Saturday, March 14, 2009

What rust? Nabokov shines for Sharks in first game back after injury

It was Evgeni Nabokov Appreciation Night at the Shark Tank on Saturday.

No, not officially. But by the huge ovation Nabokov received from fans during pre-game introductions and the chants of “Nab-eee! Nab-eee!” you could tell Sharks fans were ecstatic to have him back in goal.

Nabokov had missed the past seven games with a lower body injury. During that span, the Sharks went 2-4-1.

The sellout crowd of 17,496 was even happier at the end of the night, when Nabokov stopped six of seven shots in a shootout and the Sharks grabbed a 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings.

“He played well,” said Sharks forward Jonathan Cheechoo, who beat Kings goalie Erik Ersberg for the game-winner in the shootout. “He made all the big saves.”

Nabokov stopped five shots in the first period, as the Sharks took a 1-0 lead on Milan Michalek’s goal at the 5:28 mark, the assists going to Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle.

Nabokov gave up a goal early in the second period, Wayne Simmonds knocking a rebound past him. But later in the period he made a sprawling save when Simmonds had a breakaway chance during a Sharks power play. He stopped 11 shots in the period.

Then early in the third period, Nabokov produced one of the biggest plays of the game. The Kings had a two-on-none breakaway and came away empty against Nabokov. They never pulled the trigger because they never found an opening. Moments later, the fans erupted in another chorus of “Nab-eee! Nab-eee!”

“You don’t have much time to think,” Nabokov said. “You just try to read what they’re going to try to do. The odds are against me.”

Even though the Kings didn’t shoot on that play, Nabokov called it his “best save” of the night. There were more great saves to come, these ones on actual shots.

In overtime, Nabokov came up with another huge save. First he blocked Anze Kopitar’s slap shot from the right wing. The puck wound up lying in front of the Sharks goal in the crease. Nabokov located it at the last instant and smothered it before the Kings could arrive and blast it home.

“I had no idea where the puck was,” Nabokov said.

Then in the shootout, Nabokov outlasted Ersberg in a battle of the goalies.

In the third round, Pavelski put the Sharks up 1-0 with a beautiful goal. He angled right, then left, then hesitated before ripping a shot just inside the right post. The Kings’ Jack Johnson answered immediately, beating Nabokov to his stick side.

That was the last time a Kings shot found the net. Nabokov stopped Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Alexander Frolov, Michal Handzus and, after Cheechoo scored for the Sharks, Teddy Purcell.

“He looked very sharp,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “We’re excited for him. We’re happy to have him back. … The rest of the coaching staff who watched him warm up, they used the term he was ‘zoned in.’”

Nabokov is just one in a long list of Sharks who have missed games because of injuries. Defensemen Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich, two of the wounded, returned to action, along with Nabokov. Mike Grier, Jeremy Roenick, Claude Lemieux are among those still out.

The Sharks won’t blame their skid on injuries – that’s taboo in the NHL – but those injuries, particularly Nabokov’s, have definitely hurt their record. You simply don’t lose one of the NHL’s top goalies for seven games and not suffer some consequences.

Fortunately for the Sharks, they’re not paying a huge price for their slump, thanks to all of their good work earlier in the season. They still have plenty of time to get the rest of their injured players healthy and get back on a roll heading into the playoffs. With 98 points, they remained just one behind Detroit, which beat St. Louis, in the battle for Western Conference supremacy.

Even though the Sharks went zero for eight on the power play and found the net just once in regulation and overtime, McLellan said Saturday night’s win might be the official start of their turnaround and the beginning of the end of their offensive funk.

“We looked a little more like we should look,” McLellan said of the Sharks, who out-shot the Kings 39-24. “Sometimes when you’re trying to come out of a mini-slump, the bounces don’t go your way. I thought we generated a lot of chances. … Their goalie was a money goalie.”

But not quite as money as Nabokov.

“He played great,” Sharks Boyle said. “He came through in the shootout. He’s probably a big reason why we won the two points. We were all expecting him to be in top shape and he was.”

With Mills back on track, St. Mary's deserves NCAA Tournament berth

St. Mary’s center Omar Samhan had it right, just minutes after the Gaels’ 85-65 win Friday night over Eastern Washington, a.k.a. their last chance to convince the NCAA Tournament selection committee that they deserve an at-large berth.

“Nothing you can do now but pray,” said Samhan, who scored a career-high 29 points to go with 12 rebounds. “All you can do is hope for the best. It’s out of our control now.”

That it is for a so-called “bubble” team from a mid-major conference. I can only hope that the selection committee is wise enough to realize that St. Mary’s deserves a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Gaels coach Randy Bennett rolled the dice last week when he added a game against Eastern Washington to the schedule. Bennett wanted to give point guard Patty Mills one more chance to convince committee members that he has recovered from the broken right hand he suffered on Jan. 29 against Gonzaga.

The risk for Bennett was that his team could have played poorly and Mills could have had his third straight frigid shooting night. That would have sealed St. Mary’s fate two days before Selection Sunday.

Bennett, though, hit the jackpot because Mills got his shooting groove back and the Gaels reminded everyone just how good they are when their leading scorer and court leader is healthy and in synch.

Mills scored 19 points, making 6 of 14 shots from the field and, more importantly, 4 of 9 from long range. Compare that to his numbers in the WCC tournament, when he went 5-for-28 overall and 2-for-16 from 3-point range against Portland and Gonzaga.

“I think he’s back,” Bennett said of Mills. “I don’t know what else you’d want a guy to do.”

Mills played 33 minutes, more than any other player on either team. He had four steals, two assists, two rebounds and just one turnover. He was aggressive on both ends of the court, from start to finish.

“It’s pretty much 100 percent,” Mills said of his right hand.

The beauty of having a selection committee, instead of some BCS system of polls and computers, is that those members can analyze teams and make rational decisions. They can factor in the impact of injuries and the return of injured stars.

The Gaels have won a school record 26 games against just six losses. They were 18-1 entering their Jan. 29 game at Gonzaga. At the time, they were ranked No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today poll and No. 22 in the Associated Press poll.

Mills scored 18 points before he was injured in the first half. He helped St. Mary’s build a 39-33 halftime lead. Without Mills, the Gaels struggled in the second half and lost 69-62. Then they lost three of their next four games, falling to Portland, Santa Clara and Gonzaga, by just two points.

After that, they won their final five regular-season games, all without Mills.

“We only had one bad stretch,” Bennett said. “Any team in the country, if they lost a guy like Patty, is going to have the same bad stretch. Our guys, given the situation, I don’t know how much better they could have done.

“We were 18-1 when it happened. We dealt with it. We didn’t lose to any bad teams. We lost to Gonzaga three times.”

If Mills hadn’t broken his hand, it’s likely the Gaels would have remained a Top-25 team. They likely would have finished with at least 29 wins.

If Mills hadn’t returned to action and hadn’t shown that he’s back on track, then the Gaels wouldn’t deserve an at-large berth. But with the real Patty Mills, St. Mary’s is a legitimate tournament team.

The Gaels made the NCAA Tournament last year with 25 wins. Granted, St. Mary’s had more victories last year over eventual tournament teams, including Gonzaga and Oregon. But anyone who has followed the Gaels understands that this year’s team is decidedly better.

It’s deeper and much more experienced. St. Mary’s returned almost the entire squad from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Mills was just a freshman last year. As good as he was last season, he has been that much better this year with that year of experience. Samham took his game to a much higher level. Forward Diamon Simpson, the Gaels’ all-time rebounding king, continued to improve. When Mills was out, players such as Mickey McConnell, Carlin Hughes and Wayne Hunter stepped up.

The Gaels team I watched Friday was NCAA Tournament worthy. We’ll find out Sunday if the selection committee agrees.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The reasons behind T.O.'s decision to sign with Buffalo

Top 10 reasons Terrell Owens signed with the Buffalo Bills:

10. His good friend Donovan McNabb gave Buffalo two thumbs up.

9. The NFL doesn’t have a team in Siberia.

8. He can see Canada from the window of his new home

7. After striking out in the NFC _ 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys _ he wanted to swing and miss in the AFC.

6. Even Al Davis wouldn’t return his calls.

5. He thought Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith still played for the Bills.

4. After one season, he’ll be free to destroy another team.

3. Blame it on Jeff Garcia, Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson.

2. In these tough economic times, his $6.5 million will stretch farther in a blue-collar town.

1. Must be the Buffalo wings.