Sports

Steve Cameron: If you can figure out Sharks, call Ron Wilson

Steve Cameron

SAN JOSE -- Go ahead, try figuring out the Sharks.

You might as well start chewing on a puck.

Hockey fans throughout Northern California -- and there are a bundle -- keep waiting for the young, fast, talented Sharks to put everything together in one magic season and seize the Stanley Cup.

Yet year after year, the Sharks roar into the playoffs looking almost unbeatable and then...

They skate right off the edge of a cliff.

In four of the last five full seasons -- we're ignoring the lockout of 2004-05 -- San Jose has rung up somewhere between 99 and 107 points in the regular season.

And yet Team Teal has never made it to the Cup finals, let alone won the thing.

Now here we are again, 35 games into the 2007-08 season, and the Sharks are more baffling than ever.

Puzzle over a few bizarre facts and stats here for a minute, and you'll feel like you've been run over by the Zamboni.

Once again, the Sharks are battling with Dallas and Anaheim atop the NHL's Pacific Division, and at times they look so much like the best that the Stanley Cup seems it ought to be part of the furniture.

But then consider...

Despite the incredible crowd support and ear-splitting noise in HP Pavilion, the Sharks have been almost asleep at home so far.

They're 6-9-3 at The Tank, and it's no fluke. They've been awful.

Meanwhile, nobody in the league can touch San Jose's record on the road.

Ron Wilson's guys are 12-3-2 away from home, which is almost impossible.

Now if that gets your headache started, consider that the Sharks boast perhaps the best goalie around in one-on-one situations.

Evgeni Nabokov is almost miraculous when faced with an open shooter in the chaos of regular play.

So common sense tells you that the Sharks should be terrific in shootouts, those penalty-shot finales which decide tie games.

You'd take Nabby against anyone, wouldn't you?

Well, no.

The Sharks are 2-5 in shootouts this season, and they have the worst overall record in the NHL since shootouts were introduced to liven up games and produce winners every night.

And yet...

Nabokov is the key to a fierce, rugged, back-checking defense that is the best in the league -- and currently, the only reason the Sharks remain among the game's elite teams.

Nabby's goals-against average -- playing every night without relief -- is a measly 2.05. No surprise that San Jose has allowed the second fewest goals against at 83.

Right, with that kind of overall defense and a penalty-killing unit that hangs around No. 1 or No. 2 in the NHL, you've got the backbone of a great team.

Now add Joe Thornton, one of the game's true superstars, having another sensational season with 13 goals and 27 assists.

Big Joe can dominate games, and put tap-in goals on the sticks of just about anybody with his passing, but...

The Sharks' power play, which ranked second in the league a year ago, suddenly has become toothless.

Jonathan Cheechoo, who led the world with 56 goals two years ago, lit the lamp just four times this season before he went down injured a couple of weeks ago.

Veteran Jeremy Roenick, just now recovering from his own physical woes, is probably the Sharks' top scoring threat after Thornton.

How about this?

Thornton has nearly three times as many points as anyone else on the team.

Where's Patrick Marleau? Milan Michalek?

The goofiest thing is that they're getting scoring chances, too. But suddenly the Sharks have turned into the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

And finally, you have the insanity factor. The Sharks have simply thrown away a couple of games.

They had a 2-1 lead against Phoenix with 40 seconds left on Thursday night -- and the Sharks were on a power play.

Yet somehow they managed to give up a goal and lose a shootout.

"We've got some guys who should be ashamed of the way they played," Wilson fumed after that fiasco.

Ironically, there are hockey experts -- and several Sharks players -- who think that Wilson himself might be the problem rather than the solution.

Nobody knows.

They're still loaded with exciting young players. They've got Thornton and Nabokov, which is a super start, and thrilling kids like Torrey Mitchell, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Devin Setiguchi.

Vets like Roenick, Mike Grier and Craig Rivet are playing well.

Heck, defenseman Douglas Murray was brought in for his muscle and a few fights -- and he leads the team by miles with a plus-14 rating.

Crazy.

Maybe when we finally all give up on these guys, they'll sneak out of nowhere and win the Cup.

Off what we've seen so far, that script would be just about right.

Steve Cameron is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at scameron@mercedsun-star.com

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