After two periods of hockey in game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the San Jose Sharks were leading the Vancouver Canucks 2-1, despite being outplayed for a good portion of those opening 40 minutes. And, were it not for some fortuitous goal-saving stops by the feet of Canucks defenseman at their own goal line, and some incredibly poised plays by Kevin Bieksa and Henrik Sedin that resulted in timely goals, the Sharks may very well have escaped game 1 with a victory, even though they had no right to do so.
How does one team come so close to winning a game on the scoreboard when badly outplayed on the ice? There are always many different factors, but I have watched game 1 numerous times over now, and one factor above all else has stood out to me. The Canucks, using their speed, and clean break-outs from the back-end, were able to the get the better of the Sharks territorially by a significant margin, and win the possession battle, especially with regard to offensive zone time. However, the Sharks seemed to have a much higher rate of scoring chances per minute in the offensive zone than the Canucks did, particularly through the first two periods. That is not to say that the Sharks had more scoring chances throughout the game, total, just that what possession time the Sharks did get in the offensive zone, they were better able to translate into scoring chances than the Canucks. And a large reason for this was Vancouver's inability to get shots through to the net with regularity in the first two periods. Possession after possession would be foiled by a Canuck shot into the legs of a sprawling Sharks defenseman or forward. The Sharks have not been shy about blocking shots since the playoffs started, and their efforts nearly ended up being a leading factor in stealing game 1. If the Canucks do not adjust for game 2, the same thing could happen, only San Jose might pull the victory out this time.
However, there is hope in this regard, and lots of it. Normally, when facing a good shot-blocking team, getting shots through and "adjusting" is far easier said than done. However, in this case, there may be opportunity to exploit the Sharks shot-blocking more easily than in other such instances against other good shot-blocking teams, due to the specific technique most Sharks players employ to block shots. You see, the reason they have been so successful blocking shots is because they have found a way to block off so much of the shooting lane (more like a shooting sphere) with their bodies. Most players on other teams typically adhere to one of the three following shot-blocking techniques: standing with legs together, standing with legs slightly apart, and diving feet first horizontally along the ice. None of these three methods block the shooting lane/sphere in the way the Sharks method does. Standing with legs together leaves room for the puck to travel on each side of the joined legs at any height, from on along the ice upwards. Standing with legs apart leaves room between the legs, from the ice up to the crotch, and sometimes there is still some room to each side of the legs as well, depending on how far apart the shot-blocker's legs are spread. Diving feet first horizontally, if timed correctly, will block everything low and along the ice, however this method still leaves room for the puck to travel high.
The reason the Sharks have been so effective in their shot-blocking is because they do not regularly employ any of these three methods. They use a method of their own that is much more effective in covering a much greater portion of the shooting lane. However, there is also a downside to this method that can be exploited. But first, the method itself. The Sharks players will kind of sprawl, almost onto their heels. They stay somewhat upright, torsos perpendicular to the ice, half going down to their knees, half going down to their butts. Essentially, they are able to block the width of the shooting lane with the same effectiveness as the standing with legs apart method, without leaving the gaping gap that exists in-between the legs with that method. By lowering their torsos almost to the ice, they block a huge area of the shooting lane both high and low, not quite low to the ice, but within six inches to a foot of the ice. Given the size of their players, and the size of their upper-body pads, the torsos of these players take up a lot of area from 6-12 inches off the ice upwards. And the way they sprawl their legs out in such a way when they utilize this method also takes away portions of the low, along-the-ice shooting lane as well. Really, with this method, the only shooting hole that is left open is a small gap in-between the sprawling legs and the torso. If the legs are sprawled at more of a 'splits' angle, then there will be a horizontal gap of a foot or two, but it will only be along the ice. There will be very little room vertically. If the shot-blocker is sprawled more on one-knee, or he has his one shin twisted under his body to block shots along the ice, there will be a little pocket between the groin and that leg.
But whichever specific way they sprawl, the bottom line is the Sharks players do it in such a way that there is very little room to shoot through them. Continuing to try and shoot through them when they are well-positioned to block the shot will not yield improved results. What will yield results is exploiting the weakness of their shot-blocking technique. It may sound like they've discovered the perfect way to block shots, and that there is no way to beat this method, but that isn't the case. Their method has one glaring weakness. You see, when you stand there with your legs together (or apart), poised to block the slapshot your opponent is winding up to take, but then your opponent decides to fake the shot instead and keep skating with the puck, well you are still on your feet. You can adjust easily, and continue to keep your good defensive position between him and the net. Even when you dive feet first to block a shot, yes, if you do it with too much speed, you will slide out of position, but you can at least get up quickly and usually recover, especially if you do it correctly. You just stick your blade into the ice, maybe use your hands to push yourself up, and start skating again. But, with the Sharks method, because they almost go back on their heels, and because they sprawl in such ways that they do, almost backwards, it takes an extra second for them to get up once they are down. It is not as easy to get up from almost your butt as it is from your side or stomach. And what this means is, if the Canucks can get the Sharks shot-blockers to go down to the ice (and they didn't hesitate at all in game 1, so I don't see why they would to start game 2), then not only can the Canucks take an extra step to get to the shooting lanes, and get their shots through; the Canucks can actually get all the way, 100% around the Sharks players, and skate into the slot for grade A scoring chances. All they have to do is start throwing fake shots with regularity.
At first this will result in getting more shots through, and getting to the slot like I described for grade A scoring chances (which should result in goals). And then after a little while, it will result in the Sharks players not going down to block shots in this manner at all anymore, because they will keep getting beat if they do. And when that happens, the Canucks will be wishing they never stopped. Right now, Canucks and Canuck fans are wishing the Sharks would stop going down to block shots, because it's been so successful for them, but if the Canucks utilize this strategy of fake shots, Canuck fans will start wishing the Sharks would go down to the ice more. The Canucks can make them look silly if they just use these fakes regularly. I don't even remember them throwing one fake in game 1. They need to start doing them a lot, especially at the start of game 1, while the Sharks still don't know any better, and are still sprawling to the ice every time a Canuck player raises their stick behind them in a slap-shot motion. This strategy could help to spot them an early multi-goal lead to start game 2, while the Sharks are still sprawling all over the place. And then once the Sharks and their coaches realize what's happening, the Canucks will be able to play the remainder of the series without having to worry about getting their shots blocked in the manner they were in game 1. The Sharks will either have to start blocking shots the normal ways (and they aren't used to this), or not at all. Either way, it will be much easier for the Canucks to get their shots through, which will mean more rebounds, scoring chances, and goals, all because of one simple adjustment. Let's hope they do it!