Sunday, February 28, 2010

Questions, Questions... Part 6

And now we come to the last segment in looking at the big questions facing each team. It’s the Pacific Division to round things out...

San Jose: Can they change the reel up in the film room?

Let’s face it, there are no questions about San Jose’s talent. They are skilled, deep, balanced. They are a 120-point or so club on paper, and they are likely to get there or close to it by the end of the regular season. And it doesn’t mean a thing. For as hockey fans know, we’ve seen this movie before. Team assembles talent, scores a ton of goals, gets a ton of assists from Joe Thornton, slices their way through the West like a shark through a group of seals in shallow water.

Then… splat. Guys can’t find the back of the net, Thornton disappears, goalies are as sturdy as tissue paper, they look like extras in "Finding Nemo."

Including this season, the Sharks have won at least 40 games in eight of nine seasons and topped 100 points four times (this season will make five unless the team is spirited away by aliens). And for all that regular season success they have a total of six playoff series wins in eight seasons, reaching the conference final (and losing) only once and being eliminated in the first round twice.

Some folks might think that the addition of Dany Heatley this season will give one last shove of a spine up the Shark’s backs to get them to the promised land of a Stanley Cup. That is entirely possible, but there is the lingering specter of Joe Thornton and his playoff problems – 41 playoff games with San Jose, 6-29-35, and a minus-2, and three playoff series wins (not more than one in any season) in his four years with the Sharks coming into this season.

If the Sharks can’t find another movie to entertain their fans, none of their gaudy records or statistics in the regular season will matter.

Phoenix: Are they running out of gas?

Phoenix is one of the surprise teams this year. Given up for dead (or the movers) at the start of the season, they have put together a 37-21-5 record so far. It is a team that plays a structured game that emphasizes minimizing opponents’ chances (tied for ninth fewest shots allowed per game) and taking advantage of what opportunities are presented to it.

But that kind of game is played on a thin margin. 31 of Phoenix’ 63 games were one-goal affairs heading into the Olympic break, and the ‘Yotes were 21-5-5 in those games – the most one-goal wins in the league so far this season.

Phoenix had a five-game winning streak straddling the end of January and the beginning of February, but since then has lost three of five games. And what emerged over those ten games was a shrinking offensive production. In their last seven games the Coyotes have scored only 11 goals, and six of those came in a win over the woeful Oilers. Three times were the Coyotes shut out through regulation and overtime. That’s a team that needed a break.

But now the question is whether they can keep walking on the good side of that fine line that is one-goal games. Were the last five games a blip, or a warning of things to come?

Los Angeles: What do you get when you sum all the parts?

Because if you look at the individual parts… the Kings have one scorer in the top 60. They have one goal scorer in the top 40. They are ranked higher than tenth in only one major team statistic (goals scored per game). But… the Kings have eight players with at least 30 points (as many as top scoring Washington). They are top 15 in goals allowed per game, 5-on-5 play, and power play.

And perhaps most important, the Kings have been playing the “slow and sure wins the race” sort of game this season – 8-4-2 in October, 7-6-0- in November, 8-5-1 in December, 10-4-0 in January, and 4-1-1 in February. When play resumes they will have three more games against Dallas (against which they are 3-0-0 this year) and three other games against Pacific Division foes (the Kings are tied with San Jose for the most in-division wins in the Pacific). They are 14-5-1 in the 2010 portion of the season, outscoring their opponents 60-46 along the way (3.0-2.3).

This is a club that for most of the season has been playing as more than the sum of its parts and was in the midst of playing some of its best hockey of the year leading up to the Olympic break. For them, the chore is to make sure that the break is not a momentum killer.

Dallas: Can Marty find his game… in Dallas?

There was a lot of rumor spreading around that goaltender Marty Turco was going to be moved at the trading deadline. Well, with Alex Auld having been picked up by the Rangers on waivers and recently added Kari Lehtonen being, well, Kari Lehtonen, Turco is the only reliable goalie around for a club that is tied with Detroit for ninth place in the West, one point behind the struggling Calgary Flames.

Turco has not had a “Turco-esque” sort of season in that his goals against average, if the season ended today, would be the second highest of his career (last year’s was worse). But his save percentage of .915 is better than any season since he stopped 93.1 percent of the shots he faced in going 31-10-10 in 2002-2003.

What’s more, he seems to have perhaps shaken off the cobwebs that seemed to plague his game earlier in the year. He is 5-2-1 in his last eight decisions, 1.74, .952, and two shutouts.

Of no small amount of concern to Dallas fans, though, is that Turco had weak finishes in each of the last two seasons – 1-6-2 to finish up last year and 3-8-2 to wrap up the 2007-2008 season. If there is one thing to suggest that he might not suffer a similar fate this year is that he has appeared in only 43 games so far, putting him on a pace for 58 appearances, the fewest appearances he would have had since he had 55 in the 2002-2003 season (55). He should be fresher.  Turco seems likely now to get a heavier workload down the stretch, and he’ll need to shoulder it well if the Stars are to have any chance of overtaking Calgary and holding off Detroit and the teams on their rear bumper to gain a playoff spot.

Anaheim: Psst… can we just tell Hiller it’s still the Olympics?

Jonas Hiller had a fine fortnight in Vancouver for Team Switzerland with a 2.47 goals against average and a .918 save percentage, despite going 1-3 for the tournament. It was a bit surprising that he came up so large in that he stumbled into the Olympic break a bit with the Ducks: 3-2-0, 3.23, .908 (six of the 16 goals he allowed were in a single game, a 6-4 loss to Los Angeles on February 4th).

Overall he has had a solid year, but certainly not a spectacular one. He is ranked 26th in goals against average (2.70) and 13th in save percentage (.919). One problem he has is one not of his making. He is facing more than 33 shots per 60 minutes of play. As a team Anaheim allows the third highest shots-per-game total in the league. 42 times Hiller has played a full 60 minutes (allowing for being pulled for an extra attacker or going to the bench for a penalty about to be called). Only nine times has he faced fewer than 30 shots.

With as much difficulty as newly arrived backup Vesa Toskala had in Toronto, it seems iffy that he would get a lot of appearances down the stretch with the Ducks only two points behind eighth-place Calgary. But with 46 appearances Hiller is about to step into uncharted territory – that number of appearances ties the career high he set last year. He did finish strong last year, though. After March 1st he was 9-3-0 in 14 appearances, 2.52, .917, and one shutout. The Ducks are going to need that kind of stretch run performance this time around to get the Ducks into the top eight.

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