The surname actually sums up his larger-than-life personality pretty well. Ben is Eager. Sometimes, Ben is too Eager. And on Wednesday night, during a lopsided 7-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks that put his San Jose Sharks down 2-0 in the best-of-seven Western Conference final, Ben was uncontrollably Eager - to the detriment of his own team, which now finds itself desperately needing a win Friday, when the series shifts to the Shark Tank for Game 3.
Fourth liners are not supposed to have that sort of an impact on the outcome at this time of year, and when they do, it's usually because they score an unexpected goal or make a helpful play. Eager? Well, he did score a goal - his first of the playoffs - but too late to make a difference in the outcome, a final window-dressing score that he celebrated with gusto, arms raised high.
Talk about wearing the black hat. Eager then delivered a verbal greeting to fallen goaltender Roberto Luongo as he skated away from the crease, prompting a melee that left both teams unhappy. Luongo wouldn't share the conversation, but took a little pot shot of his own afterward, noting that the Canucks like it when Eager plays. They want the 27-year-old from Ottawa on the ice, instead of on the bench or in the press box.
Sharks' coach Todd McLellan was clearly looking for energy from Eager, but he also wants control to accompany that energy - not the sort of grandstanding, look-at-me performance that he delivered in the waning moments. Eager escaped NHL justice for his second-period boarding penalty on Daniel Sedin, so you can expect McLellan to come right back with him tonight.
"I thought Ben Eager was one of our better players as far as the fore-check and creating scoring opportunities," McLellan was saying Thursday. "He had a number of shots on goal. He played with an energy and passion required of him.
"He took penalties that he cannot take. Is he an asset or a liability? He was both last night. If we can limit the liability part, then we've got one heck of a player."
In all, Eager played 10 minutes 59 seconds the other night, uncharacteristically high minutes for him, especially when you factor in the five minor penalties, plus his 10-minute misconduct late. Eager usually averages 4:53 a night in these playoffs, but those numbers have picked up in the series against the rough-and-tumble Canucks. Against Detroit, he was a healthy scratch in three of the final five games of the series and played just 1:10 and 2:56 in the other two.
Intuitively, Eager knows what he's supposed to do, which is walk a fine line between agitating and undermining his own team.
"I think I was playing well," said Eager, when asked why his ice time was up. "I was skating. I felt great. I was getting some chances. I think I can be an important player in the playoffs."
But he also acknowledged: "I've got to stay on the right side of the line. I can't be going to the penalty box as many times as I did last night."
That's always the test with Eager - trying to squeeze the right amount of agitation out of him, without having him step over the line. Eager was suspended once earlier this season for a sucker punch that left the Toronto Maple Leafs' Colby Armstrong with a major shiner. That was in his brief 34-game Atlanta Thrashers' cameo.
Eager joined the Thrashers from the Chicago Blackhawks (where he stayed long enough to win a Stanley Cup), but was subsequently traded to the Sharks in mid-season for a fifth-round pick. He has played 45 playoff games in the past three years; this is his third series against Vancouver in the past three, and he has a history with a lot of the Canucks, including Kevin Bieksa, whom he fought a couple of years back.
"You play a team three years in a row now, there's going to be some dislike," Eager said, "and when it's in the conference final, it's that much more intense. Sometimes, games end up like last night's. The good thing about playoffs is, we play again, so we'll just turn the page and be ready - on home ice."
Of course, all this talk about Eager turned attention away from the real challenge facing San Jose, which is that they aren't playing particularly well. The Canucks activate their defencemen in the same way that the Red Wings did last series, but for whatever reason, the Sharks kept losing them in coverage the other night. Bieksa's turning-point goal in the second period was just one of many examples.
"Those guys are having a field day jumping up the ice," said Sharks' defenceman Dan Boyle. "That's just blown coverage. That's unacceptable."
A sobering thought for the Sharks: Since the lockout, 10 teams have fallen behind 2-0 in the conference final and none have come back to win. San Jose is 2-10 lifetime in conference final playoff games and has lost eight in a row dating to 2004 against the Calgary Flames. McLellan didn't put much stock in that statistic, but he did challenge his best players to up the ante - pretty much letting only Joe Thornton and Logan Couture off the hook. It is a grim challenge but one they can turn around on Friday, providing the focus switches to hockey and making better plays.
They can't be running around, trying to settle scores and worrying about extraneous matters. Vancouver's top players have outplayed San Jose's top players by a wide margin and that needs to change. Joe Pavelski acknowledged he needs to be better, and so did Ryane Clowe. The Sharks need more of a lot of things to go right - put discipline and better execution right at the top of the list.
Ultimately, they also need a little less from Eager than they got in Game 2. If he's the focal point again, they're in trouble.Report Typo/Error