March 4, 2011RATTO ARCHIVESHARKS PAGE SHARKS VIDEORay Ratto
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.
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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.