Conference Finals typically mean a rise in intensity of play of all the teams that are still playing hockey mid May. Teams, coaches and players feel like they are coming closer to the Grail and itâ€™s visible in every puck battle, shot and save. Yesterday night was no different as we witnessed a very close, hard fought battle between the San Jose Sharks and the Vancouver Canucks.
San Jose played a solid road game until the third period, when Vancouverâ€™s speed just took over. Once again, Roberto Luongo didnâ€™t look like a 5 million plus goalie. His mishandling of a pass led to one Sharks goal and his flair for embellishing things was once again there for all to see. I fail to see why a top goalie (not elite, but top) has to act in a way that not only humiliates him, but his team and the game of hockey as well. That third period showed what the Canucks are capable of when in full flight (and with a somewhat recuperated Henrik), but the game also showed what SJ could do relying solely on their goaltender who almost single handedly stole the win. Now, if they can raise their level of play to match the kind of hockey they played against Detroit (better PK, less breakdowns in the D zone, crease crashing) I can see them winning the series.
I mentioned this in one of my previous mashups, but it needs to be said yet again – San Joseâ€™s story of the playoffs so far has to be the play of Joe Thornton. A guy who adapted his game to better suit the grueling playoff run has 13 points in the last 12 games he has played during the Sharksâ€™ playoff run. Actually, since the 2008-09 season, his average points-per-game in the playoffs has been around 0.85, and during his time with the Sharks he has only had one season where his playoff points-per-game was lower than 0.80. Come to think of it, many great players were considered losers until they actually started winning, although I always thought that label was harshly put on his back. It is true that for a Hart and Art Ross winner, a first team All Star he had surprisingly few team honors, but Thornton is only 31 and in his prime. He has a good number of playing years left and it is expected he will spend most of them playing on a loaded SJ team. Considering the new and improved Sharks this year (which I expect will translate into future seasons â€“ you donâ€™t mature for one year) and Thorntonâ€™s level of play for most of this regular season and the playoffs, itâ€™s getting pretty hard to call Joe a loser, especially with that Olympic gold hanging around his neck.
The “other” story surrounding the SharksÂ is Antti Niemi. For this writer, nothing comes close to a goalie who you know is going to stop what he needs to stop in the playoffs, and then some. When that kind of goalie comes with a 2 million dollar price tag (3.8 next year) and a Stanley Cup winning pedigree, well, Doug Wilson can be pretty happy with his offseason acquisition.
In other news, Finland captured the World Hockey Championship gold medal in Slovakia. The Finns humiliated their arch rivals with a spectacular third period which led to a 6-1 win and were finally rewarded with the tournamentâ€™s top prize after playing the most esthetically pleasing hockey for many years in numerous competitions and coming up just short. One such example came in 2006 Winter Olympic final where they lost the gold medal to Sweden. They say revenge is sweet.
Who wins the goaltending battle between SJ and Vancouver in the end? What do the Sharks need to do better in Game 2?