Surging Sharks primed for long Stanley Cup run

443583.jpg

Surging Sharks primed for long Stanley Cup run

April 12, 2011
SHARKS PAGE SHARKS VIDEO
LOS ANGELES PAGE NHL PAGE
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PAIRINGS
SHARKS TV SCHEDULE ON CSNCALIFORNIA
Kevin Kurz
CSNBayArea.com

Its been quite the ride for the Sharks since the calendar flipped to 2011.

Left for dead by fans and pundits across the league after an ugly six-game losing streak to begin the new year, San Jose's 27-6-4 run since Jan. 15 has made it the pick-du-jour by many to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.

And for good reason.

After naming Antti Niemi the starting goaltender, the Sharks made a firm commitment to their defensive game and were able to win some low-scoring contests. Soon after, the offense picked up across the board. A couple of small, yet effective moves by GM Doug Wilson boosted the teams depth and toughness, and the acquisition of the underrated Ian White meant the Sharks would be spending less time in their own end.

What emerged is a team that has all the makings of a champion.

RATTO: Sharks face familiar first-round foe

Yes, youve heard this before, only to be disappointed year after year while watching a roster chock full of elite players fall flat on their faces when the lights are shining brightest.

Could this year end up as another disappointment? Of course. The NHLs annual two-month war of attrition is about as predictable as a night on the town with Charlie Sheen. But there are a few reasons this Sharks team is better prepared than in years past.

STARTS WITH NIEMI

Lets begin in net.

Niemi is the only Cup-winning goaltender in the conference who is still playing. While net play isnt as important as it was pre-lockout, its still a huge factor. Niemi didnt have to be spectacular in the playoffs last season, playing behind such a talented Chicago team (in fact, in the Finals against Philadelphia, he was decidedly average). He does, however, make the saves that he needs to make, rarely allowing a bad goal. Theres no question that his teammates trust him to hold the fort once the playoffs begin. After all, many of them were first-hand witnesses last May when Niemis Blackhawks ended the Sharks season in a four-game sweep.

That confidence may have been missing in recent years, after Evgeni Nabokov failed to maintain his level of play from the regular season into the postseason. The Sharks skaters know firsthand that Niemi can carry the load in the playoffs, and do it well -- which can make a world of difference.

NBC: Five players with the most Stanley Cup pressure

BALANCED SCORING

The Sharks were one of just two teams to end the year with seven 20-goal scorers (Philadelphia was the other, although Kris Versteeg scored most of his goals while still on Toronto). All seven are forwards, and spread out across the teams top-three scoring lines. Last season? San Jose relied mainly upon its Big Three, as Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley were the unquestioned leaders of the offense.

The biggest addition, of course, is rookie Logan Couture. The Calder Trophy candidate made a good account of himself in 15 playoff games last year with four goals, but hell be looked upon to carry a much bigger role this time around. Couture certainly doesnt lack any confidence, and with eight game-winning goals this season, has shown he has a knack for timely scoring -- which is what playoff hockey is all about.

RELATED: Kings roster stats injuries depth chart
DEFENSIVE DEPTH

Wilson knew early on last summer that he would have to address Rob Blakes retirement at the end of the 2009-10 season. He tried over the summer to no avail, but kept his patience before jumping on the opportunity to land the well-rounded White to his roster without have to give up a whole lot to Carolina in return.

The move paid immediate dividends.

The 5-10, 200-pound blueliner has provided a steady presence in the Sharks zone. He makes a good first pass, is rarely caught out of position, and can contribute on special teams with his right-handed shot. In 23 games with San Jose hes been a minus player just four times, which is a reflections of just how defensively responsible he is.

Hell likely be leaned upon for more minutes against first-round opponent Los Angeles -- along with fellow defensemen Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic -- to help mask the sometimes careless play of Jason Demers (whose game improved dramatically throughout the season) and Niclas Wallin. The Sharks defense corps should be good enough to take the team where it wants to go.

BATTLE-READY

In the season's second half, the Sharks had to fight and claw for every point in the tight Western Conference race, particularly when it became apparent that there wouldnt be any sort of opportunity to put things on cruise control.

Does it make them more prepared for playoff hockey?

Thats one popular theory,and a quick peek at recent NHL history shows its validity. The Sharks of yesteryear could attest to that, as could last seasons version of the Washington Capitals, who bowed out in the first round to Montreal after easily finishing first in the conference.

Flying under the radar may serve the Sharks well, even with all of the national attention they seem to be getting lately. The Vancouver Canucks will be the heavy favorites after one of the more impressive regular seasons in recent memory, but with a tragic season-ending eye injury to third-line center and former Shark Manny Malhotra, a blue line that had to deal with numerous long-term injuries throughout the season, and Roberto Luongos failed playoff runs of the past it could be the Sharks doing the upsetting should the teams meet in the Western Conference finals.

THIN ICE

Naturally, there's no shortage of pitfalls for the Sharks. The penalty-killing down the stretch was concerning; power forward Ryane Clowes health is a question mark; and the failings of past Sharks teams will always loom over the current group until it gets to the Finals or wins it all.

RELATED: Clowe's return comes at perfect time

The beauty of the NHL playoffs is that the team that wants it the most is, more times than not, the team that ends up victorious.

The Sharks want it, and theyre capable of it. Will they do it? Time will tell, but the ride could be just getting started.

Kevin Kurz is a producer with Comcast Sports Group Interactive in Philadelphia.

Warriors bury Clippers rivalry with 50-point barrage in third quarter

Warriors bury Clippers rivalry with 50-point barrage in third quarter

OAKLAND -- The Warriors-Clippers rivalry, dead for a couple years, was buried 50 points deep Thursday night.

There were, and may always be, occasional fits of temper in which both players and officials will be tested. That surely was the case during the Warriors’ 123-113 victory over LA at Oracle Arena.

But scoring 50 points in 12 minutes, as the Warriors did in the third quarter, is a rather emphatic statement that serves as its own embellishment. It sent the Clippers back home, unable to muster even a half-hearted comeback.

“That was incredible,” Kevin Durant said of third-quarter scoring frenzy.

“That’s a lot of points,” Klay Thompson said. “It’s that the most we’ve had all season?”

Well, yes, it is. The Warriors’ previous high for points in a quarter was 45, also against the Clippers, on Jan. 28.

So this was astonishing even to the Warriors, the highest-scoring team in the NBA for three seasons running. This is the Warriors’ fourth 50-point quarter in franchise history and their first since March 1989. They made nine 3-pointers, tying a franchise record for triples in a quarter.

Fifties are rare, period; the last one by any team in the NBA was on March 25, 2014, when the Lakers dropped 51 in a quarter against the Knicks.

“I had no idea we scored that much,” said Stephen Curry, who scored 20 in the quarter -- 17 in the final 3:37 before halftime. “Obviously, coming back from 12 down to having a double-digit lead, it all started with the defensive end and finding transition.”

The scoring breakdown: Curry scored 20, Durant 15, Thompson 5, Andre Iguodala and Zaza Pachulia 4 each and JaVale McGee 2. The Warriors shot 73.9 percent (17-of-23) in the quarter.

“It all started from our defense, getting rebounds and getting out in transition,” Durant said.

The Warriors forced five LA turnovers in the quarter, off which they scored 11 points. Trailing by 12 at the half, they led by 12 entering the fourth quarter.

The Warriors have defeated the Clippers 10 consecutive times overall. They’ve beaten them 11 straight times at Oracle Arena. The average margin of victory in four games this season is 21.5 points.

This was a matter of how the Warriors responded to the threat posed by LA in the first half.

“I’m not sure what needed to happen,” Draymond Green said. “But I know we took that quarter over. And it was pretty spectacular.”

With Clippers rivalry over, Warriors feed off feud with Foster

With Clippers rivalry over, Warriors feed off feud with Foster

This will come as a sharp blow to Warrior fans who like things the way they are, but they probably can no longer use Scott Foster as an alibi for failure, or a stalking horse for rage.
 
Well, I mean they can, but let’s be honest here – the evidence just doesn’t support it any more.
 
Foster, who no matter what you say is one of the elite officials in the league, has also been cast as a bête noire by all things Golden State. Either he’s imperious, or he’s standoffish, or he makes himself too conspicuous – they’re all standard complaints made of all officials who aren’t otherwise branded as just plain terrible.
 
Only Foster isn’t terrible, given the fact that he has worked a series of NBA Finals, and that remains the gold standard for officiating.
 
But the Warriors bang their heads against the backboard when he works their games, and were on the verge of doing that again Thursday night against the Los Angeles Clippers. Foster called third quarter technicals on Andre Iguodala and the Warrior bench, and J.T. Orr called one on Draymond Green, all in the space of 6:34. The Warriors were unhinged, the fans were unhinged, innocent bystanders were being hit with flying hinges throughout the arena.
 
And in that stretch, the Warriors outscored the Clippers, 26-15, en route to a 50-point quarter (the first in two seasons and the third since the turn of the millennium) and another harsh slapdown of what used to be known as the Warriors-Clippers Cavalcade Of Hate, this time 123-113.
 
It isn’t that any more, not close. Truth is, the Warriors have won 10 consecutive games against the Clips, but probably never quite at decisively as this. At the game’s most lopsided stretch, Golden State outscored Los Angeles, 72-33, in a shade over 17 minutes.
 
Because that’s what they do.
 
Only this time, the comeback was not fueled by the existence of the Clippers, who had outplayed them pretty convincingly for the first 22 minutes and change, but with the officials, who as we have said before irk the hell out of them when their number includes Foster.
 
Who, again, is one of the game’s best officials. I think it’s a personality clash, to be frank, in which both sides can take some blame.
 
Truth is, though, when a team can go for 50 in a quarter and still have time to engage in a feud with the officials, it is making a kinky little statement about what they can do when enraged, and how difficult it is to stop them when they have a serious mad-on.
 
Yes, it is probably stretching a point to make this case, especially when the Warriors make 17 of 23 shots (9 of 15 from three) and assist on 13 of the 17 field goals. It is probably minimizing Stephen Curry’s 20-point quarter and his four assists, or Kevin Durant’s 15 and five rebounds, or David West imposing his body between Green and the officials to keep him from getting T’d up again for the second successive game.
 
But we have already established that rivalries are dying at their feet left and right. In the last three years the Clippers have gone from the Warriors’ arch-enemies to a team that has finished an aggregate 44 games behind the Dubs in the standings, making whatever animosity they can still stir 

Against the Clips a curio of a much earlier time. The Oklahoma City Thunder have come and gone, and even the Durant-Russell Westbrook has lost its last bit of elasticity.
 
Oh, there is still Cleveland, but that cannot be resumed for another 14 weeks at the earliest.
 
The Warriors, in short, have run out of opponents, and given that they will manufacture a foe when one does not otherwise exist, Scott Foster may have to serve for the time being, even if he is nothing but an intermittent prop to amuse the customers when the game cannot provide.
 
Though you’d have to think the third quarter Thursday makes that pretty thin oatmeal. The Warriors ate an entire game in 12 minutes, including the officials. They seemed like they got their fill.