Overwhelming was not the right word for it.
Passable might suffice.
The San Jose Sharks are still alive in the Stanley Cup final, escaping by the skin of their (shark) teeth in Game 3 with a 3-2 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on the weekend. You can debate which team deserved the win – it was a close, hard-fought game – but again there were holes exposed in the Sharks and again they were badly outshot.
What’s remarkable about that – and this series in general – is one of San Jose’s primary strengths all season was shot suppression. They led the NHL in shots against per minute at even strength. They also led the league in shots and missed shots against per minute.
Getting looks at the Sharks net has been difficult all season.
It hasn’t been in this series.
Three games in, the Penguins have more than 62 per cent of the shots on goal at even strength. They have 58 per cent of the shots plus missed shots and 64 per cent of the “high danger” scoring chances (according to war-on-ice.com). They have also had more than 60 per cent of the faceoffs in the offensive zone.
Territorially, they’ve controlled the series – and that’s become the story of the series.
The explanation that’s been given on the broadcasts and in most of the coverage is that the Penguins are winning with speed, and that’s true to a point. They’re the smaller, quicker team, as is typically the case in the Eastern Conference. Increasingly, it seems to be what wins in the NHL.
But Pittsburgh skaters such as Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy and Nick Bonino, among others, aren’t particularly fast players. Part of what’s winning this series for the Penguins is tactics. Coach Mike Sullivan deserves credit for being able to take advantage of his team’s strengths – offensive talent and ability with the puck throughout the lineup – and the Sharks weaknesses – some bigger, slower players down the lineup who mishandle the puck.
San Jose’s strength, meanwhile – dominating the cycle deep in the offensive zone – has been mitigated by the fact only Joe Thornton’s line is spending much time there.
Those tactics were talked about a little bit after Game 3. Instead of the traditional dump and chase, the Penguins are using more of a chip and chase – placing pucks in good spots in the neutral zone or the shallow portion of the offensive zone and skating into them. Their no-name D (aside from Kris Letang) has done a nice job of breaking the puck out assertively and finding the forwards with this simple approach in mind.
“Pittsburgh’s been able to stretch San Jose’s defence away from their forwards by making clean breakouts or creating foot races that they win,” TSN analyst Ray Ferraro said. “Or, if they don’t win them, now the puck is in the offensive zone. It’s [then] compounded by San Jose’s inability to shut off the cycle.”
Sportsnet’s Mike Johnson also credits the Penguins for using a swarm type defence in the neutral zone and blocking a lot of shots – 40 per cent of every attempt by the Sharks – for some of the series disparities.
That said, Game 3 was the Sharks’ best so far. They countered some of the Penguins tendencies by being ready to intercept the “chip” plays. As a result, they produced close to the same number of quality scoring chances, despite missing first-liner Tomas Hertl because of an injury.
“That’s their game,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said of Pittsburgh’s “chip and chase” attack. “We’re aware of it. You have to respect their speed. That’s a huge part of what they do.”
Thornton was particularly impressive. He had two assists – putting him up to 17 in 21 playoff games – and a better than 60-per-cent possession rating.
It was also the best outing for second-line centre Logan Couture and the defence pair of Marc-Édouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, who did a nice job of limiting Sidney Crosby all night.
Where things are going wrong for San Jose, however, is with their depth players. With their third and fourth lines on the ice, the Sharks have been outshot 2-to-1 at even strength. Their third defence pairing of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak is at roughly 42 per cent possession, the worst of any unit in the series. They were under 40 per cent in Game 3.
Subtract those minutes, this is a much closer series.
Subtracting those minutes, in fact, is likely the way the Sharks need to go if they’re going to have a hope of winning this series.
There’s no question the Penguins are a difficult team to match up against. They have three of the NHL’s top 10 scorers in the past five years on three different lines (Crosby is second, Evgeni Malkin seventh and Phil Kessel ninth). It’s extremely difficult to shelter lines or pairings when one or those three is always out there.
That’s what gave Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning fits in earlier rounds, and it’s why players like Melker Karlsson, Chris Tierney and Polak have been exposed. Pittsburgh’s offensive depth is a bit, well, weird in the salary-cap era, and it’s working for them in this postseason.
In the face of that, DeBoer needs to push his top players to their limits. At most, there are four games left in their season, and only Brent Burns has been playing more than 24 minutes a game in the final. Vlasic can log more than 22 minutes 48 seconds a game, for one.
There have been hardly any penalties in this series, which means a lot of even-strength ice and rolling of lines. But giving 16-plus minutes a game to Dillon and Polak, and nearly 25 minutes a game to the third and fourth lines, is killing any momentum San Jose can generate 5-on-5.
Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks have won it all in recent years by going almost wholly to four D, and that makes a lot of sense here. The Penguins are a special opponent, and it will likely take a different tack to beat them. The Sharks can’t rely on a deadly power play to save them if there are no power plays.
“The marathon is over,” Sharks television analyst and alum Jamie Baker said. “It’s a sprint now so it’s easier to shorten the bench, if necessary. It’s whatever it takes to win three games.”
It’s going to have to be more than we’ve seen through three games – or the Penguins will win the Stanley Cup.
Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020
Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.
Theo Bair (MLS)
This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)
Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.
Connor McDavid (NHL)
McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.
Chuba Hubbard (College Football)
The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.
2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.
The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.
Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.
Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.
“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”
Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.
Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.
“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”
Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.
“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”
Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.
Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.
“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”
After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.
“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”
None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.
“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.
Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.
“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”
That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.
Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month
NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.
The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.
Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.
“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.
“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”
It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.
For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.
Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.
A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.
It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.
Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.
“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.
“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.
“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.
“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”
And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.
“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”
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