Sharks lose game 5; Series gets really “interesting”

Tough game tonight on many levels, and while frustrating to watch the Sharks lose, if you take a step back and watch the game as a hockey fan, I (at least) thought it was a really hard-fought, tough, really fun game by two teams playing “no tomorrow” hockey.

The score notwithstanding, I think the Sharks won the first two periods with some margin; if you look at the shot count and the tom of possession in the offensive zone, you see the ice slanted the Sharks way.

If you look at blocked shots, if you look at goals scored, if you look at Toskala’s save percentage (wince), you’ll see that what edmonton did was defend the defensive zone wonderfully, force turnovers, and stuff them down Toskala’s throat. I’m sure some folks will disagree with me (I heard a few of them in the parking lot leaving tonight), but in my mind, Toskala had NO chance on ANY goal scored on him. Period. None. A few of them were so bad that the Oilers scored them and then looked at each other with a “this is too easy” look, acting almost embarrassed to celebrate a goal like that. So I don’t criticize Toskala at all; I could have played goal tonight and the result would have been mostly the same — because the “normal” shots were generally low percentage, and the goals were tip-ins. there was very little middle ground where Toskala made any real difference, but he made the saves he could.

What I’m seeing right now is two very evenly matched teams — except in one key way.

Experience.

What I’m seeing is an Oiler team where the veterans better understand what it takes to succeed at this time of the season; they’re forcing turnovers, they’re pressuring players, they’re causing mistakes, and they’re causing players to try too hard at the wrong time, or move too fast, or think too much. The youth of the Sharks has finally caught up to the team; guys like Pronger and Smith and Smyth and Moreau and Peca — they know the war, they understand, at a gut level, how they need to sell-out to win the game — because they’ve been there.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood here. Both teams are selling out, pretty much every shift. There isn’t a Shark that isn’t living that gut-check every time they hit the ice. The difference is very subtle, but key: the Oilers already know how deep they have to dig to get what they want, and they have the veteran experience helping them navigate the pressures of “no tomorrow” hockey at this level. The Sharks are, in many cases, learning those lessons as they play.

Now, the Sharks have shown themselves to be a real quick study, whether they can find that next level in time for game 6, I dunno. Most teams, honestly, I wouldn’t give much chance at all at recovering from going from 2-0 to 3-2, but I think the Sharks have about a 30% chance of winning game 6, and if they do, game 7 is a crapshoot.

There’s very little criticism you’ll hear from me about the Sharks right now: this turnaround in the series isn’t about what the Sharks are doing wrong; they’re doing very little wrong. It’s about what Edmonton is doing right, and what Edmonton is forcing the Sharks to do. And it is some pretty damn good hockey.

Reffing tonight was McCreary and Joannette. Paul Devorski was in the wings watching the proceedings, so I’m guessing he gets game 6 (little Devorski was one of the linesman tonight, the other was Pierre Racicot). I’ll admit up front that Joannette wasn’t on my list of refs for the 2nd round, and isn’t really high on my list of refs I want to see, and I think HIS relative inexperience tonight impacted the game somewhat. The Oilers were a grumpy bunch (well, gee, what a surprise), and I felt they were allowed too much physical work around the slot early, which set a tone and also allowed tempers to build, and eventually start leaking out around the seams. There were two situations (both when Joannette was the deep ref) that I felt were callable actions in the slot that were allowed to go on; once they were defined as “acceptable play”, the Oilers started taking greater liberties, while the Sharks got grumpy in return and started pushing back — and that’s when the post-whistle scrums started. Roloson took the brunt of the sideshow on more than one occasion, and things just shifted from solid physical play to, well, the kind of hockey I hate, but which Tom Benjamin keeps professing he loves; stickwork, face washing, post-whistle rugby matches, and all of those things that happen when referees let tempers get out of hand by not calling appropriate penalties.

Of course, the next phase of those kinds of games also happened, later in the third: the refs start calling TOO many penalties, in an attempt to keep the game from spinning completely out of control and moving from rugby to “west side story”. Since in the third period the Sharks were struggling to hang on and get back in it, most of those penalties went against them. That, of course, just escalated tempers on the Sharks side further; the 5-3 where both Bernier and Michalek went at the same time was the end result of that, and successfully took the heart out of San Jose (as well as any chance of a last minute rally); the penalties were deserved — but a better reffed game would have prevented them by managing tempers better in the first and second period, when they were capable of being managed.

And I’m not saying that Joannette did a bad job of reffing; I think both teams were equally pissed off, and pissed off at both refs at the end of the game; to me, that’s the sign of a fairly called game. But I do think Joanette’s inexperience impacted the game the same was Matt Carle’s did, or Josh Gorge’s: he’s still figuring out what it takes to ref at this time of the year, and it created a rougher game than it needed to be.

(and this is where hockey “pundits” really piss me off, the old “I don’t want a referee to decide the game” crap. A referee ALWAYS decides the game — on every play where they make a decision whether to call a penalty or not, how they choose impacts the game; by NOT calling a penalty, or by calling it, they are choosing to side with one team or the other for that play; when referees choose to NOT call a penalty, they are siding with the player initiating an action; therefore, they’re encouraging that action to be taken, and repeated.

So the reality is, the referee is the one who chooses which player can decide a game; when referrees put the whistle away, they aren’t “letting the players decide” they are biasing the game towards physical play instead of skill play. And who are you paying to see play, anyway? Thornton and Pronger? or Laraque and Parker?

The new reffing setup isn’t perfect: anything based on subjective calls by human beings will make mistakes (except postings in this blog, of course), but the reason I support it is that the league has finally gotten serious about biasing action back towards the talent players on a team, instead of the grinders and holders and interference-mongers of the world. It is their JOB to “be the mommy” and not let bullies bully. Which fans love, as long as it’s the other team’s bully being sent to the box…. Me, I love watching the skill players skate; if the Sharks lose, I can’t wait to see pronger and selanne battle; compare that to, oh, the year the Panthers ran for the cup; you tell me who’s more fun to watch…. Think about that the next time you gripe at the ref…)

Sharks have a couple of days before the next “no tomorrow” day. It’ll be interesting to see how they regroup, what changes are made to take on the Oilers at home. Edmonton just has to keep bringing it on; they’ve won three straight facing their “no tomorrow” day, and are showing some serious gut-check ability the Sharks still need to learn. The only question left is simple: how fast can the Sharks kids grow up?

We’ll know Wednesday.