Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Debate: Let's look westward
By Scott Burnside and Craig Custance
Time to debate the hot topics of the day, with Scott Burnside and Craig Custance. Here we go.
BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend. As the days dwindle down toward the end of the regular season, I am more and more convinced that there will be only room for either the San Jose Sharks or the Los Angeles Kings in the postseason dance. Shocking, really, given that I think most prognosticators liked both teams to easily qualify for the playoffs and battle tooth and nail for the Pacific Division title. Now, given the mediocrity in the Pacific, I suppose that’s still possible. But the schedule-makers have set up a dynamic that suggests only one will survive, and right now it looks like the talented Sharks will be on the outside looking in. In spite of getting Martin Havlat back into the fold, the Sharks continue to stumble around without a clue. Tuesday night they were mauled by the Kings in Los Angeles by a 5-2 count. They were outshot 42-22 as the Kings won their fifth straight and jumped into eighth place in the conference. The Sharks, meanwhile, languish in 10th place. Yes, they’re just two points out of eighth place but is there anything that suggests they’re capable of mounting a challenge to the teams ahead of them? The Sharks have won just three of their past 11 games and, perhaps worse for them, finish the season with a home-and-home against the Kings. Their goaltending has been shoddy, they can’t get timely scoring and seem to lack the kind of leadership needed to get over the hump. After two straight trips to the Western Conference final, this would be a huge setback, needless to say, but would it be the kind of setback that causes a dramatic change at the top?
CUSTANCE: There's no doubt that the Sharks missing the playoffs would be a colossal failure, and not just because I picked them to win the Stanley Cup. How you can get blown out 5-2 in an absolutely crucial game against the Kings is beyond me. That kind of effort is mystifying.
If this team misses the playoffs, some decisions in team construction will definitely be scrutinized. Hitching the wagon to Antti Niemi isn't looking like the smartest move. Since the All-Star break, Niemi is 7-10-4 with a 2.81 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. The deadline-day decision to send Jamie McGinn to Colorado for T.J. Galiardi and Daniel Winnik isn't panning out either. McGinn has 10 points in 11 games for the Avalanche, while Galiardi and Winnik have combined for exactly one point. Playoff teams need secondary scoring and the Sharks aren't getting it.
But if you look at the big picture, there aren't many GMs who have put their teams in position to win in the playoffs more often than Doug Wilson has in his tenure with San Jose. I'd have a real hard time making any changes to the duo of Wilson and coach Todd McLellan considering they've made two consecutive trips to the West finals. And the playoffs are a funny thing. Let's say the Sharks manage to grab the No. 8 seed in the West and face the Blues in the first round. Which team would you bet the kid's college fund on?
BURNSIDE: Well, I don’t think the Sharks are going to make it so your excellent question of whether the Sharks could affect a major upset in the playoffs is going to be moot (and I’m not just saying that because you picked the Sharks to win the Cup, although I do kind of enjoy that part of it). One of the reasons the table is tilted against San Jose, beyond having two more games against the Kings, is that Dallas, Phoenix and Colorado continue to collect points. I watched that Dallas-Phoenix tilt Tuesday night and, with the Pacific Division lead on the line, the teams didn’t disappoint with an often chippy performance that had definite playoff intensity (ask Jamie Benn, who took a nasty Shane Doan elbow to the noggin). The Coyotes erased a 3-1 lead and then had three or four glorious chances to win it in overtime but Kari Lehtonen was superlative. You and I have saw Lehtonen up close in Atlanta during his formative years and I remain skeptical he is a franchise goalie kind of guy. But his play in the last month or so for a Dallas team that looked like it was a bubble playoff team has been impressive. He stopped 27 of 30 shots and then all three in the shootout. He has won eight of 10. I spoke with president Jim Lites Tuesday and the Stars’ strong play is translating into terrific crowds for the Stars after playing to an empty house for much of the first half of the season. Good news for the Stars. Bad news for the Sharks.
CUSTANCE: Oh, I think Lehtonen has done more than enough to earn the franchise label during the second half of this season. He's answered questions regarding his durability and the only question remaining is how he'll respond to the pressure of the playoffs. Last time I saw him get ready for the postseason, he dyed his hair Thrashers blue in a stunt that rubbed veteran teammates the wrong way. I think it's safe to say he's grown up considerably since 2007, when he gave up 11 goals in two playoff games against the Rangers. That kick save he made last night on Oliver Ekman-Larsson in overtime was absolutely phenomenal. Remember that one if Dallas wins the Pacific by a point. And Joe Nieuwendyk's quiet offseason addition of Michael Ryder continues to pay off. He had another two goals last night in helping the Stars hold off the Coyotes and now has 32 goals this season. He has 10 points in nine games this month. Unbelievable. You mentioned that Shane Doan elbow on Jamie Benn, I'm thinking that could be trouble for Phoenix. Doan was fined last week and Brendan Shanahan hasn't gone easy on players he's had to have multiple conversations with this season. Doan has a hearing with the league Wednesday and if he's out any length of time, that could crush playoff hopes in Phoenix. That team is remarkably resilient, but Doan is the Coyotes' heart and soul.
BURNSIDE: Ah, how fondly I remember that blue dye job during the Thrashers’ one and only playoff run (stumble?). One game I’ll be keeping an eye on Wednesday night will be Vancouver’s visit to Chicago. The Blackhawks are on a tear. Even without captain Jonathan Toews, whose continued absence due to concussion symptoms remains a major concern for Hawks fans, Chicago has turned in some of its best all-around performances in recent days. Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane were impressive in 5-2 spanking of Washington on Sunday and they will put a four-game winning streak on the line tonight against the Canucks. A win could put the Hawks in a tie with Nashville and Detroit after it looked not so long ago that Chicago was destined for a fourth-place finish in the Central. Meanwhile, a fan asked during my chat Monday whether the Canucks’ tepid play of late was cause for concern, and I suggested that this is a team with little left to play for at this stage of the season. They’re too far behind St. Louis for a realistic run at the top seed in the conference or the Presidents’ Trophy and they’re miles ahead of Colorado in the Northwest. But their seeming inability to get ready for games, especially for games against lesser opponents like Minnesota, which beat them 2-0 on Monday, or Montreal has to be troubling for Canucks fans. Vancouver has won just three times in 10 games and one of those wins was against lowly Columbus. In short, one would imagine Chicago is a team Vancouver shouldn’t have any trouble getting up for. Should be a fun one.
CUSTANCE: It's always fun when those two teams go at it. I agree with you on the Canucks. Things are so tight in this league that if a group is even the slightest bit off or a step behind the opponent, it makes winning nearly impossible. A lot of the good teams have gone through stretches like we're seeing Vancouver endure right now and I think motivation plays a big part in that. The Canucks face a Chicago team that is clicking. You mentioned the strong play up front but I also think the Blackhawks are starting to reap the benefits of the Johnny Oduya trade that allowed Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith to reunite. Those two are playing well, with Keith putting up four assists in the win over Columbus. Seabrook led the team in ice time and was a plus-2. If those two are clicking and Toews can get healthy, that's an extremely dangerous team come playoff time. We joked about it on the podcast yesterday but they might want to ease up on the throttle. They're sitting comfortably in the No. 6 spot, which would mean a first-round series against the Pacific winner. To me, that's much more attractive than moving up to No. 5 and potentially facing a loaded Predators team that gave Chicago fits the last time they squared off in the postseason. Speaking of the Predators, time to get ready for the Alexander Radulov news conference. It's been fun Scott, enjoy the games.