Antti Niemi, Roberto Luongo

What Went Wrong: San Jose Sharks

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Another year, another playoffs ends with the San Jose Sharks getting bounced out unceremoniously in the Western Conference finals. This time the Sharks were bounced out in five games by the Vancouver Canucks and while it didn’t play out like the butt whooping a five game series might dictate it to be, the Sharks still had their share of problems that forced them to miss out on another opportunity to make the Stanley Cup finals. Making it this far in the playoffs is an accomplishment, but for San Jose they’re continued bridesmaid status in the West is getting a bit old. So what went wrong for the Sharks? We’ve got some ideas.

1. They couldn’t stop the Sedin line
Their first problem and their biggest problem was that they couldn’t do anything to contain Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, and Alex Burrows. Those three combined for 24 points in this series alone with Henrik getting 12 of them (one goal, 11 assists). Getting picked apart essentially by one line and one defenseman (Kevin Bieksa and his four goals this series) shows that either those guys were that much better or a total lack of defensive ability and accountability to keep up with those guys.

Then again, getting beaten by your opponents best players when they’re the better team shouldn’t be that big of a deal but given how the Sedins were shutdown by Nashville (Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were indeed that good), perhaps a little more videotape scouting would’ve worked for the Sharks.

2. Defense not nearly physical enough
One major issue for San Jose is that they flat out weren’t physical enough to slow down the Canucks. While Douglas Murray served to be an imposing figure and dished out some monstrous hits of his own (18 in the series to be exact) the next few players that got physical were forwards. Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi each were credited with 11 hits while Dany Heatley and Jamal Mayers were credited with ten each. The next best defensemen with hits were Niclas Wallin with nine and Marc-Edouard Vlasic with seven.

That lack of physicality along the blue line proved to be a problem in their own end because when you give guys like the Sedins the time and space to cycle they’re going to find ways to beat you. Sure enough that’s just what they did. Visions of the Sedins passing and skating circles around the Sharks zone should be enough to give Sharks GM Doug Wilson nightmares enough to do something about that during the offseason. Douglas Murray can do a lot of things but he can’t contain twins on his own.

3. Thornton and Marleau step up while others stepped back
It’s eerily similar how things played out in this year’s Western final as compared to last year’s that saw the Sharks bounced in four games. Last year Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle were the only two Sharks players to do anything against the Blackhawks with Marleau scoring five goals and adding one assist while Boyle had five assists. This year it was all about Marleau, Boyle, and Joe Thornton.

Marleau had five goals and two assists against Vancouver while Thornton had a goal and five assists while Boyle had a goal and four helpers. Everyone else? Virtually non-existent.

Dany Heatley was an abject nightmare offensively adding just one assist during this series. He was so bad he was bumped down to the third line where he played better as a checking forward than he did as a guy meant to score goals. Considering he makes $7.5 million a year, he’s brutally overpaid to do that kind of work. Joe Pavelski has had his struggles since the first round and had just three assists against Vancouver. Devin Setoguchi only found the net once in this series after terrorizing the Red Wings and it took a risky play from Roberto Luongo to help make that happen. Rookie phenom Logan Couture was invisible for most of the series and even playoff-long hero Ryane Clowe had just two goals against the Canucks. With that sort of erratic help, it was the guys with the most belabored reputations that were left hanging once again in the Western Conference finals.

Marleau and Thornton historically get crap thrown their way for not playing big in the playoffs, but this time around they were let down by their teammates. For Marleau it’s especially painful as he took a beating for not playing big enough against Detroit for the second year in a row only to be one of the only guys to show up in the following round. Life is tough that way.

4. Antti Niemi wasn’t good enough
It’s tough when a goalie doesn’t have a lot of action to face over the course of a game and that’s certainly the case for Antti Niemi against Vancouver. Over the five games in the series, Niemi faced 153 shots, good for just over 30 shots per game. While that amount of work might seem healthy, the last few games saw Niemi lulled to sleep by the patient Vancouver attack. Niemi faced 38 shots in each of the first two games, 30 in Game 3, 13 (!) in Game 4, and 34 through four and a half periods in Game 5.

Niemi allowed 20 goals in the series giving him a 3.68 goals against average and an abysmal .869 save percentage, including seven goals against in Game 2. Those kinds of numbers aren’t going to win you anything in the playoffs. For as good as Niemi was against the Red Wings, he reverted back to the form he had against the Kings in the first round. That sort of play nearly cost the Sharks that opening round series and against a superior Canucks team, the writing was on the wall.

***

The Sharks have a good thing going there but they’ll need to make some small changes to be able to get out of the Western Conference next year. They’ll need to get a little tougher on defense, they’ll need to find a way to properly motivate Dany Heatley into being a full time scoring threat. Perhaps a little heart-to-heart with Patrick Marleau there would do wonders as Marleau, outside of the Detroit series, was great all season long. People will want to fully blame goaltending but Antti Niemi is solid there and more than capable of leading a winner. The Sharks will be back next year and while the playoff loser tag will hang around them, someday it’ll all come together.

Video: AHL’s Iowa Wild and Chicago Wolves brawl on … and off the ice

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The AHL’s Iowa Wild and Chicago Wolves engaged in a brawl that eventually spilled out into a hallway at the Allstate Arena on Saturday — the same day the cult classic movie ‘Slap Shot’ apparently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its release.

Talk about timing.

A line brawl broke out on the ice between the Wolves and Wild with less than three minutes remaining in the third period of Saturday’s game. But the fighting didn’t end there. Video highlights show several players, still in full gear, involved shortly after in an altercation off the ice.

Video shows Vince Dunn of the Wolves and Kurtis Gabriel trading punches off the ice before Gabriel is knocked to the ground and more players — and staff in the arena — intervene.

It looked like Dunn was on his way to the dressing room when Gabriel came over, leading to their off-ice bout.

The incident is sure to result in supplementary discipline from the AHL.

These teams, which combined for 70 penalty minutes Saturday, meet again Sunday. So, that could be interesting — to say the least.

Canucks GM Benning says mumps outbreak won’t impact trade deadline plans

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24: Jim Benning of the Vancouver Canucks attends round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Let’s set the scene for what the Vancouver Canucks were facing Saturday:

— On Friday, it was announced the team was dealing with an outbreak of the mumps. Rookie defenseman Troy Stecher was the first confirmed case and four others — Chris Tanev, Nikita Tryamkin, Markus Granlund and Mike Chaput — were all showing symptoms.

— Currently out of a playoff spot, the Canucks were facing the Pacific Division-leading Sharks.

— The Canucks were playing their first game out of the bye week and many other teams have struggled in the first game back from their mandated week off.

— The trade deadline is looming and the Canucks are expected to be sellers next week.

Pressure is growing in Vancouver ahead of the trade deadline, especially after last year’s debacle. The Canucks had a 1.3 per cent chance of making the playoffs before Saturday’s 4-1 loss to San Jose. The playoff dream is over. It has been for a long time. But the Canucks do have veteran players — the names Alex Burrows, Jannik Hansen and Ryan Miller have been brought up — other teams in contention might be willing to trade for, which would help Vancouver add draft picks or perhaps even some quality prospects.

In an interview with TSN 1040 on Friday, GM Jim Benning admitted he’s asked players with no-trade clauses to submit a list of teams they would accept a trade to ahead of the deadline.

From the Vancouver Sun:

Winger Alex Burrows, a 12-year-Canuck who like Miller is due to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, will draw trade interest but can veto a move with his NTC.

Not so Miller and Hansen, who can limit Benning’s trade field but cannot fully prevent a deal.

Miller, 36, submitted a list of five teams he can be traded to, while Hansen was required to identify eight potential trade destinations.

Now, how will this recent mumps outbreak impact Benning’s plans leading up to Wednesday?

“I don’t know if it will have any effect on that or not,” Benning said in his radio interview.

“This happened to other teams a few years ago and once the players go through the five-day incubation period, they’re fine. And so they can keep playing. I don’t think it will have any effect on that.”

Despite their playoff hopes hanging by a thread and a lineup with three AHL call-ups in Alex Grenier, Joseph LaBate and Evan McEneny, the Canucks somehow kept this close until midway through the third period.

LaBate planted Melker Karlsson with a hit and was eventually challenged to a fight in the third period. Karlsson left the game but did return for the third period.

At times, they actually outplayed the visitors through two periods but couldn’t find the lead and eventually the Sharks took over in the third period. Patrick Marleau gave them the lead late in the second period and Mikkel Boedker essentially put it out of reach.

For the Canucks, there was another case of illness Saturday.

Defenseman Luca Sbisa left the game and didn’t return with what the club said was a stomach flu, although given the situation in Vancouver, it will be worth monitoring to see if that diagnosis changes.

Crosby, Penguins deliver blow to Flyers’ playoff chances in Stadium Series

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PITTSBURGH — The first time the Pittsburgh Penguins played a game at Heinz Field, Sidney Crosby was on top of the NHL and having one of the most dominant offensive seasons in recent history. That was the game he was on the receiving end of the Dave Steckel hit that started the chain of events that basically cost him two of the prime years of his career.

The Heinz Field experience was significantly better for him and the Penguins this time around.

Crosby opened the scoring midway through the first period with his league-leading 34th goal of the season — finishing a slick feed from rookie forward Jake Guentzel — to help lead the Penguins to a 4-2 in the 2017 NHL Stadium Series game.

“We were thrilled for him,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan when asked about Crosby scoring a goal in his return to Heinz Field.

“I am sure the experience of coming back here probably brought back some memories that he probably would like to forget. So to have a night like tonight, and an opportunity to play in such an exciting venue and start the game off the way he did, it did probably just helped him put that experience behind and move forward. I thought he played a solid game, his line was really good all night long and he scored a huge goal for us.”

Crosby’s goal is only part of the story in this one.

Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chad Ruhwedel also scored goals in the win, while Matt Murray stopped 35 of the 37 shots he faced.

First, for Pittsburgh, it was a huge win given the status of an undermanned defense that was playing without three of its top players. With Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta already sidelined, they were also without Kris Letang on Saturday night due to an upper body injury that currently has him listed as day-to-day. That meant they had to rely significantly on their depth.

Ron Hainsey, playing in his debut with the team after being acquired in a trade earlier this week from the Carolina Hurricanes, played more than 20 minutes in the win, including more than three minutes on the penalty kill. They also received a huge goal from Ruhwedel in the third period to help put the game away.

It wasn’t a flawless effort by the group (37 shots against illustrates that) but considering who was out of the lineup and the situation they were facing it was a huge performance to remain ahead of the New York Rangers for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division and improve their record to 7-1-3 in their past 11 games.

Things are not quite as optimistic for the Flyers at the moment.

The loss on Saturday is a pretty damaging blow to their already fading playoff chances as they remain five points out of a playoff spot — with three teams ahead of them — with only 21 games to go.

They are also just 9-16-4 in their past 29 games since their 10-game winning streak ended on Dec. 14.

“It’s a tough result, walking away,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol after the game. “It’s a pretty close, tight hockey game where I thought our team played well, battled extremely well, and did a lot of good things but we walk away with the wrong result.”

That has happened a lot lately for the Flyers.

So why are they not getting the results? Well, the problem on Saturday was a familiar one for the Flyers — goaltending and defensive zone breakdowns.

Crosby’s goal to open the scoring was the result of a breakdown in defensive zone coverage that allowed the game’s best offensive player to be left wide open along the side of the net for an easy one-timer. Even though Michal Neuvirth didn’t have much of a chance on that play, he didn’t exactly play a strong game, allowing four goals on 29 shots.

The Matt Cullen goal to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead in the third period was a particularly tough one for Neuvirth to give up.

It is already the 10th time in 24 games this season he has given up at least three goals in a game, while his save percentage on the season remains well below the .890 mark. For a goalie that was one of the best values in the league last season in terms of performance and salary cap hit, it has been a massive regression this season.

Even though the results are not going their way at the moment Hakstol remains convinced the team is doing the right things and that the key to turning things around is just sticking with what they are doing.

“Couple little things within the game tonight,” said Hakstol. “We haven’t been able to score a whole lot. There has been a lot made of that, and fairly so. You look at the opportunities tonight, the type of opportunities we generate were pretty reasonable. You have to stick with it. We have gone through a tough stretch here, but for the vast majority we have played some pretty good hockey and we need to stick with it. We have to stay together as we have and we have to keep pushing the envelope.”

The Flyers are back in action on Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche.

A bye week hangover? Not for the Blue Jackets

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 20:  Nick Foligno #71 of the Columbus Blue Jackets warms up prior to the start of the game against the Los Angeles Kings on December 20, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Josh Anderson and Nick Foligno each scored twice, sending the Columbus Blue Jackets to a 7-0 romp over the New York Islanders on Saturday.

The high-energy Blue Jackets didn’t show any rust in their first game back following their five-day break, unlike many teams that have struggled coming out of the bye week this season. Columbus scored three times in the first period, chasing New York goalie Thomas Greiss.

David Savard had a goal and three assists, Boone Jenner and Jack Johnson also scored and backup goaltender Joonas Korpisalo stopped all 24 shots for the Blue Jackets, who ended New York’s three-game winning streak. Columbus has a comfortable hold on the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, while the Islanders are in a tight race for the final playoff berth.

Related:

NHL wants ‘two dedicated weeks’ for bye weeks next season

The NHL’s bye week experiment is still a work in progress

Greiss stopped 14 of 17 shots in the first period. His replacement, Jean-Francois Berube, saved 24 of 28.

Johnson got Columbus started when his shot from the point bounced off the skate of New York’s Nick Leddy and through Greiss’ pads 5:19 into the game.

Later in the first period, Cam Atkinson‘s shot from the left circle was stopped by Greiss, but the rebound trickled back out from between his legs and a charging Jenner tapped it in.

Foligno capped the first-period barrage when he deked the goalie and scored on a backhand.

The Blue Jackets outshot the Islanders 17-9 in the period, leading to Greiss’ benching.

Anderson kept it going 4:31 into the second with a sharp one-timer from the high slot off Jenner’s pass. Late in the period, Anderson got another one when he picked the pocket of defender Thomas Hickey in the neutral zone and launched a rocket past Berube from the right circle.

The highlight-reel goals continued in the third period when an airborne pass from Savard found Foligno for a breakaway 6:06 in. Savard got the seventh goal with 6 1/2 minutes left.