Five Thoughts: Ben Eager’s rough night emblematic of Sharks struggles

3 Comments

Game 2 brought more of the same for the Sharks against Vancouver that we saw in Game 1. For the Sharks that means a lot of bad things. Slow-footed defensive play, bad reads and reactions, and uncovered MVP-type players around the ice. Throw in the careless penalties and you’ve got an even uglier result. Of course there’s plenty to carve up after such a display in the Canucks 7-3 Game 2 win so let’s just get to it.

1. Ah, Ben Eager. Never before has a fourth line part-time goon made such an impression in the playoffs. After Eager’s brutal Game 2 performance that saw him nearly single-handedly derail San Jose’s chances, it’s tough to think that we’ll see him again in Game 3. After all, when you take six penalties worth 20 minutes in the box, including a late 10-minute misconduct you’re not really generating a lot of goodwill for your team. Two of Eager’s minor penalties turned out to be killers in different ways.

Eager’s boarding call in the second period against Daniel Sedin came moments after Patrick Marleau dropped the gloves with Kevin Bieksa as a means to spark his team after Vancouver had taken a 3-2 lead. Eager’s dumb move in trying to gain some retaliation against one of the Canucks’ big guns turned out to be deflating. Eager’s tripping penalty against Mason Raymond in the third period ended up turning into a Chris Higgins power play goal that sparked a four goal third for Vancouver.

Add in his nonsensical celebrating after scoring on Roberto Luongo with 2:33 left in the game and being down by four and you’ve got yourself a perfect goat for everything that went wrong for San Jose. Eager’s actions all game long were the exact sorts of things the team doesn’t need when trying to beat the best team in the NHL. Coach Todd McLellan says Eager is 100% ready to go in Game 3 so it will be fasciating to see just what we get out of him there. He can’t possibly have a game worse than he did in Game 2… Can he?

2. One reason why the Canucks are the best in the league are the Sedin twins and over the first two games of this series, they’re showing just why they’re so dynamic. Daniel Sedin has 2 goals while Henrik has a goal and 4 assists through the first two games. They were brutally damaging on the power play in Game 2 and in Game 1 it was all about Henrik getting things done.

After a Nashville series that saw both guys get shut down hard they’re showing how vitally important Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were to the Predators success. Even the Sharks’ one “shutdown” guy Douglas Murray couldn’t keep up with the twins tonight. That doesn’t bode well for the future of the series for San Jose. The Sharks will have to figure out some kind of game plan to keep them quiet. Perhaps getting the last change at home will be the switch they need.

3. While frustrations will always bubble up in a game where you’re getting smacked around late, there’s something to be said of the lack of theatrics in Game 2. No diving, no flopping around, no over-selling of any calls or potential calls. Instead, we got more of the old school agitation from the Sharks. The late game scrums, Eager’s nonsense, and lots of chatter between everyone. The Sharks kept trying to push the Canucks buttons and the Canucks resisted everything.

More than a few times in this game things could’ve gotten ugly as the Sharks kept trying to goad Vancouver’s pests into doing something stupid and none of them took the bait. Instead, the Canucks’ stiff upper lip turned out to be all the agitation they needed as the Sharks continually made mistakes and took bad penalties. For all the rightful flack the Canucks get for their theatrics, their calm, cool reserve tonight makes them seem more dangerous.

4. The Sharks have shown in their previous four games that when the third period rolls around, their legs get tired and the game slows down for them. In Game 2, however, the slowdown started in the mid-second period. The Canucks started to lock down the pace of the game and the shot totals bear that out as Vancouver outshot San Jose 14-9 in the second and then 11-9 in the third. With things only getting worse as far as that goes, it’s tough to figure just what coach McLellan can do to get things right to make sure the Sharks don’t fall apart late in games.

5. Once again during the postgame the topic of certain players not getting it done came up for the Sharks. McLellan said that the time has approached to stop hiding who his problem players are and while he wouldn’t admit who he thinks they are, it’s up to us to figure that all out. Right now, the top candidates in need for an improvement are Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.

While the defense is having issues of their own, Heatley and Setoguchi haven’t produced offensively the way they’re both capable of. Setoguchi played great against Detroit but he’s been a total non-factor against Vancouver. Heatley’s been on and off most of the playoffs and the majority of that being mostly off. It’s a perpetual issue for him in the playoffs but if he can find that “on” switch at some point, the Sharks will be able to keep up better offensively.

Everything comes up Bruins on Saturday

2 Comments

Honestly, Zdeno Chara signing another team-friendly contract would have been enough to make Saturday great for the Boston Bruins, alone. But the good times didn’t stop there.

Nope, the Bruins carried those positive vibes to the ice, as they pummeled the Florida Panthers by a score of 7-3. In managing that lopsided win, the Bruins became the second team in the Eastern Conference to clinch a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A clinched spot and a big win to go with that Chara extension … that’s it, right? Nope, more fun stuff came when you zoomed into the specifics of the game.

For one thing, Chara celebrated his extended stay with the Bruins by scoring the 200th goal of his splendid NHL career, and it was a pretty nice one. (You can watch that milestone tally in the video above this post’s headline.)

Chara also had an assist in that win, so quite an all-around Saturday for “The Big Z.”

He wasn’t the only Bruins player to have a memorable evening, as Noel Acciari scored a goal and also threw punches at a gatling-gun-rhythm in quite the fight with MacKenzie Weegar:

*Infomercial voice* But wait, there’s more …

The Maple Leafs only managed a point against the struggling Rangers on Saturday, so now the Bruins hold a seven-point edge for the Atlantic’s second seed, and home-ice advantage in that looming first-round series.

While Toronto would be a tough opponent – warts and all – it must be tantalizing for the Bruins to picture what they might be capable of. After all, the B’s are starting to get healthier following a season of injury headaches, and they’re heating up considering their four-game winning streak.

They’re also an impressive 28-7-3 at home this season, so home ice could be pretty significant.

Yes, life was good for the Bruins on Saturday, and they aim to carry that over to most nights in April, and beyond.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

March Madness is theme of Hurricanes’ latest win celebration

Getty Images
2 Comments

When you think of March Madness, it won’t take long for the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels to come to your mind, especially if you’re living in the Carolinas. That apparently isn’t lost on the Carolina Hurricanes.

The team’s latest celebration evoked the NCAA’s beloved college basketball tournament, as the Hurricanes distanced themselves from the East’s bubble teams by thoroughly defeating (the very much West-bubble-dwelling) Minnesota Wild 5-1 on Saturday.

It was a great performance, with Teuvo Teravainen playing the role of MVP via one goal and two assists.

If Teravainen was the star, then call Trevor van Riemsdyk “The Human Hockey Highlight Reel,” as he showed some solid ups with his dunk during this fun celebration:

The Hurricanes are only going deeper into the “prop” stage of these win celebrations, and let me tell you: I’m all for it, and not just because it annoys the crustiest of crusty old hockey men.

Carolina now holds the first East wild-card spot with 89 points in 74 games played. The Montreal Canadiens are behind them in the second WC spot (87 points in 75 GP), making things only tenser for the struggling Blue Jackets, who remain out of the top eight with 84 points in 74 games played.

More and more, it looks like the Hurricanes will avoid another trip to hockey’s NIT (which would be the golf course, or maybe the hockey championship tournament overseas?), as their grip tightens on a playoff spot.

If things go really well, maybe the Hurricanes could celebrate a big win by cutting down the nets?

via Getty Images

Hey, they might as well file away ideas if they keep winning at this pace.

Jets dominate Predators, clinch playoff spot

2 Comments

This is basically how the Winnipeg Jets probably dreamed of clinching a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With Kyle Connor collecting a hat trick, the Jets firmly took control of first place in the Central Division by drubbing the Nashville Predators 5-0 on Saturday. This outcome doesn’t just clinch that playoff berth, it also gives Winnipeg a four-point edge on Nashville.

The Jets also hold a game in hand, as they have seven games remaining, while the Predators only play six more.

The most spectacular of Connor’s three goals came when he shimmied around P.K. Subban (someone who regularly gets booed in Winnipeg), and then Pekka Rinne had no chance to stop the young winger:

The Predators find themselves vulnerable to beginning the first round on the road, as the Blues aren’t far behind them for the second seed in the Central.

Connor actually also had an assist in this game (3G, 1A), as he’s showing some fascinating chemistry with Kevin Hayes, who joined him in having a four-point game (1G, 3A). Considering how dangerous the Mark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler duo tends to be, and the luxury wingers Winnipeg also has in Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, a deadly combination of Hayes and Connor could be an absolute nightmare for opponents.

The Jets have been notably up-and-down at times this season, yet you could argue that it might be a matter of mild complacency. For the first time ever, this franchise is enjoying a glut where they can sort of mosey into the playoffs, so maybe they had been “struggling with prosperity” to some extent?

Well, as dangerous as it might be to supposedly “flip on the light switch,” the Jets are playing well enough that you might really start to hear some puns involving “taking off” and “getting fueled up” soon. That’s fair enough, if they fly as high most nights as they did on Saturday.

(Oh no, I’m doing it already, too.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

GM bashes Blue Jackets for not ‘playing like a team’

Getty Images
3 Comments

Plenty of people are under pressure as the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in a panic-inducing spot: out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as of this moment.

Yet, you have to believe that GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s seat is the hottest. After all, he’s the one who decided to not only keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but also load up big-time during the trade deadline.

The thought was that keeping Bread and Bob would be “like getting trade deadline rentals” in the first place, so why not swing for the fences instead of giving up?

Well, instead of a deep run looking fully in view, the Blue Jackets instead are gazing at the standings, wondering if they might miss the postseason altogether. Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets have gone an unsettling 5-7-1, and Kekalainen told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline that he doesn’t like what he’s seeing.

“We have to start playing like a team,” Kekalainen said (sub required). “Right now, we’re looking like a group of individuals who are pulling in different directions. We don’t look like a team.”

Is it John Tortorella’s fault that the Blue Jackets aren’t playing like a team?

That’s an argument for another day, but Kekalainen emphatically shot down any thought of Torts getting fired during the waning days of the 2018-19 season, telling Portzline that “if anybody can figure out how to turn this thing around, it is going to be [Tortorella].”

So, what might be the problem, then?

Well, unfortunately, those big holdovers aren’t delivering in a way that will please those worrying about Bobrovsky and Panarin leaving for nothing.

Panarin hasn’t been terrible, mind you, with a respectable eight points (though only one goal) in his last 13 games. And, as up-and-down as Bobrovsky’s been both this season and since the deadline, it’s not all Bob’s fault, as he’s dealing with some injury issues.

But those new additions really haven’t been able to take off. Matt Duchene seems to bring a hex with him everywhere he goes, and he’s only managed four points with Columbus. Most disturbingly, Pierre-Luc Dubois only has a single assist since the deadline.

It’s frustrating to linger on bad luck as a major reason for things going sideways, particularly for a team that’s been as frustrated in big games as the Blue Jackets have been. Still, it’s undeniable that bad bounces have been a factor.

Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets’ even-strength shooting percentage is just 5.23-percent, the second-worst number in the NHL (according to Natural Stat Trick). During an NHL season where teams are averaging close to three goals per game (2.82), the Blue Jackets have just 27 goals in 13 games, barely managing two per game (a bit less than 2.08).

As much as teams want to just will their way to goals and wins, sometimes it’s simply difficult to overcome cold streaks.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Kekalainen made was overrating his team/”group of individuals,” then? The underlying stats pointed to a Blue Jackets team that had mostly been middle-of-the-pack when it’s come to owning the puck and controlling high-danger chances, with a few key players like Panarin helping to make that key difference between victory and defeat.

Maybe making so many changes to the roster threw off delicate chemistry just enough to ruin that tightrope act? Could it be that Panarin actually … wanted to move on, to some extent, and feels a tad-bit dejected to have to play out the string?

Or, most likely, the bounces just haven’t been there, and such headaches have magnified issues, turning molehills into mountains?

Either way, it’s clear that things haven’t been coming easily for the Blue Jackets lately, and the pressure is getting to just about everyone — including the GM who put the team together.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.