NHL, players can still minimize damage

713108.jpg

NHL, players can still minimize damage

When the NHL returned from a season-long hiatus in 2005, the list of adjustments to the game and givebacks to the fan base was a significant one.

In many markets, ticket prices were reduced across the board, or at least in certain parts of the arena. The hooking and holding that led to monotonous stretches of play was greatly reduced with a stricter enforcement of the rulebook. Shiny new streamlined uniforms were introduced. The league even revealed a sleek new silver and black logo, an update from the Halloween-themed orange and black emblem from yesteryear.

Eight years later, and in the middle of another labor war thats threatening the league as a viable business, its hard to imagine what kind of bone the league and its players can throw to sports most passionate fans when this mess comes to its conclusion. A full season is not an option, as the lockout has reached its 60th day and has again regressed into a staring match between league and union leadership. Drastic rule changes dont seem likely, and wouldnt be a good idea, anyway.

And, ticket prices? The chance theres an across-the-board reduction from any team is on par with Korean rapper PSY releasing a second international hit.

But, there is something they can do.

Rewind to December 5, 2011. On that day, NHL governors ratified a radical new plan to realign the league into four conferences, two of which would have seven teams while the others had eight. The Sharks would join the Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Ducks, Kings, Avalanche and Coyotes in a yet-to-be-named group.

Furthermore and more importantly, for these purposes it was announced that each team in the league would face its non-conference opponents twice a year, ensuring that every club would make at least one annual appearance in every other building.

At the time, the praise for the plan seemed unanimous from both management and players. Joe Pavelski said: I think that, definitely, is good. Some guys play three or four seasons and youre like, I havent even been here yet. It would be nice to see each building once a year.

A little more than a month later, the plan was toast, rejected by the NHLPA. Pavelski cited increased travel and the fact that two conferences had just seven teams as compared to eight in the West Coast-leaning groups. The top four teams from each conference were to qualify for the postseason.

The realignment almost certainly wont happen this season, if there is a season at all. But the portion of the plan that sees every team visit every other team could, and should, still be on the table. Theres still time for a 66-game season that sees each club play its current division opponents four times apiece, and faces every other team in the league twice.

It would be a small but significant token of appreciation in a league that is driven by the hardest of hardcore fans, and would help minimize the damage the two sides have already caused with this asinine game of chicken.

Want to see Zach Parise make his return to New Jersey after departing for greener pastures in Minnesota, Devils fans? No problem. Weve got you covered.

Canucks supporters. Still hoping to get some revenge on the team that broke your hearts in the 2011 Cup Finals? Well, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and the big bad Bruins will be swinging through the Pacific Northwest.

Hoping for a chance to greet Stanley Cup champions Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, Flyers faithful, after your team traded away its young stars in order to sign an unstable goaltender? No problem, the Kings will be visiting the City of Brotherly Love.

And, finally, Sharks supporters youve packed the HP Pavilion full night after night for more than 100 consecutive games. What do you get for putting up with yet another nonsensical work stoppage? Youll get a chance to see East Coast superstars Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Claude Giroux skate in the Bay Area.

Of course, for this scenario to have any chance at occurring, the league and union will have to figure out their numerous differences relatively quickly, including economics and contracting differences. Several prognosticators have marked December 1 as a potential start date for the league, and while that may be a bit ambitious now, a window does exist for the two sides to come to an agreement. In 1994-95, Gary Bettmans first lockout ended on January 11, and a 48-game season ran from January 20 May 3.

Working backwards from that date means the league and union will have to get something done by next Thursday Thanksgiving Day. Probable? No, but not impossible. And, in fact, a 66-game schedule could still be feasible if it includes an early December start.

For now, the clock continues to tick. And with it, a discouraged fan base that drives the business grows more and more apathetic.

Ward's sacrifice keys 'bounce-back' game for Sharks

Ward's sacrifice keys 'bounce-back' game for Sharks

SAN JOSE – Joel Ward has been in the league long enough to know that the Sharks got outworked and outhustled in their decisive loss to the Blues on Saturday.

That could be why he put his body on the line in the second period against the Jets on Monday afternoon at SAP Center. Ward hustled to a loose puck along the wall with the Sharks holding a slim 1-0 lead and slipped it ahead to Chris Tierney, before getting absolutely plastered by Mark Stuart on a hit as big as you’ll see in today’s NHL.

While Ward was sluggish to get up as a result of his head bouncing off the ice surface, Tierney gave it to Timo Meier, who finished off a breakaway goal early in the second period.

While he was seeing stars from what he called a “clean hit,” Ward also heard the goal horn.

“I tried to get the puck out, obviously, and next thing I knew I was on my back and heard the horn go off,” he said. “I wasn’t too sure what happened after that.”

What happened was a 5-2 Sharks win, two days after one of their worst performances of the season, a 4-0 home defeat to St. Louis. San Jose withstood an early push by the visiting Jets but took over the game in the second period, particularly after Ward’s sacrifice.

"That's the commitment we talk about,” Pete DeBoer said. “Taking that hit, making that play, [Meier] scores the goal. We need that. Joel's a guy that brings that to the rink almost every night. That's what it's going to take at this time of year in order to have success."

In a rare afternoon start, the Sharks looked sleepy in the beginning. The Jets were the better team for the first few minutes, but Martin Jones made sure they didn’t get on the board. He made a key stop on a Shawn Matthias one-timer just 1:29 into the first period, and then bailed out David Schlemko on a defensive zone turnover a few minutes later, again denying Matthias.

The Sharks went to the penalty kill after Schlemko’s cross-checking minor at 11:39, but Ward scored 15 seconds after that, picking the corner over Michael Hutchinson for a pretty shorthanded marker. He correctly read a Justin Braun clearing attempt, when Braun rimmed it past Dustin Byfuglien, who couldn’t keep it in at the blue line. 

After that, “just kind of saw glove side and fired it there as quick as I could,” Ward said.

That led to a dominant second period for San Jose. Along with Meier’s goal, Brent Burns scored on a power play and the slumping Jets were noticeably deflated from there.

Jones said the Jets “came out real hard,” but, “that’s pretty much all [my teammates] needed from me today. You can’t really ask for much more than that from the guys. They put up five, and slowed down a pretty fast team.”

Tierney said: “Joner did a great job of keeping us in it and not giving up a goal there and putting us behind. After that, we kind of got it going a bit and started playing our game.”

There was even some late comedy. Trailing 4-1 at the time, Jets coach Paul Maurice decided to take Hutchinson out for an extra attacker. Jones noticed the empty net and was lining up a shot after he retrieved a dump-in. It didn’t go more than a foot in front of him, though, as Mark Scheifele blocked it and slipped it into an empty net.

Jones could be seen grinning through his mask, while Tierney said he was “laughing on the bench.”

“That’s the first time I’ve tried [shooting at an empty net], and probably the last, too,” Jones said.

In total, Monday's result offered quite the change in mood from Saturday’s whipping.

DeBoer said: “I don't think anyone in our room was happy with how last game went. It was a good bounce-back game."

“It was definitely good today to rebound, and get back to winning,” Ward said.

Instant Replay: Sharks offense comes to life, ground Jets 5-2

Instant Replay: Sharks offense comes to life, ground Jets 5-2

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE – Joel Ward had a goal and an assist, and survived a thundering hit in the second period, in helping the Sharks to a 5-2 win over Winnipeg on Monday afternoon at SAP Center.

Ward’s linemates Chris Tierney and Timo Meier also had a goal and assist each, as the Sharks snapped their modest two-game losing streak. Martin Jones made 26 saves in net.

Winnipeg lost its fourth in a row (0-3-1), getting swept on a three-game trip through California.

Leading 1-0 on Ward’s first period shorthanded score, San Jose took control in the middle frame.

Meier’s breakaway goal at 2:45 upped the lead to 2-0. Prior to the conversion, Ward was plowed by Winnipeg’s Mark Stuart at the defensive blue line, but managed to push the puck to Tierney in the neutral zone. Tierney’s lead pass found Meier streaking in, and the rookie deposited his first goal in 13 games and first since his NHL debut on Dec. 16 in Montreal.

Ward went to the dressing room, likely to be checked for a concussion after his head hit the ice, but returned later in the period.

Brent Burns’ power play goal gave the Sharks a three-goal cushion, when his shot went wide but rebounded off of the end boards and off of the back of goalie Michael Hutchinson’s skate at 7:08.

San Jose continued to press for the much of the remaining 13 minutes of the second period, outshooting the Jets 15-4.

Tierney added insurance with a wrist shot from the circle at 11:41 of the third, finding the puck after a Meier shot was blocked. It was his first in 14 games, and gave the Sharks a 4-0 lead.

Josh Morrissey’s goal at 17:24 ruined the shutout for Jones. Mark Scheifele scored with 15 seconds left to make it 4-2, after Jones blocked what looked like an attempt to shoot the puck into an empty net. An empty net goal by Joe Thornton capped the scoring.

After Winnipeg looked more assertive than San Jose in the opening minutes, Ward staked the Sharks the first period lead when his wrist shot found the top far corner at 11:54 of the first period. It was his fourth of the season, two of which have come shorthanded.

The Sharks have claimed both of their afternoon games this season, including a 3-2 win over the Islanders on Nov. 25.

San Jose visits Winnipeg on Jan. 24 and March 6, both of which will the second of a back-to-back for the visitors.

Special teams

The Sharks finished 1-for-4 on the power play, just their second such goal in the past seven games (2-for-17). The penalty kill was a perfect 2-for-2, coming on consecutive penalties to David Schlemko and Tierney just one minute and 45 seconds apart.

Ward’s shorthanded goal was the Sharks’ third of the season, two of which have come from the veteran forward.

Tierney’s high-sticking minor in the first period was his first penalty of the season in 44 games.

In goal

Jones made his biggest stop just a minute and a half into the game, swallowing a Shawn Matthias one-timer from the slot on a setup by Dustin Byfuglien. He denied Matthias a second time with 11:18 to go, just before Ward’s shorty.

Hutchinson took the loss with four goals allowed on 31 shots.

Lineup

The Sharks missed Joonas Donskoi for the second straight game with an upper body injury, although it doesn’t appear to be serious.

Winnipeg remains without rookie Patrick Laine, who began the day tied for the NHL rookie lead in goals (21) and points (37), due to a concussion suffered on Jan. 7.

San Jose reassigned defenseman Tim Heed and forward Ryan Carpenter to the Barracuda, presumably to play in their game later Monday night.

Up next

The Sharks close out their season series with the Kings on Wednesday night at Staples Center. San Jose won the first two, but Los Angeles swept a home-and-home on Dec. 31 and Jan. 3, the latter of which came in overtime in Southern California.