The Stretch Run 

Stanley Cup Crazy

The Tampa Bay Lightning found themeslves in a similar situation as the Flames' previous playoff opponents. They lost the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals while the Flames continued their trend of winning the first game on the road of each series they have been involvd in. They showed the Lightning and the rest of the hockey world that they are no fluke and belong in the Finals. The Flames are proving that through hard work, heart, and effort, a team can have great success.
The Lightning must match the hard work, heart, and effort of the Flames if they want to win the Stanley Cup. They certainly have the skill and talent to do it, but some questions they should ask themselves are how hard are they willing to work, how mentally tough are they, and what cost are they willing to pay to win.
In Game 1, it seemed that the Lightning underestimated the Flames and were stunned with how fast, physical, and determined the Flames played the game. The Lightning must respect the Flames and concentrate on making the right and simple plays for the rest of the series. They also have to find a way to put more pressure on the Flames in the offensive zone and bury some of their chances to come away victorious three more times.

2004 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS Second Round Picks

#1 Tampa Bay vs. #7 Montreal
Tampa Bay in 5

The Montreal Canadians have only one top offensive line that can score consistently. The line is made up of forwards Alexei Kovalev and Richard Zednik and center Saku Koivu. However, that won't be enough to counteract the explosive and balanced attack of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay should be able to use their speed to stop the Canadians' top line and get behind their defense to deposit multiple pucks into the net. The Lightning defense also does an effective job of moving the puck to the forwards and getting shots on net during the power play and 5 on 5. Offensive players on the Lightning to watch are Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Cory Stillman, Fredrick Modin and Ruslan Fedotenko. For Montrel to have a chance in this series, they will need to get offensive production from its other lines other than its top line. If that does not happen this will be a short series.

#2 San Jose vs. #4 Colorado
San Jose in 5

While the Avalanche have many of the NHL's top players such as Forsberg, Sakic, and Hejduk, they also have some of the league's top penalized players in Matthew Barnaby and Chris Gratton. The Sharks have home ice, a better penalty kill, a more experienced goaltender in Nabokov, more speed, and more depth on defense. Not too mention, the Sharks are younger, and appear to be the better coached club with Ron Wilson at the helm. They have more disciplined players who don't retalaliate and play as a team.

Too Trade or Not To Trade, That Is The Question

As the March 9 NHL trade deadline gets closer, many Sharks fans continue to wait anxiously for General Manager Doug Wilson to make his moves. Several teams have already made moves to prepare for the playoffs, future impact or cut large salaries from their payroll. Eastern Conference teams that have made acquisitions through trade are the Tampa Bay Lighting, Philadelphia Flyers, Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins. The Lighting, Flyers, Senators, Maple Leafs, and Bruins made trades for the playoff push while the Penguins and Hurricanes made trades for long-term impact.

The Capitals are the only Eastern Conference team clearly trading to cut costs. They traded Jaromir Jagr to the Rangers, Peter Bondra to Ottawa and Robert Lang to Detroit. In return they got Anson Carter, two prospects and two picks.

The Rangers acquired Jagr in late January in a desperate attempt to make the playoffs, but the trade has failed to improve their place in the standings and they will miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season. The Flyers have been the most active team in the last few weeks by making six trades.

Many of the Sharks' Western Conference rivals have made moves including the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers, Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Phoenix Coyotes, and Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Wings, Avs, Flames, Canucks, Preds, Stars, and Blues have been building themselves up for the post-season. The Oilers, Ducks, Coyotes, and Blue Jackets with their moves are getting head starts on the next season, which might come years from now as a result of a potential lock out. The Blackhawks look like their dumping salary and preparing to start over by trading away their higher priced players such as Alexei Zhamnov to Philadelphia and Steve Sullivan to Nashville.

It still has to be seen whether or not the Sharks will do anything. If they do make a move, I wouldn't be surprised to see them acquire a veteran defenseman to add depth to their blue line. Sergei Gonchar is a possibility because coach Ron Wilson coached him when he was on the Washington Capitals team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Brian Leetch is another possibility. But it is more likely that they will offer as trade bait the second-round pick they acquired from their early season trade of Miikka Kiprusoff to Calgary and see what player(s) they can get. If they can't get a rental player for that, then I think they'll let the season and playoffs play out with the pieces they have in place. They certainly won't trade any of their young talent to get someone.

Pondering About Sharks Future, Reminiscing About Their Past

My feelings of excitement and intensity for Sharks' hockey has returned once again thanks to their recent rise to the top of the standings in the NHL. I can't stop myself from reminiscing about the franchise's short and glorious past as the drive towards the playoffs approaches. The first two years that they made the playoffs they faced off against the Calgary Flames in two separate series and eliminated them in seven games both times. It is possible that they may wind up playing the surprising Flames yet again in the first round of the playoffs this year. If the season were to end today, this would be the match up with San Jose being the number three seed and the Flames as the number six seed. It would be the third playoff series between them, but the first one in which San Jose would be the favorite to win. During the first two series the Sharks were major underdogs as they were the lower seed and many people thought they would be swept off the ice and packing their bags to go home in four games. How interesting but strange it would be to see former coach Daryl Sutter on the opposing bench trying to beat his old club? It would also mark the return of Shean Donovan and Miikka Kiprusoff.

Sharks Scouting Staff is Among the NHL's Best

The San Jose Sharks have one of the best scouting staffs in the NHL. Since the organization entered the league, its scouts have been successful in finding players that match up well with the style of play that the coaches want to see on the ice. The scouts, for the most part, have spent much of their time evaluating players in the draft, but they also look at available free agents that might best fill the team's needs. The Sharks originally drafted sixteen of the twenty-five players on the current roster. The remaining nine players were acquired via free agency or trades.

Since the March trade deadline they have acquired six players, four through trades and two from the free agent market. The four players from trades are Nils Ekman, Alyn McCauley, Wayne Primeau, and Kyle McLaren. Scott Parker and Tom Preissing are the two free agents. Parker, Preissing, and Ekman were obtained during the off-season. The rest were picked up at last's year trade deadline.

Ekman, McCauley, and Preissing have been pleasant surprises so far this season. Preissing is an un-drafted rookie out of the University of Colorado who earned a spot on the roster during training camp. Ekman and McCauley have been in the league for a number of years, but they were not given much ice time.

Prior to joining the Sharks, Ekman was in the New York Rangers franchise and struggling to make it to the NHL. He never got an opportunity to play in a regular season game for the Rangers. He finally got a chance to make a NHL starting roster when the Sharks traded a minor league prospect named Chad Wiseman to get him. It was a move that has paid off well for the team as he has out performed expectations on the ice. His eleven goals this season are a career high for him.

McCauley, on the other hand, was on the Toronto Maple Leafs' starting roster before being traded for Owen Nolan. In Toronto, he was always a third or fourth line player with minimal ice time. As a Shark, he has played on the first and second lines. He has also been one of their best penalty killers.

Team Effort Has Lead To Season Turnaround

The Sharks recent turnaround to the season has been a direct result of every player on the roster working together to score goals while maintaining their defensive responsibilities. Their power play and penalty killing has improved as well. They have killed off twenty-nine of their thirty-one penalties and scored in eight of their forty-one power play opportunities during their last nine games. Their power play is currently ranked tenth in the NHL and their penalty kill is ranked sixteenth. As a result, they have scored more goals and reduced the amount of goals allowed.

It seems that every night there has been a different hero and the offensive production has spread throughout the team. Nearly every member on the roster has chipped in the scoring. On Thursday at home against the Colorado Avalanche, Nils Ekman scored two goals. It was his first career two-goal game of the season and of his career. In Calgary on Tuesday, Jonathan Cheechoo scored the only goal of the game. Niko Dimitrakos is second among NHL rookies in +/- rating with a +6 rating.

The Sharks will have a chance to gain two points on a division rival, the Dallas Stars, in tonight's home game. The fact that the game is against a divisional opponent gives it more significance than if it were against a non-divisional one. A win or loss against a division or conference foe creates a four-point swing in the standings.

Not only have the Sharks been scoring more and playing better defense, they have also benefited from Vesa Toskala's stellar goaltending. The rookie goalie from Finland has provided the team with confidence in net at a time they have needed it most. Starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov has been out for nine games with a groin injury and Miikka Kiprusoff was traded for a second round draft choice last month.

Sharks Should Be Thankful For Young Talent Depth

The Sharks have to be thankful for the impressive depth of young talent on their roster. The organization discovered its depth when injuries forced them to give less experienced players such as defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and Tom Preissing playing time.

The following is a quick statistical summary of the young players who have stepped up their play in the last few weeks:
Forwards Patrick Marleau and Marco Sturm have been the most consistent young veterans in the last 10 games.
Marleau has scored at least a point in 9 of the last 10 games while collecting 4 goals and 6 assists in that span.
Sturm has scored at least a point in 7 of last 8 games with 6 goals and 2 assists.
Forward Allyn McCauley has scored at least a point in 4 of last 5 games tallying 2 goals and 2 assists.
Forward Nils Ekman has scored at least a point in 2 of last 3 games producing 1 goal and 2 assists.
Forward Niko Dimitrakos, who has filled in for injured Alex Korolyuk, has scored at least a point in 2 straight games and manufacturing 1 goal and 3 assists in the last 4 games.
Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who has filled in for an injured Kyle McKlaren, has scored at least a point in 2 straight games posting 1 goal and 2 assists in the last two games. McKlaren had scored at least a point in 2 straight games prior to getting injured.
Defenseman Brad Stuart has scored at least a point in 3 of last 4 games getting 1 goal and 3 assists.

Veteran forward Vincent Damphousse has also been a consistent performer. He has scored at least a point in 5 straight games with 2 goals and 3 assists.

Busy Week For Sharks' Top Brass

The San Jose Sharks' front office has been busy this week making transactions, negotiating player contracts and pondering trade possibilities.

The Sharks called up center Patrick Rissmiller and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff from the Cleveland Barons, the Sharks top development affiliate of the American Hockey League.

Rissmiller was signed as a free agent on Sept. 30, 2002. He currently leads all Barons scorers with 13 points and is tied for 11th among all AHL scorers in 11 games. He will be making his NHL debut despite being in his second season of professional hockey after playing for four seasons at Holy Cross.

Ehrhoff, who is playing his first season of professional hockey in North America, was assigned to Cleveland on Oct. 22. He was originally selected by San Jose in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.

In eight games with the Barons, he was a +3 and posted three points along with 14 penalty minutes. Ehrhoff registered zero points and two penalty minutes in three games with San Jose

In order to make room on their roster, they sent right wing Niko Dimitrakos back down to the Barons and placed Mark Smith on the injured list.

Dimitrakos was selected by San Jose in the fifth round of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. The Sharks brought him up from the Barons on Oct. 27 and he tallied three points while playing in six games for the big club. In five games with the Barons this season, Dimitrakos scored seven points and had a +7 plus/minus rating. He was named AHL "Player of the Week" for the week of October 19.

Smith suffered a chest contusion in an open ice hit Thursday night against St. Louis.

I wrote in a previous article about the importance of signing players before training camp. This past summer Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson was able to get all his restricted free agents signed before camp. It's equally as important to extend the contracts of potential unrestricted free agents before they expire in order for a franchise to keep talented players.

This week Wilson extended the contract of forward Scott Thornton for two years at an undisclosed sum of money. The new deal begins in 2004-05 and runs through the 2005-06 season.

Thornton was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in July of next year, but instead the Sharks now have his services for at least two more years and possess a club option for a third year.

Thornton is currently tied for second on the club in scoring with nine points and is currently serving as one of the Sharks two alternate captains.

Last season, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound left wing only scored 21 points because he missed 41 games due to injuries. In 2001-02, he finished second on the Sharks in goal scoring with 26 and had 42 points. He recorded 36 points during his first season with San Jose in 2000-01.

Thornton signed with San Jose as a free agent from Dallas on July 1, 2000. The London, Ontario native was originally drafted by Toronto in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft.

It is likely that sometime during the season the Sharks will trade one of their two backup goaltenders, Miikka Kiprusoff or Vesa Toskala. Many fans and members of the media believe Kiprusoff will be traded because he has not played in a game this season. Instead Toskala has played in a few games and been the immediate backup to Nabokov when he has not played. Toskala has played well in the games he's started for the Sharks. It would appear that the Sharks are confident in Toskala's abilities in net and they don't want to risk an injury to Kiprusoff prior to a possible trade.

NHL Attendance: Low As Usual

It seems the NHL has always had the lowest game attendance among the four major sports leagues in the United States. So far this has been the case during the 2003-2004 season. NHL teams are averaging between 12,000 to 20,000 fans per game. I think the seat capacity of NHL arenas can explain the restriction in numbers. Quite simply, NHL arenas are smaller and have fewer seats than NFL and Major League Baseball stadiums.

Lack of interest in hockey in many parts of the U.S. could be another reason why attendance at NHL games is relatively low. Although this is clearly not the case in Canada where hockey is a way of life.

Therefore, it should come as no suprise that four of the top ten teams in average attendance are Canadian. They are Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Toronto. Montreal was the only one out of the four teams that did not make the postseason last year, but they are ranked second in average attendance.

The other teams in the top ten that have not been mentioned are the New York Rangers, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and Philadelphia Flyers.

The Rangers were the only team to miss the playoffs from the above list, but they have a large payroll and roster filled with high profile players. Apparently, they don't need to make the playoffs to get people to come to their games.

The Detroit Red Wings lead the league in average attendance per home game at 20,066 fans through five games. They have had one hundred percent attendance with a total amount of over 100,000.

None of these numbers are a surprise as the Red Wings have a long history of championship hockey and the team continues to play at a high level with its many star players. As a result, people want to go see them play.

But the fact that the two Stanley Cup finalists, the New Jersey Devils and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, are in the lower half of teams in game attendance is a surprise. I think this can be attributed to the slow starts to the season for both teams and rising ticket prices. The opening to the NBA season along with the NFL season already in progress might also be reasons for low attendance rates for NHL games.

It's safe to say the folks in New Jersey would much rather see the Jets, Giants, and Nets than the Devils and many people in Southern California would like to see the Chargers and Lakers over the Ducks.

The Devils, keeper of Lord Stanley's Cup, are ranked eighteenth in average attendance with 15,243 fans per game and totaling 91,462. The San Jose Sharks, a team that finished near the bottom of the league last year, is right behind them at nineteenth place with an average of 15,065 fans per game and totaling 75,328 fans. The Ducks, runner up to last year's Cup, are twenty-second averaging 13,991 fans per game and totaling 83,947. Go figure!

World Series Provides Appropriate Finish To Surprising Playoffs

Matthew Adamski for SBS

Many fans of the game of baseball would like to think that the Yankees and Marlins were destined to reach the World Series because they faced off against opponents that were cursed by a goat and a home run king. However, to say curses caused things to turn out the way they did is an explanation based on superstition and myth rather than fact.

I think the coaches and owners made the right moves and that had more of an impact on what happened in the playoffs rather than curses. The owners knew what direction they wanted to take for their respective franchises and followed up on their unique strategies for building a team capable of making a run at the championship. It certainly has paid off for both teams in a big way.

The Florida Marlins managers have done an outstanding job of building a championship caliber team from scratch. In 1997 the Marlins won the World Series, but the team was dismantled in the off-season that followed. Most of the players were let go and the franchise had to start over.

This year, the organization was able to obtain some impressive young talent and mix them in with key veteran contributors. As a result, they find themselves back in the World Series.

Miguel Cabrera, Alex Gonzalez, Juan Pierre, and Derek Lee are examples of young talent on their team. A few of the veteran contributors are Jeff Conine, Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, and Luis Castillo.

In addition, the Marlins have highly skilled young pitchers that are capable of shutting down the opposition when necessary. The three main pitchers in their rotation during the postseason have been Brad Penny, Carl Pavano and Josh Beckett. Dontrelle Willis has also been used sparingly as a starter and occasionally as a relief pitcher. Ugueth Urbina is a solid closer.

Not only should the Marlins be confident about their chances of winning the championship this year, they should be equally as confident about their future with all the talent and youth they currently have in their possession.

The Yankees, on the other hand, have a long standing tradition of spending a lot of money to acquire high priced players and filling the rest of the roster with lesser skilled and cheaper players that can be easily replaced from one year to the next. George Steinbrenner continued that tradition one again this year.

Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano, Bernie Williams, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, and Hideki Matsui form the team's core group of players. All of these players have the ability to put a dent in the scoreboard and seem to come alive when it appears they're down and out as evidenced by their late inning comebacks. The Yankees have gotten the most offensive production from their core group.

Karim Garcia, Aaron Boone, Enrique Wilson, and Rueben Sierra fit under the category of fill in pieces that might not be around too much longer.

In addition the Yankees always seem to have top notch pitching and this year has been no exception with eventual Hall of Famer Roger Clemons, laser beamer Mike Mussina, strikeout happy Andy Pettite and solid David Wells. Mariano Rivera is also a shutdown closer, which isn't good news for the opposition. The bad news for the Yankees is that Clemons will retire after the series is over and Wells can't seem to stay healthy, which leaves question marks for their pitching rotation next season.

After watching the first five games, it has become quite apparent that the Marlins match up well with the Yankees. Maybe too well for the Yanks as the Marlins have won three games to take a 3 games to 2 lead. The fish from south Florida trailed 2 games to 1 prior to game four and now have won two in a row. If they win Game 6 tomorrow they will be Major League champions. It would also be the third time that they have won three games in a row to win a series. If the Yanks win Game 6, it would be the fourth series decided by a Game 7. Regardless of the result, the playoffs will end in a fashion not yet seen by anyone.

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