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Surging Sharks primed for long Stanley Cup run

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Surging Sharks primed for long Stanley Cup run

April 12, 2011
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Kevin Kurz
CSNBayArea.com

Its been quite the ride for the Sharks since the calendar flipped to 2011.

Left for dead by fans and pundits across the league after an ugly six-game losing streak to begin the new year, San Jose's 27-6-4 run since Jan. 15 has made it the pick-du-jour by many to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.

And for good reason.

After naming Antti Niemi the starting goaltender, the Sharks made a firm commitment to their defensive game and were able to win some low-scoring contests. Soon after, the offense picked up across the board. A couple of small, yet effective moves by GM Doug Wilson boosted the teams depth and toughness, and the acquisition of the underrated Ian White meant the Sharks would be spending less time in their own end.

What emerged is a team that has all the makings of a champion.

RATTO: Sharks face familiar first-round foe

Yes, youve heard this before, only to be disappointed year after year while watching a roster chock full of elite players fall flat on their faces when the lights are shining brightest.

Could this year end up as another disappointment? Of course. The NHLs annual two-month war of attrition is about as predictable as a night on the town with Charlie Sheen. But there are a few reasons this Sharks team is better prepared than in years past.

STARTS WITH NIEMI

Lets begin in net.

Niemi is the only Cup-winning goaltender in the conference who is still playing. While net play isnt as important as it was pre-lockout, its still a huge factor. Niemi didnt have to be spectacular in the playoffs last season, playing behind such a talented Chicago team (in fact, in the Finals against Philadelphia, he was decidedly average). He does, however, make the saves that he needs to make, rarely allowing a bad goal. Theres no question that his teammates trust him to hold the fort once the playoffs begin. After all, many of them were first-hand witnesses last May when Niemis Blackhawks ended the Sharks season in a four-game sweep.

That confidence may have been missing in recent years, after Evgeni Nabokov failed to maintain his level of play from the regular season into the postseason. The Sharks skaters know firsthand that Niemi can carry the load in the playoffs, and do it well -- which can make a world of difference.

NBC: Five players with the most Stanley Cup pressure

BALANCED SCORING

The Sharks were one of just two teams to end the year with seven 20-goal scorers (Philadelphia was the other, although Kris Versteeg scored most of his goals while still on Toronto). All seven are forwards, and spread out across the teams top-three scoring lines. Last season? San Jose relied mainly upon its Big Three, as Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley were the unquestioned leaders of the offense.

The biggest addition, of course, is rookie Logan Couture. The Calder Trophy candidate made a good account of himself in 15 playoff games last year with four goals, but hell be looked upon to carry a much bigger role this time around. Couture certainly doesnt lack any confidence, and with eight game-winning goals this season, has shown he has a knack for timely scoring -- which is what playoff hockey is all about.

RELATED: Kings roster stats injuries depth chart
DEFENSIVE DEPTH

Wilson knew early on last summer that he would have to address Rob Blakes retirement at the end of the 2009-10 season. He tried over the summer to no avail, but kept his patience before jumping on the opportunity to land the well-rounded White to his roster without have to give up a whole lot to Carolina in return.

The move paid immediate dividends.

The 5-10, 200-pound blueliner has provided a steady presence in the Sharks zone. He makes a good first pass, is rarely caught out of position, and can contribute on special teams with his right-handed shot. In 23 games with San Jose hes been a minus player just four times, which is a reflections of just how defensively responsible he is.

Hell likely be leaned upon for more minutes against first-round opponent Los Angeles -- along with fellow defensemen Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic -- to help mask the sometimes careless play of Jason Demers (whose game improved dramatically throughout the season) and Niclas Wallin. The Sharks defense corps should be good enough to take the team where it wants to go.

BATTLE-READY

In the season's second half, the Sharks had to fight and claw for every point in the tight Western Conference race, particularly when it became apparent that there wouldnt be any sort of opportunity to put things on cruise control.

Does it make them more prepared for playoff hockey?

Thats one popular theory,and a quick peek at recent NHL history shows its validity. The Sharks of yesteryear could attest to that, as could last seasons version of the Washington Capitals, who bowed out in the first round to Montreal after easily finishing first in the conference.

Flying under the radar may serve the Sharks well, even with all of the national attention they seem to be getting lately. The Vancouver Canucks will be the heavy favorites after one of the more impressive regular seasons in recent memory, but with a tragic season-ending eye injury to third-line center and former Shark Manny Malhotra, a blue line that had to deal with numerous long-term injuries throughout the season, and Roberto Luongos failed playoff runs of the past it could be the Sharks doing the upsetting should the teams meet in the Western Conference finals.

THIN ICE

Naturally, there's no shortage of pitfalls for the Sharks. The penalty-killing down the stretch was concerning; power forward Ryane Clowes health is a question mark; and the failings of past Sharks teams will always loom over the current group until it gets to the Finals or wins it all.

RELATED: Clowe's return comes at perfect time

The beauty of the NHL playoffs is that the team that wants it the most is, more times than not, the team that ends up victorious.

The Sharks want it, and theyre capable of it. Will they do it? Time will tell, but the ride could be just getting started.

Kevin Kurz is a producer with Comcast Sports Group Interactive in Philadelphia.

What's caused Warriors' slow start and why it should come as no surprise

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What's caused Warriors' slow start and why it should come as no surprise

It’s much too early to get legitimately nervous, much less start tumbling into a panic.

The Warriors are going to be fine.

Eventually.

They most certainly are not yet what they will become in about two weeks, when they settle in for a four-game homestand that begins Nov. 6. That’s 10 games into the season, and it’s conceivable the Warriors might be 6-4.

After a 111-101 loss to the ever-tenacious Grizzlies on Saturday in Memphis, the Warriors are 1-2 and, by their lofty standard, looking about as lost as a stray cat in a hurricane.

“We’re obviously not ready. We knew that,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We’re not ready to put together a full effort. And I’m not doing a great job of putting together combinations, finding the right motivation to get guys going, to get some joy and laughter in here.

“It’s just one of those rough patches. And, hopefully, we can climb our way out of it. I’m sure we will. It may take some time.”

It will take some time, and of that there is plenty.

Do not blame this lull entirely on China, not when there is so much more. The Warriors are coming off their third consecutive prolonged season, this one followed by the training camp disruption caused by spending eight days in Oakland, eight days in China, followed by eight days in Oakland leading up to opening night.

It’s easy to see the timing is off on an offense that relies on precision. The spacing is off on an offense that requires room to operate. The energy is lacking on a defense that lapses into ordinary without its bedrock intensity. Both body and spirit appear less than peak.

“We’ve been playing hard,” Kevin Durant told reporters at FedEx Forum, “but I think we’ve got to take it up a level.

“We’ll be fine. It’s 79 more games left. I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

Understand, a team that won an NBA-best 67 games last season and posted a league-record 16-1 postseason doesn’t lose it because opponents load up. When the Warriors are on their game, opponents don’t matter.

For now, though, there is an individual listlessness that results in collective slumber. Stephen Curry has gambled himself in foul trouble in both losses and was booted in Memphis. Andre Iguodala missed an entire game and Draymond Green missed the fourth quarter of the first loss, a game in which the Warriors gave up a 13-point lead over the final 12 minutes.

And Durant’s 4.6 blocks per game is impressive. It also happens to be offset by his 6.3 turnovers per game.

“That’s on me,” he said. “I’m turning the ball over at a high rate right now. I’m really pissed at myself about it. I’ve just got to hold on to the ball. Just make the correct pass. I think I’m just rushing. I just need to calm down, settle down, and that would ignite the whole team. But if I turn the ball over, that’s contagious.”

The Rockets turned 17 Warriors giveaways into 21 points. The Pelicans turned 14 into 20. The Grizzlies turned 17 into 24.

Asked what has to change, Klay Thompson went to exactly the right place, saying “probably our defensive intensity from the jump.”

That’s where it starts, at least on the court. Meanwhile, there is more video work, more group texts about details and the need for more time for their bodies and minds to become one.

“We’ll be better,” Durant said. “We’re still finding a groove with each other. We’re still getting back into shape as far as playing our game, the flow, just the reads off not calling plays. We’ve got to get used to that again.”

Thompson is, however, displaying a modicum of impatience.

“We’ll come out Monday and we’ll play a great game,” he said. “I guarantee it.”

He’s probably right. The Warriors will be playing at Dallas, against a Mavericks team that is built to be devoured by the powerful.

That might be a quick fix. But it won’t be the final fix. That is weeks away.

Astros win two straight vs Yankees, advance to take on Dodgers in World Series

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Astros win two straight vs Yankees, advance to take on Dodgers in World Series

BOX SCORE

HOUSTON -- Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers combined on a three-hitter, Jose Altuve and Evan Gattis homered and the Houston Astros reached the World Series, blanking the New York Yankees 4-0 Saturday night in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.

Just four years removed from their third straight 100-loss season in 2013, the Astros shut down the Yankees for two straight games after dropping three in a row in the Bronx.

Next up for the Astros: Game 1 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night. Los Angeles opened as a narrow favorite, but Houston aces Dallas Keuchel and ALCS MVP Justin Verlander will have plenty of rest before the matchup begins at Dodger Stadium.

Houston has never won even a single World Series game. The only previous time the Astros made it this far, they were a National League team when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005.

Now, manager A.J. Hinch's club has a chance to win that elusive first title, while trying to boost a region still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

Houston improved to 6-0 at Minute Maid Park in these playoffs and became the fifth team in major league history to win a seven-game postseason series by winning all four of its home games.

Morton bounced back from a loss in Game 3 to allow two hits over five scoreless innings. Starter-turned-postseason reliever McCullers limited the Yankees to just one hit while fanning six over the next four.

Combined, they throttled the wild-card Yankees one last time in Houston. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and their New York teammates totaled just three runs in the four road games.

CC Sabathia entered the game 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts this season after a Yankees loss. But he struggled with command and was gone with one out in the fourth inning.

Houston was up 2-0 in fifth when former Yankees star Brian McCann came through for the second straight game by hitting a two-run double after snapping an 0-for-20 skid with an ground-rule RBI double to give Houston its first run on Friday night.

The Yankees, trying to reach the World Series for the first time since 2009, lost an elimination game for the first time this season after winning their first four in these playoffs. New York struggled on the road this postseason, with this loss dropping the team to 1-6.

After going 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position through the first three innings, the Astros got on the board with no outs in the fourth with the 405-foot shot by Gattis off Sabathia which made it 1-0.

Altuve launched a ball off Tommy Kahnle into the seats in right field with one out in the fifth for his fifth homer this postseason. It took a while for him to see that it was going to get out, and held onto his bat until he was halfway to first base before flipping it and trotting around the bases as chants of "MVP" rained down on him.

Altuve finished 8 for 25 with two homers and four RBIs in the ALCS after hitting .533 with three homers and four RBIs in the ALDS against Boston.

Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel hit consecutive singles after that before Kahnle struck out Gattis. McCann's two-strike double, which rolled into the corner of right field, cleared the bases to push the lead to 4-0. Gurriel slid to avoid the tag and remained on his belly in a swimming pose at the plate for a few seconds after he was called safe.

It was just the second Game 7 in franchise history for the Astros, who dropped Game 7 to the Cardinals in the 2004 NLCS 13 years ago today.

Sabathia allowed five hits and one run while walking three in 3 1/3 innings. He wasn't nearly as sharp as he was in a Game 3 win and just 36 of the 65 pitches he threw were strikes.

Morton got into trouble in the fifth, and the Yankees had runners at the corners with one out. Bregman fielded a grounder hit by Todd Frazier and made a perfect throw home to allow McCann to tag Greg Bird and preserve Houston's lead. McCann held onto the ball despite Bird's cleat banging into his forearm. Chase Headley grounded out after that to end the inning.

A night after Springer kept Frazier from extra-bases with a leaping catch, Judge returned the favor on a ball hit by Yuli Gurriel. Judge sprinted, jumped and reached into the stands to grab his long fly ball before crashing into the wall and falling to the ground for the first out of the second inning.

Springer had another nifty catch in this one, jumping in front of Marwin Gonzalez at the wall in left-center to grab a ball hit by Bird for the first out of the seventh inning.