Monday, December 31, 2007

Midseason awards

With half the 2007-08 NHL season over, it's time to hand out first-half awards. In terms of statistical distinctions, Vincent Lecavalier is the first-half Art Ross Trophy champion, Ilya Kovalchuk is our half-year Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy winner and Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek share the William Jennings Trophy through half the season. Now, my picks for the more interesting trophies:

Hart Trophy -- Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit. This season more than ever, the Hart Trophy is a decidedly difficult pick. Players that have been some of the brighter lights this season (Vincent Lecavalier, Ilya Kovalchuk) are tearing it up for teams out of playoff position, while the likes of Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla are playing well, albeit for clubs struggling to claw their way to eighth place. In such a scenario, the primary option is to choose the best player on the best team, and that's Lidstrom. The ageless wonder for the dominant, first-place Red Wings proved on a recent road stretch more than ever why he's so invaluable: despite injuries to key forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom, the Wings continued to run up the score against solid opposition, largely thanks to Lidstrom. With a gorgeous +29 that leads all defensemen in the NHL, Lidstrom is on pace for an impressive 75 points along with his usual share of rock-solid defense. On a mesmerizing team loaded with stars, Lidstrom, at least through the first half of the season, has been the standout. Runners-up: Dany Heatley, Ottawa; Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit.

Vezina Trophy -- Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose. It's been 38 games, 38 starts for the Russian netminder. On a grossly underachieving Sharks team, Nabokov has, many nights, been the lone bright spot, bailing the team out with key saves and being an integral cog in the Sharks' second-ranked penalty kill. And with a fairly nondescript defense corps, it's Nabokov who deserves most of the credit for San Jose's 87 goals against, second least in the NHL. After a few years of sharing his crease with Vesa Toskala, Nabokov has thrived in the Finn's absence with play reminiscent of ex-Shark netminder Miikka Kiprusoff's Vezina season with the Flames two years ago. Runners-up: Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers; Roberto Luongo, Vancouver; Pascal Leclaire, Columbus.

Norris Trophy -- Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit. After picking Lidstrom for the Hart Trophy, it's hard to justify giving the Norris to anyone else. For many of the same reasons I believe Nick to be the league MVP through the first half, he has also been the most outstanding defenseman, but not without competition. Sergei Zubov is enjoying a career rejuvenation with the overachieving Stars, while Chris Phillips has quietly been a big reason why Ottawa leads the Eastern Conference. Runners-up: Sergei Zubov, Dallas; Chris Phillips, Ottawa.

Lester B. Pearson Award -- Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta. While the Pearson tends to be misinterpreted as league MVP as voted on by the players, the actual criteria is the league's most outstanding player. And noone has been more outstanding than Ilya Kovalchuk. With 32 goals in 39 games, Kovalchuk is on pace to become the league's first 60-goal scorer since Mario Lemieux pulled it off eleven years ago. Runners-up: Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay; Jarome Iginla, Calgary.

Selke Trophy -- Sami Pahlsson, Anaheim. As difficult as it is to quantify a good defensive forward, Pahlsson is easily the best in the game. He was robbed of a Selke (and arguably a Conn Smythe) last year, and after getting a close-up look at his play during the Sharks' recent three-game mini-series against the Ducks in which he kept Thornton completely off the scoresheet, I'm confident, at least through the season's first half, Pahlsson deserves the Selke this year. Runners-up: Patrick Sharp, Chicago; Mike Fisher, Ottawa.

Lady Byng Trophy -- Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit. With just 18 penalty minutes on the season as a defenseman along with his usual role as ambassador for the game, Lidstrom, through one-half of the season, is the frontrunner for what has unfortunately come to be known as hockey's least desirable award. Runners-up: Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa; Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit.

Calder Trophy -- Patrick Kane, Chicago. It's quite likely that the influx of rookie talent in the NHL the last few years is unparalleled by any such advent of talent in league history. This year's rookie class is just as distinguished, headline by the deadly duo of rookies leading the resurgence in Chicago. Although Toews will likely be more of an impact player in the future, Kane has torn it up this season, scoring 36 points in 37 games, tops among rookies. While Kane has been the top rookie through the first half of the season, Toews, Atlanta's Tobias Enstrom, Washington's Nicklas Backstrom and Montreal's Carey Price have all staked their claims to the Calder Trophy as well, which sould make for an intriguing race down the stretch. Runners-up: Jonathan Toews, Chicago; Tobias Enstrom, Atlanta.

Jack Adams Award -- Mike Babcock, Detroit. After losing their entire second line along with defenseman Mathieu Schneider to free agency and beginning the season with an injury to goaltender Dominik Hasek, not many in the hockey world could have predicted that the Red Wings, halfway through the season, would have a stranglehold on the top spot in the West. While Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk certainly have been big parts of that, Mike Babcock is most deserving of the Jack Adams at this point of the season for his terrific work behind the bench in Detroit. Runners-up: Andy Murray, St. Louis; Claude Julien, Boston.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sharks Gameday: Third Time's the Charm?

I'm not too keen on game-day posts, but the Sharks' third and final matchup against the Anaheim Ducks in a week is shaping up to be the biggest of all on many different levels. The Sharks held a two-hour players-only meeting yesterday, no doubt to discuss the team's failures in the late stages of Thursday's debacle against Phoenix in which the Sharks gave up a tying goal with less than a minute to play on a shot by Shane Doan eerily reminiscent of the goal scored by former Red Wing Robert Lang last Spring to tie Game 4 in San Jose and turn the tide against the Sharks.

Earlier on in the season, many of the Sharks' defeats were due to the opposition lulling San Jose into a false sense of security, then pouncing for a goal or two and quickly tightening up the defense. While this method is still being employed against San Jose, as evidenced by the last meeting between the Ducks and Sharks Tuesday night, the Sharks now find themselves losing games in which they simply did not demonstrate a will to win, a trend that began two weeks ago against the Buffalo Sabres, continued last week against Dallas and recurred Thursday against the Coyotes. Simply wanting the victory isn't going to cut it against an upper echelon team like the Ducks, but it's certainly a good start.

But what the Sharks really need to beat this Anaheim team is production. Through four games this season against their Southern California rivals, the Sharks have potted a measly five goals (with one of them a shootout winner), a far cry from last season's total of eleven goals in their first four meetings against Anaheim. Their lack of secondary scoring has been their primary problem all season long, with Patrick Marleau turning invisible and Jonathan Cheechoo dogged by injuries, but uber-checker Sami Pahlsson has negated the Sharks' only overall form of putting the puck in the net: Joe Thornton. Tuesday night, at even strength alone, Pahlsson was on the ice for 11:30 of Thornton's 13:03 total 5-on-5 icetime. It is inexcusable that, despite having last change as the home team, Thornton spends that much time on the ice and that's decidedly a coaching problem. If Wilson can shield Thornton from Pahlsson's line and the recent line changes, which include a reuniting of the famed Michalek--Marleau--Bernier line, can finally create some secondary scoring, then I think the Sharks should have a good chance to win this one. If not, I think it's time for Ron and/or Doug Wilson to shake things up in order to inject some life back into this team before it's too late.

Photo: PJ Swenson, Sharkspage

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Live-bloggin': Sharks @ Anaheim, 12/16

So I'll be live-blogging tonight's game between the Sharks and Ducks, a contest mostly notable for Scott Niedermayer's 2006-07 debut. Doug Weight, whose acquisition from St. Louis in exchange for Andy McDonald on Friday was instrumental in freeing up tagging space for Niedermayer's return, is also slated to make his Ducks debut. The Sharks, meanwhile, are coming off a wildly entertaining, yet eventually dissapointing loss to Dallas, leaving them two points behind the Division-leading Stars, but with two games in hand. Almost every game between San Jose and Anaheim over the last year or so have had playoff-level atmosphere and with so many additional storylines in play tonight, this should really be a good one.

4:56 FSN Bay Area has opted to run "Best Damn Sports Show" re-runs in lieu of any form of pre-game show, so I suppose I'll share some insight before the game. Doug Wilson is indisputably one of the smartest general managers in the NHL, but the contract extension he handed Matt Carle last month is one he will likely live to regret. Carle has been spending the last week or so largely in the press box and when he does get into the action, like yesterday, he has been atrocious. Now sophomore slumps are far from uncommon, but Wilson's decision to extend Carle far before he even became an RFA seems questionable nonetheless. We'll see how the rest of the season plays out for him, but I believe this deal will shape up as one of the few low-lights in Wilson's managerial career.

5:03 Randy and Drew talk about the ridiculousness of the Ducks' defense. Mike Chen had a post earlier this week comparing the Ducks' top three of Chris Pronger, Niedermayer and Mathieu Schneider to the Avs defense of yore, which boasted Ray Bourque, Rob Blake and Adam Foote and that's certainly a fair comparison, but in my opinion, Anaheim's blueline is superior, especially when factoring in Francois Beauchemin and underrated stay-at-homer Sean O'Donnell. We'll get a first-ever look at this unit tonight. I'd assume Randy Carlyle would re-unite Beauchemin with Niedermayer, and allow Pronger a more stay-at-home role if paired with Schneider, but we'll see.

5:08 Nabokov will be making his 32nd straight start. 50 more to go, Nabby!

5:09 Apparently Ron Wilson reads this blog as Carle is a healthy scratch.

5:10 Nabokov's play with the puck early has been precarious. The Sharks are lucky Nabby's turnover to Corey Perry didn't result in something more significant.

5:13 Whereas the Sharks started with tremendous intensity and reckless abandon last game, it's been dump-and-chase hockey thus far in this one.

5:14 Alert the media! George Parros has shaved the mullet! I repeat, Parros is sans mullet! The stash is apparently still there, however.

5:15 Mathieu Schneider apparently still thinks he's in Detroit, attempting to play caroms off the board every other shift.

5:21 Goc has been looking far more like a former first-rounder in the last few games, centering a line with Patrick Marleau and Steve Bernier.

5:22 The most penalized team in the NHL will be heading back to the penalty box and the Sharks get their first power play of the night.

5:23 Michalek slashes Chris Pronger and that's the end of that man advantage.

5:27 Shane Hnidy gets owned by Rob Davison.

5:29 After the Sharks get a slew of chances in close on Giguere, Weight throws it to Bobby Ryan and it's 1-0 Anaheim.

5:30 Randy Hahn isn't having one of his better games at the booth. After referring to a Sharks' 4-on-4 chance as shorthanded and calling Steve Bernier Sandis Ozolinsh, Hahn used "A Ryane Clowe goal puts the Ducks up 1-0" as a segway into a commerical break.

5:32 These wireless poll questions are getting tiring. Tonight's asks a Sharks fan-dominated audience who will win the Pacific.

5:33 Sharks get their second power-play of the night with a great chance to tie the game.

5:36 A failure to get to the front of the net (or "penetrate the box" as Remenda puts it) renders the Sharks largely listless, but it looks like they'll get another chance with Corey Perry headed to the box.

5:38 Well, this is bullshit. Perry punches McLaren on the Sharks bench and somehow Sandis Ozolinsh ends up with the penalty. Insane.

5:41 Michalek is tripped up on a breakaway and is awarded a penalty shot.

5:42 A pathetic excuse for a penalty shot attempt by Michalek is stopped by Giguere but the Sharks will get their fourth power play of the period on a subsequent play.

5:44 The bulk of the man-advantage time, however, will come in the second period as the first period ends with the Ducks holding a 1-0 lead. The Sharks didn't show much semblance of the urgency that was their MO against Dallas, but they limited the Ducks to very few scoring chances.

6:02 Second period about to get underway and the Sharks will start with about 1:51 of power play time. This would be an opportune moment for the Sharks to get on the board.

6:05 Another horrible power play that generates far more chances for Anaheim than San Jose.

6:07 Ducks showing terrific jump in the second period and have dominated San Jose. The Sharks need to start getting bodies to the net rather than the incessant dump-in strategy RW seems to be employing.

6:09 Michalek takes a high-sticking penalty and the Ducks' power play is back on the ice.

6:11 SCOOOOOOREEEEE!!! Torrey Mitchell with a beautiful highlight-reel goal. Mitchell is shaping up to be a Duck-killer with three goals in three career games against Anaheim, this one coming shorthanded. It's 1-1.

Bertuzzi gets called for holding to neutralize the remainder of the Ducks' power play.

6:15 Sharks' power play has looked even more futile than usual tonight, but it looks like they'll get a brief 5-on-3 here.

6:20 The Sharks had their chances, but came up empty on the double minor to Marchant.

6:22 For not having played for the Ducks before tonight, Doug Weight is developing tremendous chemistry with Bobby Ryan and Todd Bertuzzi.

6:33 Kyle McLaren and Corey Perry, who have been going at it all night, threaten to drop the gloves, with Travis Moen coming in for Anaheim and Evgeni Nabokov inexplicably throwing a punch or two at Perry. Suffice to say, things are starting to heat up.

6:37 Sharks end up with a power play after all that, which will carry over to the third period. Overall, a solid second period for San Jose, although they weren't able to generate many more chances than the Mitchell goal. It stays 1-1 heading into the third.

6:55 Sharks get a Craig Rivet shot to the net early on the power play but are having more setup trouble.

7:00 The Sharks have certainly shown more jump in the third period, but it's been fruitless so far.

7:06 Bernier with a near-breakaway, but the Sharks forward opts to curl back at the blueline rather inexplicably.

7:13 Scott Niedermayer will take a trip to the penalty box after hooking Milan Michalek and the Sharks' listless power play will take the ice for a sixth time.

7:16 A much better looking power play yields solid chances by Milan Michalek and Joe Pavelski.

7:19 What was arguably the best Sharks power play of the night ended without a goal, but it looks like they'll be going back on the man advantage.

7:22 Apparently it's the Ducks who will be going on the power play, but their man advantage has been equally fruitless tonight.

7:28 For the third consecutive Sharks-Ducks contest, we'll go to overtime as Nabokov overturned a flurry of Ducks chances late in regulation. The Sharks looked to have some momentum generating directly preceding that final push by Anaheim, but this is decidedly a poor outcome for the Sharks, who, with the exception of a shootout win in Dallas earlier this season, have been futile in games that go to the extra period.

7:31 Both teams with great chances early in overtime, but both goalies have stood strong thus far.

7:36 Horrible play by the Sharks late in overtime and they'll like be punished with a shootout loss. If I'm Ron Wilson, I go completely off the charts with something like Rob Davison, Torrey Mitchell and Steve Bernier. The usual fare of Patrick Marleau, Milan Michalek et al has not even remotely cut it this season. We'll see what RW does.

7:40 Todd Bertuzzi will shoot first for Anaheim. A beastly backhand puts the Ducks up 1-0 in the shootout.

7:41 Torrey Mitchell fails to respond for the Sharks and the Ducks have a chance to take a stranglehold on this shootout.

7:42 Doug Weight is stoned by Evgeni Nabokov and it stays 1-0.

7:43 JoePa goes five-hole and it's 1-1.

7:43 Ryan Getzlaf hits the post and the Sharks can win on a goal by Setoguchi.

7:43 Giguere makes the save to prolong the shootout.

7:44 Corey Perry with a great goal cutting wide initially and the Ducks take a 2-1 lead.

7:44 MARLEAU! And the Sharks tie the shootout 2-2.

7:45 Bobby Ryan's shot goes a country mile wide.

7:45 Rissmiller stopped on his first career shootout attempt.

7:45 Chris Kunitz shoots the puck wide once again.

7:46 BIG JOE!!!! And the Sharks win a game that they performed rather underwhelmingly in. Definitely a huge win for the Sharks. It pulls them back into a tie with Dallas for the division lead with the chance to build a lead upon the Stars when the Ducks visit San Jose on Tuesday. It certainly wasn't an all-around great effort, but the Sharks got it done and win just their second shootout of the season.