Saturday, April 23, 2011

Stanley Cup playoffs looking like shootout

Are the San Jose Sharks on steroids?

Does the NHL have a problem with performance-enhancing drugs?

I’m being facetious but has anyone noticed that pucks are going into the net at an alarming rate in the opening round of these Stanley Cup playoffs? The red light is coming on more than the traffic signals outside AT&T Park.

On Saturday night, the San Jose Sharks launched 52 shots on goal at L.A. Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick and no one blinked. As Patrick Marleau put it, “We keep throwing the rubber at him.”

Traditionally, Stanley Cup playoff games are as close and tight as the restrooms in airplanes.
Teams that get early leads protect them like Colonel Sanders and the secret spices.

“Goaltenders have got to win a game for you in the playoffs,” said Kings coach Terry Murray. “It’s been that way for 50 years. This is the way it is.”

Not this year. Playoff games thus far have been as loaded as Charlie Sheen. Hot goaltenders who stand on their heads have given way to white hot wingers with heat-seeking pucks on their sticks.

The Tampa Bay Lightning scored eight goals in Game Five of their series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Chicago Blackhawks scored seven goals in Game Four of their series with the Vancouver Canucks.

The Sharks scored six goals in consecutive games, Game Three and Game Four, of their series with the Kings, a team that prides itself on defense.

“They come in waves that team,” Murray said of the Sharks.

Waves? The Phoenix Coyotes must have thought the Detroit Red Wings were a tsunami in their first-round playoff series. The Wings scored 18 goals in their four-game sweep.

The Sharks, meanwhile, have trailed by at least three goals in three games of their series with the Kings yet somehow still lead said series. They are playing dangerously.

“All of a sudden you’ve got to score 4-5 goals to win and it wears on you mentally,” said the Sharks’ Ryane Clowe.

But, physically, the Sharks have shown they can do it and the Kings know they can’t be too careful.

“They have a strong belief they can win with two, maybe three (goals),” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said.

That was the trend in Stanley Cup playoffs past. Score first and let your defense protect the lead, as meager as it might be.

Not now. There has been only one 1-0 game so far in these Stanley Cup playoffs and only five games when the winning team has scored two goals. There were nine last year in the opening round.

On consecutive nights, the Sharks overcame a four-goal deficit to win and the Washington Capitals overcame a three-goal deficit in the third period to win.

Hence, no lead is safe anymore. No goaltender is guaranteed to stay between the pipes from one game to the next. McLellan is seriously considering putting Thomas Griess in goal in place of Antti Niemi who was supposed to do for the Sharks in the playoffs what Evengi Nabovov didn’t. Come up big.

This puts the pressure on the Sharks to score more to compensate for a shaking goaltender and a thus far three sets of unreliable defensivemen.

Yet that is how this playoff series and, in fact, most playoff series are playing out right now. Every team seems to be taking more risks for the sake of scoring enough goals to win because one or two or three don’t cut it anymore.

The Sharks naturally are on edge.

Said McLellan: “We tend to play better when we’re not comfortable.”

And with scoring up in the playoffs no team is completely comfortable. This where is where the rubber meets the road to the Stanley Cup Finals. Fire at will.


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