Defenses tightening up as Blackhawks visit San Jose in showdown of NHL’s best
BY MARK LAZERUS firstname.lastname@example.org February 5, 2013 4:57PM
Chicago Blackhawks v San Jose Sharks
Updated: February 5, 2013 7:26PM
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Through four games this season, San Jose’s Patrick Marleau was on pace for 96 goals — in a 48-game schedule. Through two games this season, the Blackhawks were on pace for 264 goals — 16 more than they scored in last season’s 82-game slate.
“Hard to imagine guys like Patrick Marleau could keep scoring two goals a game, so I guess things have to tighten up at some point,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said with a smile.
It didn’t take long. After about a week of freewheeling, wide-open hockey to open the shortened post-lockout season, defenses have once again taken over the NHL. Marleau, after scoring two goals in each of San Jose’s first four games, hadn’t scored in his last four games leading into Tuesday night’s game against the Hawks — a matchup of the top two teams in the league. And the Hawks, after scoring 11 times in wins over Los Angeles and Phoenix to open the season, haven’t scored more than three in a game since.
Even for teams as deep and talented as the Hawks and Sharks, the early pace simply wasn’t sustainable.
“The first few games for us were fantasy games, where you score six goals in one period and you motor along and things are going really well,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “Now you’re into the grind. We’re through that training camp phase, if you will, and we’re into the grind. We’re into the 2-1 games, the 3-2 games, the tight-checking, under-30-shots-a-night type of games. This is what it’s going to be. This is reality.”
Toews said the early scoring binges were a product of a shortened training camp and a lack of a preseason. That lost practice time meant many players around the league were still unsettled on new teams in new schemes, and others just didn’t have their timing down. That gave offenses an advantage in the early going.
“You could expect that without the preseason, teams were going to make more mistakes early on,” he said. “It’s no coincidence. Most offense comes off of broken plays, where defenders are making those mistakes and chances open up.”
Still, few teams boast the firepower that the Hawks and Sharks do. That, combined with stellar goaltending — the Hawks’ Corey Crawford entered the game at 5-0-2 with a 1.66 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage, while ex-Hawk Antti Niemi was 6-0-1 with 1.80 GAA and .936 save percentage — have the two teams atop the standings.
The Hawks entered the game atop the Western Conference — and the league — with 16 points, with San Jose one point back. The Hawks have yet to lose in regulation, while the Sharks suffered their first loss of the season on Monday night, a tight, 2-1 defeat at Anaheim.
Former Hawks agitator Adam Burish, in his first year with the Sharks after two seasons in Dallas, said slowing down the Hawks’ skill players was key. While only the Tampa Bay Lightning have scored more goals than San Jose, no team has given up fewer.
“Playing against the Hawks, you’ve got to be careful [about] making it into a racehorse game,” said Burish, who like Niemi was on the Hawks’ Stanley Cup championship team in 2010. “Because if you make it a trading-chances game, it’s tough to play against them. They’re dangerous that way.”
Regardless of whether the offenses or defenses dominated, the Hawks and Sharks both expected a high-tempo, high-intensity, playoff-like atmosphere. As of right now, these are the two best teams in hockey, and they both intend to stay there.
“These games are always fun,” Hawks winger Patrick Kane said. “San Jose, Chicago — both teams seem to be really good this year and obviously want to prove something to the world.”