despite their historic regular season success -- are the team whose destiny is in question.
At least those are the general perceptions, right? What about some more informed perspectives on the Sharks and Red Wings?
We asked bloggers from both fan bases to answer a few questions in preparation for tonight's battle. For Detroit, it's Bill "The Chief" Houlihan from Abel to Yzerman and George James Malik of Snapshots. For San Jose, it's Jon Swenson of Sharkspage, Mr. Plank from Fear the Fin and Mike Chen of Fox Sports. (We asked a third Wings blogger but unfortunately didn't hear back in time. We know: conspiracy theory, anti-Detroit, yadda yadda.)
Topics range from the state of the teams (prior to last night's action for the Sharks), if the balance of power has changed in the conference, the return of Claude Lemieux and dream teams from the combined rosters.
Their lively discussion, and tonight's showdown, could help answer one of the biggest questions of the NHL season: Are the Sharks or Wings the best of the West?
The first game between Detroit and San Jose was a 4-2 Sharks win back on Oct. 30. What have you learned about your team since that game, both positive and negative?
CHIEF (DET): Well, we've learned that we have no idea what to expect from the Wings from night to night. They're giving up more shots, more goals, more chances than at any time in the last decade. But they keep winning. Their few losses, though, have been horrific kicks to the sack. The disaster against Pittsburgh, the game against the Sharks, which was not nearly as close as the score indicated, then Monday's loss to Denver. I haven't been able to write a sentence since that game. Seriously.
MALIK (DET): Since the "San Jose incident," I've learned that the Red Wings remain a supremely talented team whose superior talent can keep them in any game and nearly wipe out any blunders a player or goaltender may make, but I've also learned that the Wings are a team whose talent allows them to take shortcuts, and it's the ability to "get away with" playing less than a 60-minute game that I believe is to blame for their defensive issues and slow starts.
I don't believe in the dreaded "Stanley Cup Hangover" -- that's a cop-out in my book, especially when we're talking about the concept 30 games into the next season -- but I see a team whose fit and finish require significant work, goaltending included. As far as I'm concerned, Osgood's issues have as much to do with breaking in his Brian's leg pads in practice, while nursing along those three-year-old Itechs in games, as they do with anything else; because different pads mean different break points, materials and the properties thereof, rebound control and stresses on legs/hips/groins (thus the groin injury).
My biggest issue involves the Wings' record in "statement games" -- they lost to the Ducks, Bruins, Penguins, Canadiens, and have had to rely on OT and shootout wins far too often, and their difficult starts and inability to focus in measuring stick games concerns me. I think that the Wings miss Dallas Drake far more than they realize (no offence to Tomas Kopecky, but he's no forechecking dynamo), and I believe that they've missed Chelios's stabilizing presence on the blueline as well.
SWENSON (SJ): Detroit was playing the second game of a back-to-back after losing a very physical game to Anaheim 5-4 in OT the night before. Detroit played hard for two periods against San Jose, but in the third period I thought they were skating with blocks of cement instead of skates. Credit to the Sharks who said they wanted to push the pace early and try to capitalize on Red Wings mistakes and turnovers late. The Sharks played consecutive games against Stanley Cup finalists, and held Pittsburgh to a franchise low 11 shots and handled Detroit 4-2 without many problems.
The Sharks were going to be an elite team this season without question, but with the additions of Boyle, Blake and Lukowich 50 percent of the defense had turned over in a few months. There was the unknown of how quickly they would gel. There was also the unknown of how rookie head coach Todd McLellan would best utilize the talent of this lineup. The Sharks were winning games while Boyle, Blake, Lukowich and Douglas Murray were all working into form on the defensive side. The speed and the size of the forward lines put a lot of pressure on opposing teams, and took a lot of pressure off the Sharks defense early.
Now, San Jose is still piling up wins but the defensive play is still not as tight or as consistent as head coach Todd McLellan or general manager Doug Wilson would like it to be. San Jose had a blazing finish to the 2007-08 regular season, registering an 11-game win streak and a 20 game point streak during the stretch run. That did not translate to postseason play. The Sharks have to be able to switch from offensive mode to defensive lock it down mode on command. Right now they have enough firepower to win in any situation, but they can still improve defensively in the corners and in front of their own net.
PLANK (SJ): Injuries have been a blessing to this team. That may be a tad bit overboard, but in a way it makes a whole lot of sense. Vezina Finalist Evgeni Nabokov goes down on November 6th and what do we do? Throw in Brian Boucher, who puts up numbers that place him amongst the league goaltending leaders. Torrey Mitchell (a huge asset to our penalty kill) breaks his leg in the preseason, so Milan Michalek and Patrick Marleau pick up the slack shorthanded. Former Rocket Richard winner Jonathan Cheechoo is bitten by the injury bug. World-renowned video game legend Jeremy Roenick (the real guy, not the pixelated version) dislocates his shoulder and is forced to go under the knife. On a lot of teams, these injuries would be the direct cause of a losing streak and some serious hand wringing. On the Sharks, it's an opportunity for us to strengthen our entire roster while still winning games.
Negatives? As with any 25-3-3 team, it's fairly difficult to pick out any negatives. That being said, there are a few things I have noticed (being the overtly pessimistic person I am). Hell, it comes with the territory. Three straight-second round losses tend to make you wary of anything*.
* That sweet old lady selling cookies outside Church every Sunday? Totally a serial killer.
For starters (and this probably deserves more credit to opposing teams than anything), the Sharks aren't dominating shot totals like they did at the start of the season. A lot of our offense is based on putting pucks to the net off the rush, allowing our forwards to get second stabs at rebounds. What you're seeing now is opposing teams pressuring the puck carrier a lot more at the blueline, forcing us to either dump the puck in or engage in possession battles along the sideboards. It's disrupting our flow (basically an anti-Flomax for any of the senior citizens reading ... I know the crowd you run with Wysh), and has resulted in a number of recent games where we have been outshot.
CHEN (SJ): The positive: the Sharks can come back in almost any situation, regardless of score or team. Patrick Marleau's hot start isn't just a hot start, it's the making of a career season. Joe Thornton's groin injury and his adjustment to the new system hampered him a little bit in the beginning but he's come around. Rob Blake shook off a pretty slow start to the season to fit in nicely and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is quietly becoming the Sharks best blueliner not named Dan Boyle.
The negative: the team can get sloppy and complacent, though this is a rare occurrence and happens at about 1/4 of the frequency it did under Ron Wilson. Jonathan Cheechoo's essentially been forgotten due to poor play and injury. Ryane Clowe, as effective as he's been, is as streaky as ever (which means, I'm guessing, that Cheechoo will be slotted back into the top two lines when he's healthy and Clowe hits one of his inevitable slumps).
Sharks GM Doug Wilson has been rather candid about San Jose adopting the Red Wings' style of play this season. How do you feel about that imitation or homage to the Stanley Cup champions' game?
CHIEF (DET): I think I like to see Todd McClellan burst a vessel every time somebody asks him about it. They're a great team and I don't think many would be making that comparison if Babcock Jr. wasn't their head coach. We'll see if that "imitation" means actually winning more than one round in the playoffs.
MALIK (DET): Are there elements of the Wings' game that Todd McLellan brought into the Sharks' system? Sure. Does the fact that the team added Dan Boyle and Rob Blake change their dynamic drastically and provide a puck-moving defence that is nearly on par with Detroit's?
I think that McLellan definitely brought some puck-possession systems and a more aggressive fore-check to Ron Wilson's "We'll score some goals and then trap, trap, trap" Sharks, but I also believe that the changes are as indicative of changing half San Jose's blueline and bringing in a coach who doesn't treat Patrick Marleau like he's a washed-up star in the making.
Add in the fact that Wilson ditched Ron Wilson's negativity and tendency to publicly chastise his players, and you've got a team which upgraded its skill level and imitated some of the Wings' tendencies under a coach who's really brought out the best of the systems and personnel that were already in place. I think the Sharks deserve credit for taking the best of their own identity and meshing it with a few of Detroit's puck-possession and shoot-as-your-fore-check quirks.
SWENSON (SJ): Even Todd McLellan grew weary of the Detroit Red Wings comparisons, and he won a Stanley Cup with the franchise last season. In truth, this team plays a Doug Wilson style of hockey more than a Ron Wilson, Todd McLellan or Detroit Red Wings style. When Wilson came in as GM, he said he wanted to build a younger, faster, more up tempo style of team that would be entertaining for the fans. Mission accomplished. The Sharks still exhibit tendencies from the Ron Wilson regieme, the penalty kill and some elements of the neutral zone play are two examples, but for the most part when I see the Sharks I think of Doug Wilson.
Todd McLellan has tweaked the Sharks in a way that better suits them for a knock down, drag out 7-game playoff series in my opinion. They clog up space in front of the net, and pound shots on goal until one finds a way through. They also take better advantage of their speed and size, and dump-in the puck with a purpose. One observation about Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg I made last year was that they back-checked as hard on defense as they pressured to score a goal on offense. They lead by example, and the rest of the team followed them as a result. The same can be said this year of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, to an even greater degree given their size. Players like Devin Setoguchi, Milan Michalek, and Joe Pavelski have followed their lead, and they are not giving opposing forwards any room in the other direction. The one question that can not be answered until the postseason is how well this team will be prepared to play from the drop of the puck, and how well this team will respond to adversity. Stanley Cup veterans like Blake, Boyle and Lukowich were brought in for that purpose.
PLANK (SJ): While Devin Setoguchi and Patrick Marleau have had breakout and redemption years respectively, there hasn't been an influx of new names amongst the forwards. For me this all starts on the backend. Three guys with Stanley Cup rings to their name (Boyle, Blake, and Lukowich) have all paid off dividends in adapting Detroit's puck-possession style*. Boyle's ability to carry the puck through the neutral zone has added a new dimension to our offense that was lacking last year, and has rubbed off onto guys like Christian Ehrhoff. Our breakout (which was fairly poor last season), is finally consistent.
* As an aside, I've never been a big fan of the term "puck possesion" in regards to labeling certain offensive schemes. It makes sense that the better teams will control the puck more. The Islanders could play the same way as Detroit, but no media pundit will ever rave about their puck possession style. They don't have the personnel to execute that sort of offense.
But the biggest change you'll see is in the offensive zone. Our defensemen are constantly jumping up into the play, generating scoring opportunities in the slot. So as for the Sharks being lumped into the same category as the most consistent and successful franchise in modern NHL history? I don't have a problem with the comparison at all.
CHEN (SJ): Whatever works. I've always been of the philosophy that a win is a win, even if it's an ugly win. So if the Sharks had the same record playing 90s trapping hockey, I'd still be OK with it (though I'd be a lot less entertained). However, the Sharks are winning in a fast-paced and aggressive style that gets me a lot of free pizzas (four in the net, pizza you get!), so I don't care where the style or system comes from as long as it produces results.
Besides, the whole league shifts with whoever won the last Cup. I'm just glad we're moving away from Anaheim's Broad Street Bullies imitation.
In your eyes, has the Sharks' historic start shifted the balance of power in the Western Conference at all? Why or why not?
CHIEF (DET): Not really. I think we all expected San Jose, Detroit, Chicago to be strong. They all are. I know what you're asking though, and that's if San Jose's the favorite based on their start. The answer would be no. Not until they prove they can win in May.
MALIK (DET): Yes and no. When you start as well as the Sharks have (and the Wings have come close on a number of occasions), that kind of momentum's hard to stop, but injuries and slumps catch up to every team eventually. I don't know if the Wings can catch the Sharks, but if they get their issues "sorted out" (to use a Babcockian term), Detroit will give San Jose a run for its money. The Red Wings' players stated that the Sharks are "where they want to be" and that as such, they see the Sharks as the best team in the conference and/or the "measuring stick" right now, and I take those comments as encouraging.
I look at the West and see teams three through fifteen separated by 12 points, and see the Blackhawks and Coyotes in much better shape, and that's the biggest change I see. At the same time, it's December, and you figure out how the balance of power shakes out from here on in, when the schedule gets even nastier, chronic injuries pile up, and we start getting toward the playoffs. Winning in the regular season's great, but backing it up in the playoffs is what really matters.
SWENSON (SJ): The Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks were Nos. 1 and 2 last season; if anything they may have simply reversed positions. Both are enjoying success this regular season, but both teams know the regular season is an 82 game marathon and the playoffs will be a completely environment. Anaheim and Chicago are improving, Calgary is always going to be a tough defensive team. Minnesota, Phoenix and Los Angeles also have a few dark horse qualities and will make the battle for the final playoff spots interesting. The balance of power in the Western Conference may well be decided with the San Jose Sharks Detroit Red Wings regular series, but both teams are relatively humble and that will be a declaration for the media to make.
PLANK (SJ): No. Until Detroit gets beat, nobody is doing a damn thing. There's just something special about that team in May.
CHEN (SJ): Not really. I think everyone had San Jose, Detroit, Anaheim, and Dallas to be the contenders in the West. As excited as I am about the start, I'm like a lot of people with a "Show me in the playoffs" attitude. I'd say Dallas' total collapse shifted the balance of power more than anything else, and we're still waiting to see who picks up the slack. If we see a team like Phoenix or Columbus hit a ten-game stretch where they really find their groove and start to dominate games, they'll go from .500 pretender to a team to be worried about.
Let's say you have a chance to make a dream starting lineup comprised of players from these two teams -- one center, two wingers, two defensemen and one goalie. What's your starting six?
CHIEF (DET): Easy -- Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Hossa, Lidstrom, Rafalski...and Nabokov.
MALIK (DET): Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Thornton, Lidstrom, Rafalski, and at this point, Nabokov. Overall I'm quite comfortable with icing Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Hossa, Lidstrom, Rafalski, and Osgood once he calms down a bit, and I mean no offence to Sharks fans in dressing an all-Wings lineup.
SWENSON (SJ): Marleau-Thornton-Hossa-Lidstrom-Boyle-Nabokov is my starting six.
PLANK (SJ): Center- Joe Thornton. As good as Pavel Datsyuk is, I'd be loathe to leave off the league's leading point producer since the season that never was (i.e. the lockout). Although Pavel may have a leg up on the defensive end, Thornton's vision on the ice and newfound love for driving to the front of the net has me sold.
CHEN (SJ): Joe Thornton centering Patrick Marleau and Marian Hossa. Dan Boyle and Nicklas Lidstrom on the blueline (duh) and Evgeni Nabokov over any of the goalies Detroit's used this season.
What was your reaction to the Sharks signing Claude Lemieux to a minor- league deal?
CHIEF (DET): I gave that a lot of thought and brought the question up to my family last evening at dinner. My daughters all pondered it for a moment then suggested my answer should be: Claude Lemieux was a piece of [expletive] in '96 and remains one today. I hope, so that we can all enjoy watching him get embarrassed, he comes back and we see him in the playoffs.
MALIK (DET): His history with a certain superb defensive forward aside, I grew to hate Lemieux during the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals, and I still dislike the man. I still see him as a big rival over a "villain" because Lemieux is the meanest, nastiest, dirtiest, most self-centred player I've ever seen who could back his play up with clutch goals.
Can he still play at 43? I'm a Red Wings fan, so I don't see his age as a limitation per se -- I see his absence from the game as the main issue, and he's cooled off from a near point-per-game pace to 5 points in ten games, with those two goals coming early on.
I do want to address the Draper issue, and I will say this: he did an interview on WDFN here in Detroit about two summers ago, and he stated that he'd made his peace with Darren McCarty (which McCarty's confirmed), but he actually accused Draper of being the royal jerk in the situation for refusing to return Lemieux's calls over the years. To me, that sums up Lemieux's character.
SWENSON (SJ): Initially I had no reaction. There was no way I thought he would be a fit on San Jose with checking line center Torrey Mitchell slated to return in January. Lemieux would have to knock a Marcel Goc, Tomas Plihal, or Jermey Roenick out of the lineup. This was a move made by Doug Wilson, who is a friend of Claude Lemieux's, to give him an opportunity to play at the professional level and see where the 43-year old's comeback attempt was at.
I am not sure how well this went over initially with some of the players, but Lemieux has shocked me after watching a few of his games with Worcester. If he is not on the radar for a few NHL teams, he should be. They have an opportunity to see if he can keep it up as the season progresses, and if he does he might be able to provide spot fourth line or checking duty down the stretch and in the playoffs. I would not even say using him as a depth forward in San Jose would be out of the question.
Talking about dropping into the perfect situation: he would have a chance to win a Stanley Cup ring for the thumb. If Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan are impressed with his play moving forward, it is an option, albeit a longshot one. The fact that defenseman Kyle McLaren, who is playing in Worcester along with Lemieux, has not been picked up by another NHL team makes me question a few of the other NHL general managers or capologists.
PLANK (SJ): When I first heard the news, the New York Times and TSN made it seem as if San Jose has signed him. Our roster is basically set, we're pressed up against the salary cap, the team was playing well, I didn't really understand what Doug Wilson was thinking. Then it came out that Worcester (pronounced Woo-ster, like if Ric Flair said it) were the ones who gave him the deal. I think it might be more of a ticket-revenue situation more than anything, but you never know.
I doubt we'll see him with the big club this year. Unless we meet Detroit in the playoffs. Couldn't you see it now? Lemieux drops down from the rafters done up like Sting (white facepaint, leather jacket, baseball bat, the whole bit), while Kris Draper can't believe his eyes. Darren McCarty comes running out of the locker room steel chair in hand and proceeds to challenge Claude to a match, "RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!" The lights in the arena go out, everyone screams, they pop back on, everyone screams, and all you see is the leather jacket laid across McCarty who's face down at center ice. The Red Wings are shaken, HP Pavilion is jacked, and it's game on. What? Crazier things have happened.
CHEN (SJ): Eh, I raised an eyebrow but I didn't think Doug Wilson had lost his marbles like some people did. Wilson explicitly said that this wasn't at all like the Jeremy Roenick situation and it was just an opportunity to get Lemieux skating with a pro team while mentoring some of the guys in Worcester. I'll say this -- I think Wilson and McLellan are smart enough to recognize the chemistry they've got on their team and on the off chance that Lemieux gets called up to fill in, it will be done after a LOT of thinking. But I doubt you'll see Claude in the NHL this season.
Finally, your prediction for Thursday night's game:
CHIEF (DET): San Jose-5, Detroit-3. And, yeah, that's the first time that's ever happened.
MALIK (DET): Predictions usually come back to bite the predictor, especially if one makes them with braggadocio. I'm taking the Wings by a one-goal margin, and hope that the boys measure up to both the Sharks and their own high expectations. They may as well start making positive proclamations to the rest of the league in these statement games.
SWENSON (SJ): I would be impressed if San Jose can shut down Detroit 1-0 or 2-1, but that is not they way they have been playing of late. The shoe is on the other foot for the Sharks, as they will playing at Columbus on Wednesday before meeting Detroit at the Joe on Thursday. Usually it is teams running a gauntlet of Anaheim or Los Angeles before they have to travel to HP Pavilion in San Jose. The schedule makers have also been kind without scheduling any long road trips for the Sharks save for a 5-game road trip in February while the SAP Open tennis tournament holds court in San Jose. Detroit will come out hard against the former Red Wing assistant coach Todd McLellan and the Sharks, but as they have all season San Jose will come from behind and eek out a win in a 5-4 shootout.
Also note that former San Jose Sharks event presentation coordinator Ayron Sequeria is now the Executive Producer of Event Entertainment for the Detroit Red Wings. When you watch the game on TV or from the stands, the person helping to create the game atmosphere also helped this blog to create a lot of content without stepping on any toes in San Jose.
PLANK (SJ): Expect more rubber being thrown around than Sigma Chi's annual year end bash. As for predictions, none tonight. Grab the battle axe and let's get this thing underway.
CHEN (SJ): 4-3 Sharks win in overtime.