Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
The Sharks are here tonight? Wait, didn't we just play these guys? Yes, that game was at San Jose Saturday afternoon. Yet, weren't the Sharks here just three weeks ago? Yes, that's right, and they squeezed out a 2-1 victory over the Blues on a Tim Kennedy (who?) slap-shot in the third period. Some kid in goal named Jake Allen took the loss, his first (and only) defeat wearing the Bluenote in seven games. He only made 15 saves, so he must not be very good, right? (Wrong!) Well, since the Sharks threw their bodies around and out-hit the Blues Saturday, especially that big guy Thornton, this should make for a really good, rough and tumble game, right? Absolutely!
The Blues and Sharks always seem to play close, tightly-contested games as they unmercifully batter each other in an attempt to gain that slight edge that translates to victory. And their records so far this shortened season reflect that similarity and proximity in the Western Conference standings. The biggest difference between the two is that the Sharks play much better at home than on the road, while the Blues have found more success on the road, as illustrated in Saturday's thrilling come-from-behind overtime victory in which Vlad Sobotka celebrated a hat trick and Patrik Berglund tipped in the winning goal in overtime, his team-leading 12th of the season. So, tonight's contest will decide the season series in what will undoubtedly be yet another barn-burner.
With 20/20 hindsight, the original owners of the franchise in 1990 would have named their expansion club the San Jose Sphinx. And that's simply because the Sharks continue to be a puzzling and enigmatic hockey team that confuses and confounds its coaching staff and fans. Loaded with both offensive and defensive talent, San Jose always boasts a powerful line-up on paper. However, hockey is played on ice, not paper, and the Sharks have never been able to win a Conference championship or Stanley Cup and have only one President's Trophy in 21 seasons. This season illustrates the conundrum perfectly. The Sharks roared out of the gate, winning their first seven games in January, outscoring opponents 29 to 12. February brought disaster, though, as San Jose promptly lost the next seven in a row, albeit three in bonus time. The Sharks then split the next eight evenly before losing to the Blues in overtime Saturday. Nor have the scheduling gods of the NHL made the next eight games easy for San Jose as they played in Denver Sunday, make a stop here tonight, and then return to California to face the Kings Thursday in San Jose. Then it's off to Los Angeles, Anaheim, Edmonton, Minnesota and back to Anaheim.They return to the Tank to meet the Ducks again on March 27 and the Red Wings the following night. That's 11 games in 20 days. Whew!
The Blues/Sharks rivalry has also extended into the playoffs. One of the most memorable series was the opening round in 2000 when the Sharks upset the heavily favored Blues in seven games. That was the year St. Louis won the President's Trophy with an excellent team under then coach Joel Quenneville. Offensive stars Pavol Demitra, Pierre Turgeon, and Scott Young put the puck in the net and defensemen Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger and Marc Bergevin kept the puck out of the net (for the most part). Goaltender Roman Turek had an outstanding season, winning the Jennings Trophy with seven shutouts and a sparkling 1.95 goals against average.
The Blues won the first game in St. Louis behind Jochen Hecht's two goals, but lost game two. Leading 1-0, St. Louis had the momentum and was dominating until Bergevin caught a high shot from defenseman Gary Suter while San Jose was on the power play and accidentally threw the puck into his own net. Asked if he thought Bergevin might have had trouble getting the puck out of his glove, Quenneville said, "No, I don't think (so). I just think it was a bad pitch." The Blues held on in a penalty packed match (nine power plays for San Jose, five for St. Louis) until the third period, when Mike Ricci scored a power play goal after the Blues' Young was assessed a double high-sticking penalty by referee Stephen Walkom. Owen Nolan would add an empty net tally to seal the Sharks' 4-2 victory.
Back in San Jose, Nolan scored both goals in a 2-1 victory and game four also went to the Sharks as they edged the Blues 3-2 on a late goal by Suter. Facing elimination, the Blues took game five with MacInnis leading the way with a goal and an assist. The relentless Blues thrashed the Sharks at the Tank 6-2 in game six, evening the series. Young had a hat trick (assisted by Turgeon) and Hecht a goal and three assists. In the deciding game seven in St. Louis, the winning goal was scored by Owen Nolan on a shot from center ice that somehow deflected off Turek's glove and into the net. The Sharks went on to win 3-1 and eliminated the Blues from playoff contention. Surely that was one series that Turek, Bergevin, Suter and Nolan will never forget.
No matter the outcome tonight, let's hope the Blues and Sharks meet up in the playoffs this May. It should be a blast!