Ray Ratto

Why the Sharks are about to be the NHL's biggest villains

Why the Sharks are about to be the NHL's biggest villains

Anything can happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, nothing is done until it’s done, the fourth win is the hardest, and blah-blah-blah-de-blah-blah. I’m still going to say this – the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Embryos are second-round opponents, and that’s the deal.
 
This means that for perhaps the first time since the Philadelphia Flyers’ terror cell known as the Broad Street Bullies of the mid-70s, there will be a clear, unambiguous and almost universal interest on one side of this equation.
 
And it isn’t going to be San Jose.
 
Vegas is Turbo-Cinderella, the expansion team that can’t be killed, a heartwarming tale of the meek kicking Earth’s ass. By winning more games by themselves than most full expansion classes in either hockey or basketball, the Knights have enveloped themselves in the admiration of the industry and even casual fans who know that expansion teams are required by federal and dominion law to stink. They are the perfect antidote to the inherent cynicism in any system. They are love in a world that runs on hate.
 
There, I think we’ve made the point.
 
On the other side is San Jose, a team who has succeeded on the periphery of the NHL diaspora. They have never been darlings outside the 408, and have been criticized more for losing consistently to the hump they should have gotten over by now. But essentially, they are good but inoffensive, and their fan base is loud but neither deep nor truly rabid. They have taken good and made it their base camp without venturing too far from it.
 
None of which matters in these circumstances, though. Everybody with an opinion wants Vegas because The Narrative, which means that nobody with an interest wants the Sharks. And when we say “nobody,” we mean “nobody except Sharks fans and the Vegas books,” which will be taking more bets on Vegas than they have taken on the last 15 Cup Finals combined.
 
But you get the point. Everyone wants Vegas. Vegas wants Vegas, the other 29 teams wants Vegas, the league office wants Vegas, television wants Vegas, radio wants Vegas, web sites and newspapers want Vegas. People who hate hockey want Vegas. The only entity with this kind of popular unanimity is Beyonce.
 
That means San Jose is the villain, and worse, a bland villain. They don’t play dirty, they don’t cheat, they don’t talk smack, they don’t have a great player anyone truly hates they haven’t inflated pucks or illegally filmed opponents’ practices, their coach isn’t a contemptuous jerk, their owner isn’t a notoriously financial predator, none of it. They will be hated simply for existing in the path of the Vegas Goodwill Train over the next two weeks. And fair has nothing to do with it.
 
So if you say “Go Sharks!” do it with a smile, and prepare to duck. You are swimming against a massive tide, and the only way to survive it is to ride the wave.
 
And if you cannot hold your temper and simply must get yours back, then just snarl, “I hope you get a Columbus-Winnipeg Cup Final,” and then walk away. It may not be much of a retort, but let’s face it, you’re not playing a strong hand. North America hates you. Deal with it.

Sharks have a chance to make 2014 collapse a hilarious memory

Sharks have a chance to make 2014 collapse a hilarious memory

’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.
’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.
’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.

The more you say it, the more hypnotic it becomes.

Those are the four teams to take, and then return, 3-0 series leads in Stanley Cup history. That’s out of 209 total series. If you throw in the one time the New York Yankees gave the Boston Red Sox life after death, it’s 245-5, and the NBA, in which this has never happened, makes it 346-5 (h/t WhoWins.com: https://bit.ly/2H7PFkd ).

We mention this, obviously, not because we think this will be San Jose’s fate yet again now that they have taken their sixth-ever 3-0 lead by hammering the Anaheim Ducks, 8-1, Monday night, but because their fifth 3-0 lead and what they did with it is the most seismic event in franchise history. Hell, you probably barely remember their first four 3-0 leads (4-2 over Colorado in 2004, 4-1 over Detroit in 2010, 4-3 over Detroit in 2011 as the harbinger of events not yet formed, and the sweep over Vancouver in 2013) because the expected survival and advancement occurred, unlike . . .

’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.
’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.
’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.

It is the most indelible part of their history, and will be until they get their own parade. It led to the end of the Todd McLellan era and the beginning of the Peter DeBoer regime. It took the team’s reputation as too soft for the hard work and set it in vibranium. It certainly snapped them out of their self-satisfied torpor and made them, slowly but surely, a leaner and hungrier group.

But now here they are again, playing well enough to make most people think that they can finish this series Wednesday night and complete the second series sweep in franchise history (see, nobody ever talks about that Vancouver series the year before The Great Faceplant, do they?). They have taken a series most people considered too close to call and made it the most lopsided of the first round. They have pummeled Anaheim goalie John Gibson (14 goals) while keeping their own, Martin Jones, relatively free from persistent harm (three allowed), and they have watched Anaheim lose its composure repeatedly in failed attempts to goad them into retaliation penalties and turn the game into a dock fight.

They have played definitive playoff hockey, and there is no evidence to suggest that this will change four times. Maybe not even once. Still . . .

’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.
’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.
’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.

And let’s be clear that the sins of that 2014 team are clearly not those of this one. Yes, six of the players from that team have helped forged this lead (alphabetically, Justin Braun, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, not to mention the ghost of Joe Thornton) were on that ’14 team, but too much has been burned away in the meantime, including their only Stanley Cup Final appearance two years later. Besides, the ’42 Red Wings won the Cup in ’43, and the ’10 Bruins won in ’11. The ’75 Penguins needed 16 years and Mario Lemieux, but history isn’t always so tidy.

Oh, and the Yankees won the World Series five years after taking the pipe. Just for the sake of thoroughness.

In short, it is trite at best and wrong at worst to say that the worst thing that ever happened to the Sharks could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Indeed, this is probably just a historical glitch that swine like me will bring up just because there is work to do and space to fill. And if they close out this series Wednesday night, 2014 will just be a hilarious memory, as the others eventually became.

Until then, though . . .

’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.
’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.
’42 Wings. ’75 Penguins. ’10 Bruins. ’14 Sharks.

Because it happened. And it changed them all.

The Warriors turned it on at will. Again.

The Warriors turned it on at will. Again.

Let’s put it this way. It took a lot longer for the San Antonio Spurs to feel the gravitational pull of the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 than Game 1. But it happened anyway, and now the last true adjustment in Gregg Popovich’s arsenal is the fact that Games 3 and 4 will be in Texas – the one place where the present Spurs are still the historical Spurs.

True, geography is a poor substitute for superior talent, roster depth or tactical wizardry, but tactical wizardry only works when the wizard has instruments within arm’s length to make those ideas come alive. Thus, San Antonio is left to rely Thursday and Sunday on the comforts of home – and friendlier rims, and more commodious backgrounds, and supportive fans.

If that’s your idea of an adjustment. And it probably isn’t.

Monday’s 116-101 choke-slam looked a lot like Saturday’s 113-92 throttling, only more condensed. The Spurs started Rudy Gay instead of Kyle Anderson, they double-teamed Kevin Durant and then Klay Thompson and then back again, and crowded whichever of the two wasn’t being doubled. They forced the Warriors into 11 first-half turnovers, and they got an inspired game from LaMarcus Aldridge.

And then the second half happened, just as the whole of Game 1 happened. The Warriors won the second half by precisely the same margin – 21 points – that they won all of Game 1, taking the Spurs’ best competitive instincts and reducing them to a single statistic.

14.3 percent, on 28 three-pointers, to Golden State’s 48.4 (15 of 31).

That 45-12 discrepancy wiped out San Antonio’s 53-47 halftime lead, neutralized the turnover imbalance and reduced San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich to a conciliatory tone that hinted at inevitability. He praised his team’s increased fight and attention to detail, spoke highly of Aldridge (34/12) and Gay, and then headed to the reason why Golden State looks so, well, Golden State-y.

“You gotta make shots,” he said. “It’s been like that all season on the road for whatever reason, and that makes it difficult.”

No, damned near impossible. The Warriors’ starters, which included JaVale McGee and Andre Iguodala again, shot 55 percent (34 of 62, 13 of 26 from afar), and the only real failings were 15 turnovers and David West’s tweaked ankle in the fourth quarter. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson were – well, 63 points’ worth on 39 shots, and metrics only embellish that central truth. The Warriors, if you’ll forgive the narrative whoring, turned it on at will. Again.

“We just met their level of physicality and force,” head coach Steve Kerr said, without referring to tactical changes at all. “They just took it to us the whole first half. They were tremendous defensively . . . so in the second half, we matched their effort level and we were able to get the upper hand.”

And, he omitted to add, close that hand at throat level, taking a worrisome first half for the customers and turning it into a Warriors-standard game.

All that said, the Spurs’ considerable limitations in this series do not preclude them from stealing a game in San Antonio, if such a thing can be said about a team that has won its last 11 home games. Golden State’s oppressive dominance may seem like a return to the good old days, but it still feels more like increased focus combined with a very favorable matchup.

But if we see this game again at AT&T Thursday and/or Sunday, the Warriors may get that smell in their nostrils again and use it as fuel in subsequent rounds. They may just be beating a depleted and inaccurate team whose best player has apparently returned to his home planet for repurposing and perhaps relocation, but the way they are doing it is as nostalgia-inducing as it is breathtaking.

And that has proven over most of the last three years to beat tactics every time.