Ratto: Sharks, Niemi uncomfortable once again


Ratto: Sharks, Niemi uncomfortable once again

Ray RattoCSNBayArea.com

First things first. Antti Niemi is still the Sharks goaltender for Mondays Game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinal against the Los Angeles Kings, no matter what the first nine minutes Saturday might have looked like.
In fact, its because of what the first nine minutes looked like that convinced head coach Todd McLellan that a change didnt need to be made there. He is more annoyed by and demanding more production from the six defensemen in front of Niemi, who gave pucks away and failed repeatedly to get rushes started by either giving up possession or cycling back into their own zone because they didnt want to fully engage the Kings forecheckers.He is our guy, McLellan said of Niemi, but this is also a matter of him not being the only one that didnt play to expectations. I dont think we did enough to help him.RELATED: McLellan says Niemi will start Game 6 for Sharks
Its not just him, defenseman Douglas Murray said in concurrence. Its us making mistakes. Its all of us, all six on the ice. (The Sharks being outscored 8-1 in the first period) is terrible. Its unforgivable. But its real easy to talk about, but much harder to get the job done.
In any event, even if Niemi is cured of his yips and the defensemen, starting and emphasizing Dan Boyle, who has struggled most in this series, the Sharks have still wasted a lot of time that could have been put to much better use both preparing for Detroit and not having to live with another round of Why have you no killer instinct?

In losing two games they really had no good reason to, the Sharks have made an easy job (beating a seven-seed without its best scorer) harder, and a hard job (getting through the next two rounds) even harder than that.And that, boys, girls and undecideds, is why they have infuriated you yet again by dragging themselves to a sixth game in this Western Conference quarterfinal series with the Los Angeles Kings. They have now managed to screw up badly, twice, in situations that demanded that they choose the easiest path.They lost Game 2 decisively when the Kings had neither Anze Kopitar or Jarret Stoll, and they lost convincingly and drably. Winning that game would have eliminated the need to win Game 5, again at home, with the Kings reeling and primed to fail. And while all that is going on, the Detroit Red Wings are resting at home, comfortably and happily, with plenty of time to heal wounds and stoke the anger that has resounded within them since losing to the Sharks in the second round last year.The Sharks, in short, needed to make this series an easy and decisive one if they were to take themselves as serious Stanley Cup contenders, and failed.Of course, they could win Monday and decide that maybe they still are. Thats just not the way to bet any more.Right now, the Wings are at full strength and with a full tank, waiting with joy while the Sharks expend as much energy as possible vanquishing an outmanned seven-seed. And the first rule of playoff hockey is, If you want to go deep, dont spend so much time thrashing about in the shallow end.Game 5 looks better for the Sharks than it actually was. They got 52 shots, 12 or so of which were great scoring chances, that Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and his defensemen handled almost impeccably.RATTO: Quick saves Kings, puts pressure on Sharks
But the fact is the Sharks eliminated themselves early with poor goaltending from Niemi and shoddy defensive work in front of him, and the Kings spent the rest of the night ceding ice and puck possession for the surety of guarding Quick from another meltdown a la Game 3. Having taken a 3-0 lead in the first minutes, they rope-a-doped the rest of the way because they had the wherewithal to do it. Under normal circumstances in which the Kings would actually have to engage the offensive process, the Sharks wouldnt have had the puck long enough to get 52 shots.Nevertheless, McLellan had less trouble with his forward play than the back seven (including Niemi). Not enough to change Niemi or the other six, but enough to make it an uncomfortable few days for them. And with the Sharks, it's always about not being comfortable.

Raiders' magic dissipates, but valuable lesson about contending learned

Raiders' magic dissipates, but valuable lesson about contending learned

So the Oakland Raiders are good, but not magical, let alone soaked in destiny. So they can make every game a hard slog for the opponent, but they are not invulnerable. So they can be inefficient, and too sure of themselves, and terribly wasteful when they’re cold.

In other words, they are part of the National Football League – no longer too good to be true.

Their performance against the Chiefs in Kansas City was a pyramid of blown opportunities, opportunities made necessary by a terrible start. A week ago, against a borderline playoff team, they could get away with it. Thursday, on hostile ground, against a team that has lost three of its previous 23 regular season games and has a defense that specializes in standing on your chest until you whistle Yankee Doodle through your navel, they couldn’t.

The result of the 21-13 loss in a game with 12 more points than degrees of temperature is that the Raiders are now the fifth-best team in the American Football Conference rather than the first-best team with four more chances to change that position.

In other words, Thursday’s defeat only provided this much wisdom: The Raiders are a good team vulnerable to other good teams with an iron-plated sense of purpose, stubborn defenses that can apply and maintain a chokehold for hours on end, and offenses that don’t feel compelled to imitate Oakland’s offense by getting into a shootout.

And also this: There is nothing that would necessarily prevent them from beating the Chiefs in case of a third match, even though Kansas City held them to fewer points in two games than they scored in every other game save one. They are still, as the pedants say, “in the argument.”

But they have flaws to be exposed against the right team in the right situation. Kansas City has been that team twice, and New England probably is, but there the list probably stops. Nobody in the AFC North or South seems terribly capable of matching them in neutral conditions, but here’s the other bone spur:

The playoffs are not about neutral conditions.

The Raiders have come a long way in what most people think is a long time, but in fact in terms of team construction, you can throw out everything before 2013, and almost everything before 2015. They are just now getting a full understanding of the hardest part of becoming a Super Bowl contender – the other Super Bowl contenders.

Yes, Kansas City has an indifferent playoff history under Andy Reid, but it is clear that under current conditions the Chiefs are serious players. And while we have no link to how the Raiders would fare against new England, we are pretty sure that they wouldn’t want to play the second weekend of January arse-deep in snow in Foxborough.

The point? Now they get how hard this contender stuff really is. They could not have learned that lesson any other way – not anyone they’ve played yet save Kansas City.

Their next lessons come in Weeks 16 and 17, when they face the frantically desperate Indianapolis Colts in Oakland and then the Broncos in Denver the week after. Desperate teams can be very difficult indeed, especially to teams that are safe and dry and home, playoff-wise.

And then there are the actual playoffs, which if they were played today would have the Raiders traveling to Houston for a very winnable game against the stultifying Texans. The week after, they could be either in Kansas City again or in New England, getting a gut full of visiting field disadvantage.

But as a learning experience, the Raiders may have come out very well indeed. They now know in very real and personal ways the real difference between where they think they should be and where they are, as well as how many ways this can go terribly wrong between now and then.

And also how well it can go, if they learn what the Chiefs taught them again Thursday.

Marshall's admission a reminder culture of health doesn't exist

Marshall's admission a reminder culture of health doesn't exist

Brandon Marshall of the New York Jets had one of his greatest games ever against the San Francisco 49ers two years ago and remembers almost none of it, because, as he told reporters Wednesday, he was cloudy-minded on painkillers.

This admission is one more reminder that sports are not necessarily good for one’s health, in large part because the culture of health in sports really doesn’t exist.

There is, rather, a culture of ordnance, and the players are the weaponry.

Marshall’s acknowledgement that he was masking pain from a high ankle sprain that should have kept him out of action for “four to six weeks,” by his own estimation but had him returning to action 10 days after the original injury.

“I’ll say it: I took a couple pain pills, so . . . I took a couple of pain pills to mask the pain,” he said on a conference call with CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco. “I really wasn’t supposed to play. So I don’t remember much from that game. I just remember catching those balls. That was pretty much it.”

We now re-enter the culture of playing when it isn’t prudent, either out of a misplaced sense of bravado or employer-based pressure to perform (there is no direct statement from Marshall saying that the painkillers were given to him by the team). The sense of bravado, which most athletes have, probably can never be legislated, and the culture of downward pressure to perform no matter what the infirmity has proven immensely difficult to conquer.

But there is another factor here, and that is the general lack of efficacy of painkillers. Warriors coach Steve Kerr took to using a form of medicinal marijuana because the painkillers he was taking for long-lingering symptoms from his back surgery were doing more harm than good. He said he found the marijuana was equally lacking, but he had enough concerns about the deleterious effects of Vicodin, OxyContin and other standard medications assigned to athletes in pain.

“I’m not a pot person; it doesn’t agree with me,” Kerr told CSN Bay Area’s Monte Poole on the Warriors Insider Podcast. “I’ve tried it a few times, and it did not agree with me at all. So I’m not the expert on this stuff. But I do know this: If you’re an NFL player, in particular, and you’ve got a lot of pain, I don’t think there is any question that pot is better for your body than Vicodin. And yet athletes everywhere are prescribed Vicodin like it’s Vitamin C, like it’s no big deal.”

He later expanded on that after the initial “Kerr Is A Sparker” headlines hit the Internet.

“Having gone through a tough spell over the last year with my own recovery from back surgery, a lot of pain, a lot of chronic pain, I had to do a lot of research,” he said. “You get handed prescriptions for Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet . . . NFL players, that’s what they’re given. That stuff is awful. That stuff is dangerous, the addiction possibility, what it can lead to, the long-term health risks. The issue that’s really important is how do we do what’s best for the players.

“But I understand that it’s a perception issue around the country. The NFL, the NBA, it’s a business. So you don’t want your customers thinking, ‘These guys are a bunch of potheads.’ That’s what it is. To me, it’s only a matter of time before medicinal marijuana is allowed in sports leagues because the education will overwhelm the perception. If you do any research at all, the stuff they’re prescribing is really bad for you and the stuff that they’re banning is fine.”

It is instructive, then, that when Marshall was asked for his position on the NFL’s stance not to include marijuana as a permissible substance for pain management, substance, a Jets public-relations employee who could be heard in the background of the call saying that Marshall “knows better than that.”

But Marshall did answer the question, saying in essence that he fully intends to know better, period.

“That is something that I actually want to research more this offseason when I have time,” he said. “I’m not a guy that knows about the benefits of what it can do for pain and other things. But I’d like to hear others’ opinions and really research the effects it can have on us – positives and negatives.”

In the meantime, sports soldiers on, using increasingly debunked methods for dealing with the pain their businesses inflict upon their employees and issuing warnings about breaching the silence of the workplace. But tales like Marshall’s will continue to surface until the businesses that require him and his like come to grips with the toll of their shortsightedness and, in some cases, neglect.