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How the Sharks are letting Stanley Cup slip away (Trending Topics)

We can ascribe all the reasons we like for the Penguins being up 2-0 in the Cup Final so far, including but not limited to: 

  • Sidney Crosby cheats on faceoffs
  • The Sharks haven't played well in specific periods
  • Home ice advantage
  • The Penguins aren't committing penalties
  • San Jose wasn't ready for Pittsburgh's speed
  • San Jose was ready for Pittsburgh's speed but it doesn't matter
  • San Jose's lesser defensemen are getting exposed
  • San Jose's lesser forwards are getting exposed
  • Mike Sullivan is a genius
  • Peter DeBoer hasn't adapted
  • Peter DeBoer is trying too hard to adapt
  • San Jose just doesn't want it bad enough

That might be it, but that at least seems like a good jumping-off point. They're pretty easy to address one at a time: 

Sidney Crosby cheats on faceoffs the way everyone cheats on faceoffs all the time, but because he among the most skilled players in the world, it turns out he's really good at cheating. The Sharks have had, by my count, two actually bad periods in this series, and both of them were the first periods of each game. Home ice advantage does indeed matter in hockey, mainly because of last change, but at this point the difference isn't going to be that significant in any single game over the course of this series. Neither team is getting whistled for penalties because it's the Cup Final; penalties drawn at 5-on-5 are 5-3 in Pittsburgh's favor.

The Penguins are fast, the Sharks are good, so whatever; depth issues are a problem so far for the Sharks because, hey, Pittsburgh had last change and carries three terrifying scoring lines. DeBoer juggled the lines late in Game 2 but probably doesn't need to worry too much about it, because all those lines have been successful to this point and have had two only-okay games on the balance. And yeah, the Pens do look fired up but that's probably a function of them leading for basically all of the series.

What you really have to understand about games at this time of year, though, is that they're effectively a coin flip. Two one-goal games have gone Pittsburgh's way. Fair enough. One of them required overtime, which is also fair.

It can be very easy at this time of year to latch onto little things guys say because they sound smart and insider-y. The Logan Couture comment on Crosby's faceoffs is a perfect example. You can bet the farm that NBCSN will have a pre-game highlight package showing the “how” of Crosby's faceoff cheating, and how it impacted the game-winning goal in Game 2. With two days off, we'll have plenty of time to talk about it. Here's the real dirt: Crosby has won 26 of 40 faceoffs in two games, and the actual impact on the game of any of those faceoffs overall is minimal. A plus-12 faceoff difference in two games sounds impressive, but its impact is marginal at best. The only reason we care now because he had a set play drawn up in overtime, and it actually worked.

Words from the man himself: “I call 25 faceoffs a game. So I got 24 wrong tonight.”

The number was actually 23 of 24 in Game 2, and he has taken 22 of his 40 draws for the series in the attacking zone, so those are obviously the ones that can result in goals most often. But still, if the best player in the world is getting tangible success on 1 in 22 from his perspective, and he has to “cheat” to even do that, it's telling.

There's a tremendous failure rate in hockey, more so than in perhaps any other major sport. Mediocre players are hit about 45 percent of their shots in the NBA. Average baseball players get on base less than 32 percent of the time. Shooters in hockey score on about 1 in 10 shots they take. And very few drawn-up faceoff plays actually directly result in goals as planned. Even fewer result in Stanley Cup Final overtime winners. When it works you look like a genius and people talk about it until your next game. When it doesn't no one notices because it almost never works and that, apparently, is for elite-level players.

Coin-flip results are what happens when two elite teams meet, generally speaking. These two Ws in the Cup Final are obviously more important to the Penguins than the series split the teams earned in games within a week and a half of each other in the regular season. To draw too many conclusions one way or the other here as a result is a little silly.

There's no doubt the Penguins have looked like the better team in these two games, but when you get to the question of “why,” doesn't the answer of “They've outscored San Jose 5-3” seem like the answer? Matt Murray has been very good in his two games so far, and Jones has been merely good. Would we feel differently if the four or five posts San Jose hit in Game 2 been roughly two inches to the left or right? You bet.

None of this is to apologize for the Sharks being down 2-0, by the way. The reason they're down in the series is that they've given up 24 shot attempts from the area around the net, and 22 of them have ended up on goal. Of that number, four got past Martin Jones, and here we are. The only goal they've scored from outside the high-danger area was Conor Sheary's overtime game-winner, and even then, he got screened out by his own defenseman.

You can say it's because the Penguins have more speed or better depth forwards than the Sharks, you can say it's because of home ice, and you can say it's because Crosby cheats on faceoffs. It's probably a weird mix of literally all of them, plus luck, mixed together.

The fact is the Sharks haven't had the puck enough in this series, and when you don't have the puck it becomes difficult to draw penalties. If the Penguins were or are going to win the Cup, the key was obviously going to have to be staying out of the box. The Sharks have enjoyed just three power plays in the series, and they scored once. But that's just 1.46 power plays per 60 minutes. Entering this series, the Sharks were drawing 3.03 power plays per 60 in the postseason. The drop-off is considerable, and because their success rate was so high, it's reasonable to assume they'd have an extra goal in their account at this point if they could draw more penalties. Which they haven't been able to. Because they don't have the puck and don't get to the net as much (only 14 high-danger shot attempts, and 10 high-danger shots on goal, in two games).

The good news for the Sharks is that they're one of the best home teams in this postseason, and it's by a pretty wide margin. Their score-adjusted possession, chance generation, and so on are all in the top tier of playoff teams, and their ability to outscore their opponents at home dwarfs the next two teams combined — the Sharks have a plus-16 goal differential in all situations, and Pittsburgh and Tampa are both plus-6 in second place. And wouldn't you know it, their home penalty differential (plus-9) is the best in the league.

Point being, the series is far from over. You knew that anyway, because teams that go up 2-0 in a Cup Final are just 3-2 in recent years when it comes to actually winning two more games. Still, given the down time the hockey world at large is going to experience before tomorrow night's Game 3, it was worth noting.

There are plenty of reasons even the best teams lose or win two games, and you can usually pick the ones that fit your viewpoint best. Including the “These things happen” explanation in this column. The Sharks need to get better, and they're totally capable of it. One faceoff-cheating-set-play goal doesn't doom them. It just makes the hill a little steeper.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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