Ratto: Sharks get to business of defense, winning


Ratto: Sharks get to business of defense, winning


There is one difference between the Sharks and the Stanfords women basketball team, just to name two teams that never seem to lose.

The Stanford women havent known hard times in so long, you have to go to the pre-VanDerveer Era to imagine it. The Sharks spent three months wallowing eyelid-deep in them.

But today, it can be said that theyre pretty much home and dry, playoff-wise. Theyve held the Pacific Division lead for a whopping 11 days in the most volatile conference in recent anything history, and while they probably wont win their last 17 games unless theres a gambling scandal in the NHL we dont know about, they wont lose enough to finish ninth.

RELATED: NHL standings

But any team from fourth to 11th absolutely could, because with the exception of days when they are three games or fewer, five teams change position in the West every night, and that goes back to even before New Years Day.

But on New Years morning, the Sharks were in sixth, tied for fourth but behind on games played, with a worse goal differential than 10th-place Chicago and a better one than division-leader Dallas. They were, essentially, an average team with a bunch of average teams.

Whats happened since then is that theyve become an exceptional team with an above-exceptional defense. Since that day, which we picked at random because we just felt like it, the Sharks are 17-8-1 (remember, the light didnt go on for two more weeks), but more to the point, they have allowed fewer goals than any team in the league than New Jersey.

And fewer by a fairly substantial margin as these things go. In the West, theyve allowed nine fewer goals than either Minnesota or Chicago. The margin in the East is smaller over second-place Washington, but thats because some Eastern teams have rediscovered the need to prevent goals.

New Jersey was a horrible team on New Years Day. The Devils had replaced coach John MacLean on Dec. 23 after the team had lost 50-2 to the hideous New York Islanders and replaced him with Jacques Lemaire, father of the neutral ice trap and the master of what is charmingly called negative hockey.

Well, take this: They are now 19-8-2 since the firing, and while they are still 10 points out of a playoff spot with four teams to catch, they went from 3.3 goals allowed to 1.8. They play uber-defensive hockey, which is hard on the eyes but easy on the standings.

And the Sharks? In their last 30 games since NYD, theyre allowing 1.8 goals per game, too, down from 2.6. Their hockey is not quite so grisly aesthetically, and they dont really trap, but they do reduce games to simpler and less gaudy elements.

Put another way, they are being outscored by all but five teams since the year changed, but not being outscored when they play them. Only Los Angeles (which is defense- and goalie-rich and needed to trade for Dustin Penner to jump-start a staggering offense), Dallas (which has hit the skids), and Colorado, which has won six games in the new year, have scored fewer goals.

In the East, Pittsburgh (without Sidney Crosby), Washington (which has revamped its style to be more defensively responsible), the New York Rangers (losing record since the calendar turned), Atlanta (in free-fall) and Ottawa (just rancid) have scored fewer, but the East is less about 6-4 games than it used to be.

It is in many ways an amazement that the Sharks havent been taunted with the Youre too boring canards that have dogged the San Antonio Spurs in recent years. They have beaten one team by more than two goals in 2011, that being the ghastlyinjury-savaged Avalanche, and five of their 18 wins have been in overtime or a shootout. They have scored five goals once, a 5-3 win over Phoenix that started with a 3-1 deficit and ended with an empty net.

In short, the Sharks have done what teams in the Bay Area are warned never to do -- take care of the chores first and do pretty later (see Warriors, Golden State, for the reverse of this argument). They have become a defense-first club, and if they werent winning 86 percent of the time, this would be a problem for the fan base.

But the fan base is happy as hell, as any fan base that never watches their team face-plant would be. They love Antti Niemi after hating him early. They like Niclas Wallin and Kent Huskins after ignoring them. And for the moment, they forgive Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan for not completing that Pavel Datsyuk-for-Jamal Mayers deal at the deadline.

Now get out there and backcheck, damn it.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast Sports Bay Area.

Does St. Louis' suit against NFL mean hope for the City of Oakland?

Does St. Louis' suit against NFL mean hope for the City of Oakland?

You thought you were done worrying about the Raiders. You thought the votes were in, the moving vans booked for three years down the road, and all gnashing and sharpening of teeth was over. You thought you were free.

Then those buttinsky-come-latelies from St. Louis decided to rear their litigious heads, and now you find yourselves slipping back into that desperate-hope world from which no one escapes.

It seems the city and its regional sports authority has decided to sue the National Football League and its 32 semi-independent duchies over the relocation of the Rams 15 months ago because, and you’ll like this one, the league allegedly did not follow its own relocation rules when it moved the team.

As you know, there is no such thing as a rule if everyone governed by the rule decided unanimously to ignore the rule. This doctrine falls under the general heading of, “We’re billionaires, try and stop us.”

But all lawsuits have a common denominator, and that is that there is money at the end of the rainbow. St. Louis is claiming it is going to miss out on approximately $100 million in net proceeds (read: cash) and has decided that the NFL and especially their good pal Stan Kroenke is going to have to pay for permission to do what they have already done -- specifically, leave.

Because the suit was filed in St. Louis, the benefits of home field advantage apply, and the league is likely to have to reinflate their lawyers for some exciting new billable hours.

As to whether it turns into a windfall for the jilted Missourians, well, as someone who has known lawyers, I would list them as prohibitive underdogs. But there is nuisance value here, which brings us to Oakland.

The city and county, as we know, did not put its best shoe forward in trying to lure the Raiders into staying or the other 31 owners into rejecting the team’s pleas for geographical relief. By that, we mean that the city and county did not fall all over itself to meet the league’s typically extortionate demands.

But they did play angry enough to start snipping about the 2019 part of the Raiders’ 3-More-Coliseum-Years plan, and they are threatening to sue over about $80K in unpaid parking fees, so filing their own breach-of-rules lawsuit might be a possibility.

Because, hey, what’s the point of sounding like a nuisance if you can’t actually become one?

By now, it is clear that everyone in SuitWorld got what it needed out of the Raiders’ move. The city and county could concentrate on guiding the A’s into activity on their own new stadium. The team could go where Mark Davis has been agitating for it to go for at least three years – somewhere else. The state of Nevada could find a place for that $750 million that was burning a hole in its casino vault. And the league went to a market that it, at first reluctantly and then enthusiastically, decided should be its own.

The fans? Oh, please. Who cares about them? To the NFL, and to all corporations in all walks of business, folks are just walking wallets.

But for some cash? Well, climb on board, suckers. The gravy train is pulling out on Track 3.

Nobody is fool enough to think the Raiders would be forced to return. Hell, even St. Louis isn’t asking for the Rams back. They just want to get paid for the money they probably banked on in the good old days before Stan Kroenke decided to head west.

And that would doubtless be Oakland’s stance as well if. Now the circumstances are slightly different, in that St. Louis worked harder to keep the Rams than Oakland did to keep the Raiders. St. Louis scared up $350 million toward new digs for the Rams, well short of what Kroenke would have accepted, while Oakland said it could get its hands on some infrastructure money and no more.

But Mayor Libby Schaaf complained in her relocation post mortem that the league didn’t follow its own guidelines (yay correlation as causation!), maybe with an eye toward throwing a few lawyers into the fire to see how long it would burn.

There is not yet any indication that the city and county are going that route (and the silence may simply mean that they are sick of the Raiders’ saga as everyone else seems to be), but if they do, well, don’t freak out that the team might be forced to return.

Except, of course, in that place where migraines start. Dragging this back up is a bit like the phantom pain amputees feel -- but hey, people will do a lot for a bit of court-ordered cash. Anyone who has ever watched Judge Judy will understand.

A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun


A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun

I’m liking this 2017 so far. Then again, after 2016, nearly any year would be an improvement.

Just this last weekend we got a flat-earth scandal that turned into a mock-up about media self-importance and fake news (yay Kyrie Irving and his impish sense of satire!).

We got the overblown Russell-Hates-Kevin narrative, and the faux Russell-Secretly-Loves-Kevin counternarrative, all because we are stunningly attracted to meaningless and utterly contrived drama (yay our ability to B.S. ourselves!).

We got the NBA All-Star Game ripped for having no defense even though last year’s game was, if anything, worse (yay short attention span!).

We got the Boogie Cousins trade and the national revulsion of all the thought processes the Sacramento Kings put into this perpetually rolling disaster (yay making Boogie and Vivek Ranadive household names!).

And now we got the Great Sutton United Pie-Fixing Scandal. Yeah, pie-fixing. Hell never felt so fun.

So here’s the deal. Sutton United, a very small fry in English soccer, got to the fifth round of the FA Cup, a competition in which all the clubs in England are commingled and play each other until one team remains. The big clubs almost always win, so any time a small club goes deep, it’s a big deal.

Anyway, Sutton went deeper in the competition than nearly anyone in the last century, a charming development given that it is such a small club that it had a stadium caretaker, goalie coach and backup goalie all in one massive fellow, a 46-year-old guy named Wayne Shaw. Shaw became the globular embodiment of the entire Sutton Experience, a jolly lark for everyone involved and especially when he ate a pie on the bench in the final minutes of Sutton’s Cup-exiting loss to Arsenal.

And now he’s been eased into resigning his jobs with the club, because – and this is so very British – there were betting shops taking action on whether he would in fact eat a pie on the bench, and he either did or did not tip off his pals that he was going to chow down on television.

He did eat the pie. His pals collected on their bets. The sport’s governing body opened an investigation into market manipulation by gambling – which is hilarious given that no fewer than 10 gambling establishments have advertising deals with English soccer clubs. Shaw was invited to quit to kill the story, and he took the hint.

Hey, dreams die all the time. But it’s still pie-fixing. Let that rattle around your head for a minute. Pie-fixing. Not match-fixing. Not point-shaving. Pie-fixing.

Now how can you not love this year?

Sure, it sucks for Shaw, but it serves as a series of cautionary tales for athletes around the world.

* Gambling is everywhere, and every time you inch toward it, you dance on the third rail.

* If you want to help your friends, give them cash.

* This is a horribly delicious way to lose your gig.

* And finally, fun in the 21st century isn’t ever truly fun because someone in a suit and a snugly-placed stick is going to make sure you pay full retail for that fun.

But it is nice to know that something that has never happened before is now part of our year. Pie-fixing is a thing now, as silly in its way as Irving’s flat-earth narrative was. And as we steer away from normal games as being too run-of-the-mill-fuddy-duddy entertainment, we have replaced them with sideshows.

Or do you forget how many people complained Saturday and Sunday that the dunk contest wasn’t interesting enough? How stupid is that?

Lots. Lots of stupid. But against pie-tin-shaped planets and pies turned into betting coups, how can it possibly compare?

We chase a lot of idiotic narratives in our sporting lives. The great What Will The Patriots Do To Roger Goodell story died like the old dog it was. We still try to flog Warriors-Thunder as a rivalry in search of better TV ratings when all the obvious evidence is that it is no such thing unless you think a couple that broke up nine months ago is still a solid story. We have Bachelor fantasy leagues, for God’s sake.

This would leave most normal folks in despair, thus matching their everyday experiences, but yin meets yang, and every time it looks like we are all barrel-rolling into the sun, we get Irving, and then we get Wayne Shaw.

In short, 2017 is going to be fun of grand surprises for us all. I look forward to the day President Trump tries to fete the Patriots and only gets to Skype with Bob Kraft and the equipment guys who midwifed DeflateGate, and Mark Davis in Las Vegas, just to see if he can get a P.F. Chang’s into the Bellagio.

Why not? This is sport’s year-long tribute to sketch comedy, and evidently everyone is signing on enthusiastically to replace lessons of morality and honor and equality and dignity and sportsmanship with slackened jaws and belly laughs.

So yay sports! Or as it is clearly becoming, A Night At The Improv.