Sunday, December 6, 2015

An Emotional Game

An emotional game.  A passionate game.  A game only the most ambitious can win.

I write, of course, about the NHL, and more specifically, our Sharks.  In today’s fast paced sport with largely even teams, skill can only go so far before work ethic and desire must take over to be advantageous.

Skill certainly helps define how well a hockey player can execute in any given game, but as any ardent observer of hockey can confirm, it is the will and hunger that ultimately determines the difference between winning and losing.  In an era where there each game presents no discernible certainty of victory, it is only true desire, which in turn fuels better execution, that provides the advantage.

Many can assume that the Chicago Blackhawks or the Los Angeles Kings, the only two teams to have had multiple Stanley Cup Victories in the last six years, are the strongest teams and have the best chance of winning.  While having postseason success is indeed the mark of superior hockey playing, by skills alone, it is inconclusive to determine, on stats alone, that the current Blackhawks or Kings team are better than any other team out there.  The Blackhawks, for example, have dropped the last three games in a row.

From a standpoint of skill, the Sharks are unquestionably one of the top NHL teams in the league.  If the results of today’s hockey are dictated by skill alone, the Sharks would have no problems finishing in the very top amongst perennial playoff contenders each year.  I mean, look at Joe Thornton, arguably the best playmaker on the ice today (still!), and a combination of terrific young talent (e.g. Karlsson, Donskoi, Hertl) to complement the veteran leadership.  How about the amazing consistency of Captain Joe Pavelski?  Fans will remember, of course, that the Sharks did not qualify for the playoffs last year for the first time in over a decade.  Why is that?  What happened?

The lackluster finish should be clear to fans of the team.  As a whole, there was a lack of emotion, a lack of passion.  No aggressive net crashing.  No accurate passing or shooting.  No desire to take it to the postseason, despite having the skill to do so.

Often times, just by watching the first five to ten minutes of any Sharks game, I can predict the end result.  From a game’s onset, if I witness energetic speed, pinpoint pass and shot accuracy, and aggressiveness, the Sharks generally have a good chance of winning.  Some of the most exciting games I have witnessed the Sharks play came against the rival Anaheim Ducks last year (a team that finished high in the league standings), where their overt display of toughness and energy allowed them to win in four out of their five total contests (with their only loss coming from overtime).  Sure, the Sharks had moments of brilliance against other teams, but the body checks were not as hard, the players did not appear as fast, and the team did not seem to quickly adapt to their opponents’ changing strategy.

It is easy to see when our boys in teal decide to “turn it on,” like in such instances where one would be convinced their proficiency at scoring goals is better on the penalty kill or even strength than the power play.  The team’s proficiency is more than just executing good strategies.  It is the requirement to be hungry and aggressive.  Watch any NHL game today, and you will find that most goals come from an intense rush from one end to another, and with players cognizant of each other’s position as to increase the awareness of where a passed or rebounded puck will end up.  Remember, proper crashing of the net translates to goals, as does reading, understanding, and adapting to the opposition.

Last night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning was a good example of the polarizing impact of playing with emotion.  The Sharks lost 4-3 in regulation, but at one time was at a 4-1 deficit in the third period.  Early on in the game, the Sharks were indeed not playing well, made worse by bad reads, such as missed passes to the point (i.e. the area in the back of the offensive zone where defensemen often stand) and lack of energy.  This is not to say the Sharks displayed no energy (besides, who am I to comment on the ethic of seasoned pro athletes?), but I have seen far better execution.

At the second half of the game, with the Sharks at that point down 2-0, the team started performing extremely well.  The Sharks not only maintained significant control of the puck, but managed to get off a lot of shots through to Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop as well.  Most notable was the performance of Brent Burns, likely the best example on the Sharks of playing complete, passionate hockey.  At of today, Burns is third in the league in points for defenseman, and first in goals (with ten).  During the game, Burns not only got unleashed his devastating shot (with a team leading seven), and scoring, he also set up plays for others, and at one defining moment of an offensive power play push, blocked a clearing attempt by the Lightning and kept the play moving.  This play set up the first goal of the game from a blast by Matt Tennyson.

Shooting repeatedly at the net, skating hard, and having constant awareness of one’s teammates is critical in the NHL for steering one’s team to victory.  The Sharks may have unlocked their potential late in the game, the attempted rally was too late to overcome the struggles of the first half, complemented with timely blocks and fortunate saves by the Lightning.  With a game as fast as the NHL, even dropping one’s guard for one minute can be the difference between winning and losing, especially in games where the decision is by one goal.

If the Sharks play like they did the second half of yesterday’s game, they will finish at the top of the Pacific Division.  Likewise, if they do not, the team must attempt to rely on their skill to win games; however, as I mentioned earlier on, how far can skill alone really take a team in the NHL? This year, we finally have solid leadership with the team of Joe Pavelski (C) - Joe Thornton (A) - Logan Couture (A). May they inspire the team to carry through a successful 2015-2016 season!

(Despite how the game turned out, wishing all the best for goaltender Ben Bishop, whose unprotected neck was the unfortunate recipient of Tomas Hertl’s deflected stick.  Hope for a speedy recovery!)

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