Sharks Drop 3rd in a Row, Lose 3-1 to Wild

By Mary Walsh

ST PAUL-  Sunday afternoon, the Sharks’ losing streak grew to three with a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild. Two second-period goals were scored by Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Wild goaltender Josh Harding made 37 saves. The Sharks finally scored at the end of the game with their net empty. That goal was scored by Patrick Marleau with just over a minute left in regulation. Instead of going on to tie the game, the Sharks gave up an empty-net goal, Zach Parise’s second of the game.

During pre-game, Drew Remenda asked Sharks defenseman Justin Braun what the defense needed to do to get the team back on track. Braun’s answer was straightforward:

We’ve got to get the puck up to the forwards’ hands as fast as possible, we can’t be slow tonight.

The Sharks did get credit for a lot of shots in the game, the forwards did have the puck a lot. They were rarely trapped in their own zone, but their play in the offensive zone was hampered by a determined Minnesota defense.

Matt Nieto, back from the AHL, led the Sharks in shots with six, while Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns led the team in hits with three each. The Sharks’ game went from uninspired in the first period to discombobulated in the third.

As expected, Todd McLellan made several changes to the Sharks’ lineup for the Sunday afternoon game in Minnesota. Joe Pavelski was moved to the right wing on a line with Couture and Marleau. Martin Havlat sat, possibly due to injury from a blocked shot in the previous game. John McCarthy also sat, while Matt Nieto took a spot on a line with Andrew Desjardins and Tommy Wingels. Freddie Hamilton was slotted in at center on a line with James Sheppard and Tyler Kennedy. Both Jason Demers and Matt Irwin played, with Scott Hannan sitting out. Irwin was paired with Dan Boyle while Demers was with Brad Stuart, putting Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun back together. The only line that was untouched was the Thornton line with Brent Burns and Tomas Hertl.

The first period could be called tentative. The Sharks outshot the Wild, and the Sharks had one power play after Charlie Coyle was called for holding the stick. It was as tepid a period as could be without a lot of stoppages. There was little indication that the lineup changes had energized the team. Luckily for San Jose, Minnesota wasn’t much more lively. The period ended scoreless, with the shots 11-5.

The Sharks came out with more energy in the second period, but those second period problems are starting to look like a curse more than a habit. With only 2 shots on goal, the Wild had a 2-0 lead. The Sharks were unlucky with a non-call when Minnesota’s Zach Parise knocked the stick from Justin Braun’s hands. Seconds later, Parise scored off the rebound of a shot made easier by Braun being stickless.

A bad line change from the Sharks followed, leaving two Sharks to defend a three man rush that became a four on two before reinforcements could arrive. As mistakes go, that was a bad one and it put the Sharks down 2-0.

The Sharks were not able to make any of their 21 shots pay off. Joe Pavelski and Justin Braun each had chances one on one with Wild goaltender Josh Harding, but they couldn’t beat him.

Probably the best Sharks chance of the period came on a short-handed attack from Matt Nieto, who was almost more that two Wild defenders and Harding could handle. He had a couple of shots in close before they fended him off.

The second period ended 2-0 Minnesota, with the shots at 32-11. The Sharks also finished the period a man down, as Brad Stuart was in the box for holding the stick, though it was hard to say whose stick he held or when.

The Sharks started the third still on the penlty kill. Joe Pavelski and Andrew Desjardins had a good 2 on 1 shorthanded chance to end the kill, but Desjardins couldn’t make the shot. A good backcheck from Minnesota and a quick slide by Harding cut down his options.

The Sharks only managed 5 shots in the first half of the third, though the Wild still had none. Nino Niederreiter took a high-sticking penalty about six minutes in, but the Sharks power play still couldn’t score.

In all, the Sharks’ power play went 0-4, their penalty kill 2-0. Antii Niemi made 10 saves on 12 shots.

The three stars of the game were: 1st: Josh Harding, 2nd: Mikko Koivu with one goal on one shot, and 3rd: Torrey Mitchell with two shots.

Sharks Need a Quick Reset

By Mary Walsh

The Sharks lost two games in a row. How tedious of them. The Pittsburgh Penguins are having a fine season, so losing to them isn’t something to be completely ashamed of. The Carolina Hurricanes, however, should not have defeated the Sharks 5-3, even if the Sharks’ backup goaltender was in net, even if the Sharks were on the second half of back to back games with travel. The Hurricanes had matching travel issues, and San Jose didn’t give Cam Ward enough work for goaltending to be the difference.

Yes, the Sharks should be thoroughly disappointed with themselves for losing to Carolina, especially after being blown out the game before. How awful to respond to a bad loss by losing again, giving up an early two-goal lead, and being outshot 35-25. Three goals and 30 saves would normally be enough for a Sharks win this season.

Despite all that, it would be unreasonable for anyone to get too excited about that lost pair. The Sharks have a record to be proud of, 19-5-5 on the season and 7-3-0 in their last ten. Still, San Jose has a responsibility to make sure that little pair doesn’t grow up to be a great big panic-inducing streak of losses.

To that end, the Sharks made some roster moves. Matt Pelech, who didn’t play on the road trip, was sent to Worcester, while Matt Nieto and Freddie Hamilton have been called up. Mike Brown was placed on injured reserve, for injuries initially described as almost negligible.

Who will sit now? The switching of  Joe Pavelski and Andrew Desjardins at the end of the last two games could indicate that the coaching staff will focus their adjustments on the bottom six. Pavelski always seems like an unlikely candidate for the press box. Tyler Kennedy’s minutes have been slipping. Will he sit? Was that line juggling a demotion of both Kennedy and Havlat to the fourth line? Will they both sit? Or will Hamilton, a center, be in for Desjardins? Will Nieto or Hamilton replace McCarthy, he of the two penalties in Pittsburgh? Would any of that be enough?

The problem in both losses was defense. Not defensemen per se, but this creeping habit the Sharks have of giving up goals in bunches. In Toronto and Pittsburgh, the leak seemed to be confined to the second period. San Jose patched that, only to see the Hurricanes tear open a four-goal breach in the third. It is hard to see exactly how those failures can be solved by changes to the third and fourth lines. There isn’t a lot you can do when you are not on the ice.

On his first stint with San Jose, Nieto played on the top line. If McLellan really wants to mix things up, the lines may look nothing like they did in these last three games, and the winning streak that preceded them. It sounds like overkill to throw all of the forward lines into flux over two measly losses, but waiting to see how bad it can get isn’t a good plan either.

The team’s best hope won’t be found in the defensive instincts of two call-ups. Even if they are perfect, they can’t compensate for a team-wide meltdown. A change to the lineup might focus the team, make them more cautious and attentive to communication and execution. The refreshed, reset Sharks’ mantra has been speed. That is all well and good, but if you are heading into a wall, you don’t want to get there faster. It might be time for the Sharks to slow down, at least mentally.

Sharks’ Win Streak Ends With 5-1 Loss to Pens

By Mary Walsh

PITTSBURGH- The San Jose Sharks were overwhelmed Thursday, by a team they had handled very well in past meetings. The final score was 5-1 Penguins. The Sharks had their work cut out for them in Pittsburgh, as Sidney Crosby has still never scored against the Sharks, so that was and is probably on his to do list. The job got much bigger when the Sharks went down 4-0 with just over half of the game remaining. That hole was too deep for San Jose to climb out of.

Thursday morning, Pierre LeBrun offered the Sharks at Penguins game as a good alternative to the All Star Game. In the first period, the comparison was grossly inaccurate, as both teams played stifling defense. Play opened up in the second period, with one team racking up the shots, and the other piling up goals. The Sharks got credit for 24 shots in that fateful period, while the Penguins scored four goals.

Before the game, Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma said, of his team’s third line:

…it’s not a typical physical it’s not a shut down line, they do it with speed. All those guys have some tenacity to their game too, it’s not just speed, you can’t knock them off the puck that easily. Chris Connor, we said it when we called him up “he’s going to knock someone down every game” and against Toronto his first game, right before his goal he reversed shoulders and knocks a guy down in the offensive zone but the speed at which they play as a unit is a factor… and they’re tough to handle and they’ve been able to do that with some consistency for our group in all the games they’ve played.

That formula turned out to work well against the Sharks, not only for the line Bylsma was describing.The Sharks had a lot of shots, but they didn’t have much time to set those shots up.

Much was made of how the Penguins and the Sharks were not especially familiar with each other, but they each had players who had faced the other team more than once. The above-mentioned Chris Conner had faced the Sharks as recently as late last season, while playing for the Phoenix Coyotes. Some of the Penguins, though, had not played the Sharks before. Penguins defenseman Simon Despres, recently recalled from the AHL, looked forward to the challenge:

I know nothing about San Jose, it’s my first time playing a West[ern] team personally, so I’m excited to play them … They’re a top team in the league, it’s going to be a good challenge for the team.

Familiar with San Jose or not, the Penguins were prepared for the game.

Sharks’ Head Coach Todd McLellan didn’t make too much of the absence of Evgeni Malkin from the Penguins lineup. Before the game he pointed out that the Penguins have a lot of recent experience playing without their top scorers, and playing well.

The Sharks took two penalties in the game, and both went to John McCarthy. On the second of those, the Penguins scored their fourth goal of the game. McCarthy’s penalty minutes were not the only thing going wrong for the Sharks. There were few mistake-free players for San Jose, and the team’s overall composure was badly rattled by the early second period onslaught from Pittsburgh.

In the first period, both teams kept their opponents to the outside and most of the shots taken were hurried. One good chance came for the Penguins when Andrew Desjardins and Scott Hannan both failed to get control of the puck in the slot, Chris Conner sped in and got a shot off. Niemi stopped it. Neither team had many great chances in the first period, even on the power play.  The period ended with shots 12-7 Pittsburgh.

The second period started inauspiciously for the Sharks, with the home team scoring less than 30 seconds in. Pascal Dupuis scored the first of the game on a tip from Brooks Orpik’s shot from the point. The Sharks responded  with a good shift from the Pavelski line, but that was followed by a three-on-one rush when Despres pushed the puck past Jason Demers. Jayson Megna and Joe Vitale went the other way. Megna took the shot, scoring his third of the season.

With the score 2-0, Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen was called for interference on McCarthy. The Penguins stopped the Sharks from scoring on the power play, and came back with offensive pressure that exposed the Sharks yet again.  After a turnover in the Sharks’ zone, Niemi stopped a Sidney Crosby shot but Chris Kunitz picked up the rebound and made it 3-0.

San Jose’s fourth line looked like they might shift the momentum as they got in the zone and had the Penguins scrambling, until McCarthy was called for tripping Olli Maatta in front of the net. It took the Penguins 14 seconds to score on that power play. The goal went to Kunitz, from James Neal and Sidney Crosby. 4-0 Penguins.

The Sharks finally got on the board at 9:27 of the period, with a goal from Tomas Hertl, possibly off of Pittsburgh’s Derek Engellund’s stick. Shortly thereafter, Andrew Desjardins drew a penalty, giving the Sharks a power play that seemed to let them regroup. They had eight shots before the penalty expired but failed to score.

By the end of the period, Todd McLellan had replaced Joe Pavelski with Andrew Desjardins at center with Tyler Kennedy and Martin Havlat. Pavelski was moved to center John McCarthy and James Sheppard.

The second period ended with the score 4-1 Pittsburgh, and the shots 31-27 San Jose.

McLellan changed goaltenders for the third period, putting Alex Stalock in to replace Antti Niemi. The forward lines remained as they had finished the second, with Pavelski centering McCarthy and Sheppard.

The Penguins started the period in the Sharks’ zone. Four minutes later they extended their lead to 5-1, a goal from Kris Letang. It was the Penguins’ first shot of the period. They only got credit for two more, to the Sharks’ 14. The final count was 45-30.

Marc-Andre Fleury made 33 saves on 34 shots for the win. For the Sharks, Antti Niemi made 21 saves on 24 shots in the first two periods, Alex Stalock made two saves on three shots in the third. The Sharks’ power play went 0-3, their penalty kill 1-2.

It was Dan Boyle’s 900th NHL game, Tyler Kennedy’s 400th, and Sidney Crosby’s 500th.

The Sharks Got What They Need

By Mary Walsh

SAN JOSE- If the 2013-14 Sharks had to come up with a wish list right now, I believe it would take a lot of thinking. They are 2-0 against the top-ranked team in the league now. They might have a case of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” though Todd McLellan is probably making some adjustments to his fourth line today. Nothing drastic, nothing GM Doug Wilson would have to get involved in.

Saturday morning, Ducks’ Head Coach Bruce Boudreau had some thoughts about what the Sharks need:

You give these guys space, they’re gonna burn you. They can skate, they’re big, they’re strong, so you have to play a perfect game or San Jose is going to eat you up.

Space. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, and it is the kind of thing everybody appreciates. Good call, Coach Boudreau.

The Sharks do have some good space-makers. Most conspicuous of these is Brent Burns. He isn’t a new addition to the team but he is in a relatively new role. He has had some frustrating injury troubles in the last couple of seasons, and he was missed. If he can finally be a mainstay as a forward, he almost counts as a new acquisition.

Brent Burns isn’t what Doug Wilson said he wanted when he traded for him:

“Brent is an elite first-pairing defenseman that is just coming into his prime,” Wilson said. “We feel that he gives our blueline tremendous depth and versatility… -SJ Sharks press release

So Burns has not become the defenseman Wilson wanted then, but he is what the Sharks need now. The team wins more, scores more, does better with Burns the forward in the lineup. He is fast, strong, aggressive and unpredictable on the ice, and he brings intangibles that might be less obvious to the naked eye.

Of playing with him, Joe Thornton said:

He’s so big and so strong and he has such a good shot… and he just has so much fun out there. It’s so fun being a part of his line, you know I just have a smile on my face most of the game because the stuff he does is amazing.

Without Burns in the lineup, the team has scoring punch and can win plenty of games, but they do score more with him. He makes space and incites chaos that San Jose’s considerable offensive talent can take advantage of. Apparently he puts people in a good mood too.

I always say the same thing, I never want a lineup to change, but this year, I think I might finally be right. The Sharks shouldn’t need any more pieces to make this their most effective season to date. The have depth and experience on the blue line that must make most NHL teams green with envy. They have to sit defensemen that other teams would gladly play into the ground.

San Jose has a wealth of talent on their forward lines. It is safe to call the third line overqualified, with Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski and Tyler Kennedy settling in there. The only lingering doubts are which wingers to use on the fourth line, which McLellan seems to answer on a game by game basis. Despite being a natural center, John McCarthy has been very effective as a winger there. The Sharks give Andrew Desjardins the edge as a center, but McCarthy has the experience to slide over if needed, since that is where he mostly played in Worcester and college.

Still, it is fun to play the “what piece would make the difference? There must be someone to add, shopping season is coming!” Some of those pieces are already in place in the form of a retasked Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl the wonder-rookie, and the evolution of Tommy Wingels’ game.

Wingels is clicking at a higher rate and more consistently than ever before. He hits, he shoots, he grinds and crashes, all with increasing polish and precision. He has moved flawlessly up and down the lineup, fitting in an scoring on all top three lines.

If additions and improvements like that don’t make enough difference, then the team is hopeless. If you still need more, remember the team has Raffi Torres in the shop, and they sent Matt Nieto back to Worcester. This is why the Sharks need space: they have a lot of players playing well, and reserves in the hold.

Sharks Beat the Blues, Again

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By Mary Walsh

SAN JOSE-Friday afternoon, the San Jose Sharks defeated the St. Louis Blues, scoring six goals against them for the second time this season. Four of those came in the first period, during which time the Blues went scoreless and only registered two shots on goal. The Blues’ game picked up after that, but that first period gave the Sharks a lead too great for St. Louis to overcome. The final score was 6-3, with three goals for the Sharks coming from Brent Burns, and one each from Tommy Wingels, Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl. The Blues’ goals were scored by Ian Cole, David Backes and Jaden Schwartz. The Sharks outshot the Blues 32-24.

Is scoring six goals against St. Louis likely to become a pattern? Tommy Wingels addressed that and some possible reasons for the Sharks’ success against the Blues this season:

I think our game is simplified when we play a team like that, … making the easy play. We know that they’re aggressive and if you don’t, we’re probably going to be hemmed in our zone… are we going to score that many goals against them every time? I doubt it. Other games might be 1-0, 3-2 games but we’ll take the goals as they come.

The Blues started Friday’s game with a blind spot that their starting goaltender Brian Elliott could not make up for. Through the first period, the Blues treated the space between the inside of the right face-off dot and the slot like dark territory. Three Sharks scored from that space: Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and Tommy Wingels. Joe Pavelski took a shot from there as well, but Elliott grabbed it.

Two first period goals were scored by Burns. The ex-defenseman went on to score again in the third period, for his first career hat trick. Burns might seem to be back to 100% since returning from injury, but he thinks there is more improvement to come:

Hopefully the legs are going to keep getting better… I feel like I stayed in really good shape but gym shape and game shape [are] different, so I think it’s going to get better every game. I’m hoping to feel better than… today was a little weird with Thanksgiving yesterday, a lot of food, and then no skate in the morning. I think it’s going to keep getting better and better.

Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan was very pleased with the start.

A hell of a period. Really happy with it, excited about going out and playing the next, a really good start.

Nevertheless, the Sharks had to be prepared for the Blues to push back, as they did:

They’re a first place club for a reason. They’re not going away, they weren’t happy obviously with their first. They came back and played their game and that’s the type of team you’ve got to play against for the last forty minutes.

The Sharks started the game fast and furious, going right to the Blues net. After 25 seconds in the Blues’ zone, Brent Burns put the Sharks up 1-0.

The Blues’ Kevin Shattenkirk went to the box for interference 2:06 into the first. A shot from Couture bounced off of Brian Elliott. Pavelski picked up the rebound and back-handed it to Joe Thornton, who did not wait to shoot it. 

With the score 2-0 Sharks, after four minutes of play, the Blues still did not have a shot on goal. Their first came in the next minute, but it was clear that the Sharks had come ready for the top-ranked opponent.

The Blues did not score with that shot, and did not get credit for another shot until 6:40 into the period, when they also took another penalty. Patrick Berglund was called for cross-checking Martin Havlat. Eight seconds later, Logan Couture went to the box for hooking Roman Polak, so the Sharks’ second power play was neutralized.

No matter. Shortly after the penalties expired, the Sharks made another fast rush through the neutral zone, and Burns scored his second from the slot off a pass from Thornton. The second assist went to Tomas Hertl.

Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock called a time out. When that was over, the Sharks went right back on the attack.

Wingels got on the board at 11:27 of the first, putting the Sharks up 4-0. The shot count now stood at 11-2. Assists went to Couture and Justin Braun.

With 5:08 left in the period, Patrick Marleau was called for tripping Alexander Steen, giving the Blues their first full power play of the game. They did not register a shot through the power play, though one shot rang loudly off the outside of Niemi’s post.

The Blues started the second with more composure and a new goaltender as Jaroslav Halak replaced Elliott. The Blues had a good early chance in front of Niemi, and the Sharks’ goaltender had to be sharp, stretching out a toe to stop a shot from T.J. Oshie. It took the Blues a little under six minutes to triple their shot count.

By then, it was time for another penalty. David Backes took it, two of them: a cross-checking minor and a ten minute misconduct. The Sharks’ power play did not score, though Couture had a good chance off a Thornton pass.

With nine seconds left in that power play, Pavelski was called for interference. The Blues’ power play started to show some of its mettle, with the Blues holding the zone fairly well and getting a couple of shots off.

As the power play wound down, the Sharks had a short-handed chance but that ended when Havlat was called for high-sticking Alec Pietrangelo. The Sharks would have had to kill back to back penalties. Instead, the Blues’ Derek Roy took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 1:21 left in the Blues’ power play.

With the teams playing four on four, the Sharks had a couple of good chances before the Blues went the other way and Ian Cole shot the puck in to make it 4-1.

The Sharks took another penalty at 17:23, when Dan Boyle was called for holding Vladimir Tarasenko. As that penalty expired, Niemi made a beautiful glove save on a shot from the blue line, despite being screened by numerous players. That puck had been going right where the first Blues’ goal got by him.

By the end of the second, the shots for the period were even at 12 apiece. The total count was still 24-14 Sharks.

The Sharks started the third period with an early penalty, to Brad Stuart for tripping Tarasenko. It took the Blues over a minute and 20 seconds, but their power play finally produced, closing the gap to two goals. The goal was scored by David Backes, with assists going to Derek Roy and Alexander Steen.

That goal woke the Sharks up. They made themselves comfortable in the Blues’ zone for a couple of shifts after the goal, but the Blues were not backing down. The teams traded chances and both goalies were busy for a few minutes before T.J. Oshie took an interference penalty at 5:19. This gave the Sharks their fifth power play of the game, and possibly their least impressive. They didn’t score and spent too much time trying to get set up. The Blues’ penalty kill made it nearly impossible with timely clears and extended board battles.

The Blues followed up that penalty kill with some very tough play in the Sharks’ zone. Brad Stuart was pushed into the boards but it went uncalled. After a couple more players were knocked to the ice, Niemi covered the puck as it sat on the outside of the net. Tensions boiled over behind the net but the referees quieted the scrum without assigning any penalties.

At 9:26, they did call Boyle for high-sticking. Sharks blocked shots relentlessly, and managed three good clears, including a solid kick of the puck from Stuart. With several line changes and a timely stop by Niemi, the Sharks’ penalty killers stayed fresh until the Blues’ power play was neutralized with a holding call to Kevin Shattenkirk. With just seven seconds left before the Sharks’ power play would start, Vladimir Sobotka skated into the sharks’ zone, two-on-one with Jaden Schwartz. Sobotka passed and Schwartz scored, making it a one-goal game at 11:19. The second assist went to Roman Polak.

Seconds later, as the Sharks’ power play was just getting under way, Burns skated down the left side with the puck, evaded the Blues’ defenders and threw the puck at the net from the left faceoff circle. With Pavelski in front of the net, Burns’ shot went by Halak on the far side, giving the ex-defenseman his first NHL hat trick. That also restored the Sharks’ two-goal lead.

With just 3:54 left in the game, the Blues took a defensive zone tripping call on Shattenkirk.

That power play didn’t pay off for the Sharks. The Blues pulled their goaltender. With under 50 seconds left, Tomas Hertl extended the Sharks lead to 6-3, with assists on the empty netter going to Burns and Thornton.

The Sharks’ scratches were James Sheppard, John McCarthy and Jason Demers. That left room for both Mike Brown and Matt Pelech on the fourth line, and Matt Irwin on the blue line.

Crossing the Language Barrier: Jagr and Hertl

By Mary Walsh

SAN JOSE- Tomas Hertl arrived in the US with several adjustments to make. He had to adjust to NHL hockey. He had to adjust to being a young man in a new country. He had to learn to get by in a foreign language. That last one is the toughest. You need language to understand instructions, to make your requirements known, and to connect with people. Hertl is climbing the language barrier now, playing for the San Jose Sharks. Jaromir Jagr did it at the start of his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The best way to learn a new language is through immersion. If you want to learn to teach English as a foreign language, you don’t have to learn to speak the local language, because translation isn’t how you will teach. You build the new language word by word, the way a child does when they first learn to speak. It is a time-proven method, but just as being immersed in water can drown you, being completely immersed in a foreign language can be overwhelming.

Hertl’s language skills are improving quickly but that doesn’t mean he can understand all the questions asked of him or, probably more frustrating, answer thoroughly the ones he understands.

It has been estimated that you can’t really learn to use and remember more than ten new words in the space of an hour of studying. Multiply that by the number of words you use in a day and it takes a very long time to become conversationally proficient in any language.

Hertl did not come here without any English at all. He did study it in school. That foundation should give him a leg up.

Today he did an interview with a Czech reporter just before we English speakers descended on him. Listening to him speak at some length with the reporter made me ask him if it was nice to speak Czech. His smile answered the question, but he also explained:

Yeah, it’s much better for me… For me it’s difficult, talking English, and Czech interviews for me [are] very very easy … and I like speaking in interviews, and English is hard.

You might not know how much you like to speak until it is difficult to do so. The limitation can be exhausting and stifling. Yes, you learn faster when you have no other outlet than in the new language. But the mental fatigue factor of not being able to express yourself has to be considered. Like so many things, it is a matter of balance.

Today, going to a country where you don’t speak the language is not so isolating as it once was. Twenty years ago, your options for venting your words were more limited. Jaromir Jagr, now with the New Jersey Devils, explained how it was for him when he came to North America, and how it might be different for Hertl:

I was staying with a Czech family so it was kind of easier for me. To have a Czech player on the team always helps. [Hertl] has that now, I didn’t have that in my first few months… then there was a trade made from Calgary to Pittsburgh, Jiri Hrdina.

He knows more English than I did, at least he should because they’re learning it in school. I didn’t, [we learned] Russian.

A lot has changed in the Czech Republic, but a lot has changed everywhere since the 1990’s:

Of course we didn’t have cell phones so … I always tried to [call on] Sundays. Now, he can call all the time. After every good game, he can call.

And the parents and the friends, they have a chance to see him. There was not much media [in Czech] for NHL, no internet, so it was totally different. [My family] didn’t know if I’m alive.

Jagr said that last part with a smile but he was not exaggerating that much. I was in the Czech Republic at about the same time as he came to the NHL. I had to go to the post office to make an international call, ask an operator to put the call through, and wait for my turn in a booth. I was in a fairly small town far from Prague but international communication in Central Europe just wasn’t that easy in the 90s.

Hertl is not staying with a Czech family, but he has access to some Czech language. He has Martin Havlat on the team, and many different ways to let his family and friends know he’s alive. The Sharks have put him in a good situation to make progress, but no matter how you slice it, it will take time. It does sound like once he has more words in his arsenal, he will have a lot to say.

Sharks Short Lightning 5-1

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By Mary Walsh

SAN JOSE- Thursday night, San Jose defeated Tampa Bay 5-1, but it was not the way a 5-1 game usually looks. Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi had to make a lot of good saves and some very tough ones. Four Sharks scored, with two goals coming from Tommy Wingels, and one each from Brad Stuart, Brent Burns and Patrick Marleau. Despite the team having many good chances, the only Lighting player to score was Tyler Johnson.

The big news of the night was that Brent Burns was back in the game for San Jose. His  line did have their moments, but they were not as dangerous as they had been earlier in the season. Head Coach Todd McLellan didn’t sound too worried about them:

Burnzie’s line with Jumbo and Thomas, it’ll take some time to get their legs going again, and feel each other out, but they’ll be back to where they’re supposed to be.

Before the game, the question was raised: would the Sharks be ready to compete, after two days off and just one practice since their last game? McLellan acknowledged that it was a gamble:

Now that we won, I’m glad that we took those days off. I still think there were a few guys that didn’t have their legs because of it. But we made it through the night and they’ll be better tomorrow. Hopefully by the time the New Jersey game rolls around everybody will be real fresh. You take the chance of overresting at times.

The Logan Couture line with Patrick Marleau and Tommy Wingels turned some heads, though hardly with surprise. They have been consistently productive players for the team. They were the most dangerous scoring threat of the night. After the game, McLellan said of that line and the Joe Pavelski, Martin Havlat, Tyler Kennedy line:

That whole line played very well, against their top players for most of the night. I also thought that Marty, Pav and TK had a really good night. Those three looked like they belong together and played well. So, good balance through those two lines.

A point of curiosity was how the Tampa Bay Lightning plays without Steven Stamkos. It turns out, they play a lot like they did with him. Obviously they could not replace his scoring touch, but they did prevent the Sharks from sustaining extended zone time. The shot clock reflected a game of traded chances, ending 37-36. That is very close except that in victory, the Sharks habitually outshoot their opponents by a sizeable margin.

The first four minutes of the game were uneventful except for one very good first shift from Logan Couture’s line that resulted in several shots but no points. They didn’t score until their next shift, when Tommy Wingels scored from the left faceoff circle. Assists went to his linemates, Couture and Patrick Marleau.

Eight minutes into the period, Tampa Bay asserted themselves in the Sharks’ zone after stripping the puck at the Sharks’ blue line. A couple of shots later, San Jose iced the puck to get out of trouble. The Sharks regained their composure when the fourth line of James Sheppard, Andrew Desjardins and Mike Brown drove play the other way. They held the offensive zone for San Jose until the next whistle.

At 14:43, Tommy Wingels was called for tripping Valteri Filppula. The Lightning had a good long spell with six skaters before Wingels finally cleared the puck. That was enough for the referee to blow play dead.

The penalty kill unit was Hannan, Marleau, Pavelski and Brad Stuart. Tampa Bay’s power play was not easy to chase off. In fact, the Sharks skaters did not get a chance at a shift change for the full two minutes. Tampa Bay managed several shots, but it brought to mind the old saying: if they didn’t have bad luck they would have no luck at all.

The beleaguered but successful penalty killers seemed to inspire the Sharks because they finally sustained an attack. Stuart came back out, recovered from his penalty killing marathon. The puck came to him above the faceoff circle and he slapped it past Tampa Bay’s goaltender Anders Lindback.

With 51.9 left in the first, Victor Hedman went to the box for holding Marleau. The Sharks didn’t dawdle this time, but Tampa Bay still managed a short handed rush, this time it was Nate Thompson and Tyler Johnson. The Sharks pushed back and got one shot off before the period ended.

The period ended with the Sharks leading 2-0 on the scoreboard and 18-12 in shots.

The Sharks started the second period on the power play. With Thornton, Couture, Marleau, Pavelski and Boyle on the ice, Lindback stopped two shots before the power play expired. Havlat came out on a line with Kennedy and Desjardins. The makeshift line was quickly trapped in their own zone. The second line came out for a defensive zone draw and managed two rushes up ice before going off, but without being able to do much more than one and done shots. The top line of Thornton, Burns and Hertl had no more success. Tampa Bay was very attentive to their defensive duties. Niemi had to be sharp, though Tampa Bay rarely got more than one shot on net in a stretch.

Once they had some distance from the penalties, McLellan reverted to his starting lines.

About seven minutes in to the second period, Scott Hannan just missed with a hard one-timer from the half boards. The puck landed square on his stick off a beautiful backhand pass from Havlat. That was followed by a good chance to jam it home for Kennedy. The Sharks were finding a way to sustain the attack beyond one shift, but Lindback held on.

Another good shift from Couture’s line seemed about to fail when Patrick Marleau got the puck behind the net. He passed the puck past a Lightning defenseman, right to Tommy Wingels in front of the net. Wingels’ second of the game put the Sharks up 3-0.

Tampa Bay outshot the Sharks in the second period, 12-9 but had yet to make one of those shots count for a goal.

The third period opened with the Couture line on the ice. Both that line and the Thornton line that followed spent most of their shifts defending, until the end of the top line’s shift when they did get a draw in the offensive zone. The Pavelski line after them managed extended time in the zone but not many shots.

At 4:23, the top line finally got their point. A shot from Scott Hannan above the faceoff circle was deflected in by Brent Burns. Assists went to Thornton and Hannan.

Seconds later (19 to be exact), Patrick Marleau skated in around a blue and white defender and back-handed it over the goalie for the Sharks’ fifth goal. Assists went to Logan Couture and Justin Braun.

The Tampa Bay Lightning finally got on the board with a breakaway shot from Tyler Johnson at 7:39. Assists went to Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik. Niemi had been very sharp up until then, and he had to be. The Sharks had allowed too many shots for comfort.

Tampa Bay, with nothing left to lose, pushed hard. The Sharks, with as much motivation as a team with a four-goal lead can have, had trouble getting through the neutral zone and their infrequent forays into the offensive zone did not last long.

The final shot count was 37-36 Tampa Bay, but the count that mattered read 5-1 San Jose.

The Sharks’ scratches were Matt Irwin, John McCarthy and Matt Nieto.

The Sharks next play Saturday at 7:30 at SAP Center in San Jose, against the New Jersey Devils.

A Moving Target: Survival in the Minors

By Mary Walsh

SAN FRANCISCO- You have to approach an ECHL game like there is no tomorrow. As a player, you could be injured out and never play again. Tonight. As a fan, your favorite player could be moved without any warning rumors at all, your significant other who you just followed across the country could be traded again, before you’ve even finished unpacking.

Minor leagues demand a “pack light” mentality, like hitching cross-country: you move a great deal but your feet rarely leave the earth. It is bracing, fleeting, unpredictable and mostly without a safety net.

There are things like teddy bear tosses and Chuck-a-Puck, activities that depend on everyone being pretty darn close to the ice.

The roster will change at a rapid-fire pace that can frustrate a fan who wants to get attached to this or that player. The team will be open with the press about injuries, because hey, anyone watching the game saw what happened. The players make appearances at public places to sign autographs, instead of donor dinners.

While many teams make an effort to put some glitz into the show, you don’t go to a minor league hockey game for the bright  splashy spectacle. You are there for the same reason the players and the coaches are there: you all like hockey.

The players don’t get paid enviable amounts of money. You can’t yell at them that they’re a drag on the team’s cap space. If you get mad it’s just over the principle of the thing, he made a dumb decision or took a selfish penalty. But when you throw eggs, you’re not throwing very high up the ladder. They don’t park their cars in hidden garages or come and go from the arena through a secured parking lot. They have their private space but it isn’t so very far away from you that you expect to see guys with earpieces following them around. They are just guys playing because they love the game.

Some might have hopes for bigger things, a call up, an NHL contract. But right now, in this game, that aspiration is just a gamble. They are here, now. All there is is today’s game.

Many tomorrows from now, they could still be here, in the ECHL or the AHL, grinding out a living with their bodies and their skill and their attachment to the game. Some have degrees and plans for when it is over, others might not. All here, now, for your entertainment and a shared love of a sport, ice, speed and team.

As investments, sports at any level are a gamble, but minor league teams are notorious for existing on the edge of extinction. As hair raising as that is for management and owners, it is the stuff of great stories. The blood of the underdog runs through the veins of such teams, through the leagues even. From top to bottom, survival is a question, not something anyone takes for granted.

In the bigger markets, fans can become more fierce and demanding but it is still about the game, not some multimillion dollar contract paid to an unworthy player. There is one point of envy a fan might take away, and that is loving what you do. Surely players get sick of riding buses around for days on end, or being in physical pain year round, having to move cross-country at the drop of a hat. Many people do all that without getting to play hockey or do anything at all that they enjoy. Still, this type of compensation is pretty discreet. It doesn’t blind you like sunlight reflected off the tinted windshield of a new luxury car.

That is why movies like the minors so much. Everything about them is suspenseful. The players take all the risks and reap only a tiny share of the rewards that a big league player does. Whether an arena is packed or sparsely attended, a minor league game is a moving thing. Particularly in the Western U.S., where hockey is still scrambling for a share of the sports fanbase, an ECHL game is unpretentious and sincere in a way that no major league game could ever be. No one is there for the spectacle, they are there for the hockey, the pure, unrefined kind. No replays, no repeats, just this game now.

Sharks Lose to Jets in Shootout, Losing Streak at 5

By Mary Walsh

The San Jose Sharks started a five game road trip with a 5-4 shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan summed up the good and the bad of Sunday’s game:

That was much better. Not everybody that watched tonight’s game got to see what we did against Vancouver, which was poor. So we made strides as far as competitiveness, I still don’t think we were at our best. Thought we looked slow, especially to retrieve pucks. They’re a very quick team and they exposed some of our speed issues in certain areas that we have to get better. The goals they scored, we’d sure like to have a couple of them back but full marks to them.

The Sharks will need to polish their shootout skills. Unlike last season, when they had exceptional results in shootouts, now they have scored only three times in five shootouts, and won only once. McLellan acknowledged this in the post game interview:

We practice it probably too much now. We created a whole bunch of different situations in practice, we’ve gone through different guys, they’ve got to score. There isn’t magic, you’ve got to beat the goaltender. Right now there’s too much pressure on Niemi in a shootout to be perfect. I don’t know what we are now, we’ve tried different guys, the only one who’s scored this year is [Couture.] So we’ve got to find a way.

With a shortage of shootout specialists since the Spring purge of 2013, San Jose will need a few more shooters to come forward.

Seven times this season, the Sharks have scored in the first two minutes of the game. They did not do so Sunday in Winnipeg. Instead, the Sharks took a penalty. While Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan sat in the box for high-sticking Devin Setoguchi, the Sharks’ penalty kill went to work against the 29th ranked power play in the NHL. Penalty killed off, the Jets continued to attack. The Sharks didn’t have a shot on goal until six minutes had elapsed in the period. By the 13 minute mark, the Jets had outshot the Sharks 10-2.

Moments later, Jets Captain Andrew Ladd went to the box for tripping Sharks’ defenseman Dan Boyle. It took Boyle 14 seconds to score with a blast from the slot. During a CSN intermission interview, Boyle credited Joe Pavelski with clearing the lane for him, while Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau got in front of Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.

The audience went quiet. They stayed quiet as Tomas Hertl burst across the Jets blue line moments later. Jason Demers’ pass from the Sharks zone was perfectly timed to hit Hertl just shy of Jets territory. It was a great pass and a good shot, modest enough to offend no one while still scoring.

Jets Head Coach Claude Noel responded by calling a time out. He used it well. The Jets continued to lead the Sharks by a wide margin in shots and zone time. During the last minute of the period, Evander Kane went to the box for goaltender interference and put the Sharks back on the power play. The period ended with the Jets challenging short-handed.

The Sharks had a two goal lead but by every other measure, they were being out-played. By the end of the period, the shot count was 15-9 for Winnipeg.

The Sharks started the second period on the power play. The Sharks had a few good chances but did not score. The Jets went back to work, but the Sharks pushed back quickly, showing more confidence and accuracy with their passes, giving Pavelec more work.

The Jets caught a break when a Matt Irwin shot was blocked and then taken away by Matt Halischuk, who carried the puck in. Halischuk’s pass came late enough to look like he would shoot, and Frolik got by Dan Boyle to put the Jets on the board from the other side of the net.

The audience had barely finished cheering when Tommy Wingels responded with a quick shot over Pavelec’s shoulder. Braun cleared the puck off the boards and it hit Wingels just as he crossed the line. The Jets couldn’t stop him. The goal came 41 seconds after Frolik’s.

It took the Jets a minute and 20 seconds to answer with another goal, this one from Dustin Byfuglien (his first of the year) on the blue line. The Sharks left him briefly uncovered with a clear lane for his shot all the way to the net.

At 12:21, Devin Setoguchi earned a power play for the Jets, an intereference call on Hannan. The Jets’ power play didn’t tie the game for them, but five minutes later, a shot from Grant Clitsome bounced off Justin Braun and past Niemi’s glove to tie the game.

In the final second of the middle period, Dustin Byfuglien shot the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty. The Sharks escaped the second without giving up the lead, and would start the third on the power play.

That power play was underwhelming. The second unit’s strategy through the neutral zone failed twice as they shot the puck in from the red line. Jets got to the puck first and sent it back out before all five Sharks were in the zone.

The Sharks had another chance at 3:19 when Halischuk went to the box for tripping Tyler Kennedy. San Jose’s first power play unit of Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Boyle, and Couture took 40 seconds to score.

Logan Couture, lurking by the side of the net, took a pass from Joe Thornton and sent the puck through his legs behind him, where Boyle found it and put it in the net. Had Boyle not succeeded, Joe Pavelski was nearby as well. It was a beautiful play.

At 11:05 of the third, a bizarre series of penalties cycled through a 5 on 4 SJ, to a 4 on 4, to a 4 on 3 WPG, back to 4 on 4 and to 5 on 4 SJ. The numbers changed so quickly, it didn’t seem to matter who had more men on the ice, the play went back and forth throughout the sequence.

The teams didn’t slow down once they were back at even strength. The back and forth play went down to the last minutes, when Todd McLellan used his time out. The Jets appeared to benefit more from the break than the Sharks did. They won the next faceoff in the offensive zone and Ladd tied the game two shots later.

Two minutes into overtime, Tommy Wingels was involved in his second discounted goal of the season. Wingels, positioned in front of goaltender Pavelec, lost the shoving match and ended up too close to Pavelec. The goal that followed seconds later was disallowed for goaltender interference. McLellan commented on the call after the game:

If you’re a Shark you’re questioning it, if you’re a Jet you agree with the call. It’s a discretionary call that occurs in a game. He was allowed to make the first save easily, it’s the second one, it’s the rebound and I don’t know who has the right to that ice, I don’t understand it. But we move on.

The Sharks were not penalized further on the play, and the game went to a shootout.

The Jets shot first, with Andrew Ladd shooting third for Winnipeg and scoring the shootout winner. He skated in and lifted the puck from what appeared to be an impossibly close angle. Niemi saved the first two shots from Blake Wheeler and Brian Little. The Sharks’ shooters were Logan Couture (save), Tommy Wingels (miss), and Dan Boyle (save).

Final shot count: 46-34 Winnipeg. The Sharks’ power play went 2-6, their penalty kill was 2-2.

Notes:

The scratches were Brad Stuart and John McCarthy. That put Matt Irwin in as Dan Boyle’s partner, and left Mike Brown on the fourth line.

The Sharks’ next game is Tuesday in Calgary at 6:00 pm PST.

Sitting Sharks: SJ Losing Streak Stands at Four

By Mary Walsh

SAN JOSE- The Sharks are not winning anymore. Fans might be having flashbacks to every season past, when even the most magnificent point streak was marred by some inexplicable, nonsensical streak of poor play, bad luck and predictably disappointing results. It would be reasonable to assume that it is time for the Sharks to break pattern, at least in some subtle way.

One could argue that the Sharks’ recent losses were not all due to poor preparation or unsettled play. One could say that the Coyotes had a bone to pick with the Sharks after the insulting 4-1 loss on October 5. One could say that the Canucks had an even bigger grudge to settle, having been defeated by the Sharks nine times in a row, including a playoff sweep. Then one could argue that it is too much to ask of a team to take this season’s Sabres seriously. So that is three of the four losses summarily dismissed, and the fourth was exactly like a game against the Los Angeles Kings: close and exhausting and down to who gets the last change.

Perhaps the Sharks are not in the middle of their seasonal falling sky routine. Maybe the bounces just caught up to them. Nevertheless, they have not responded well. They have not matched their opponents’ intensity. They shifted gears, but not to the right gear. Their passes were rushed and sloppy, their corrections off the mark. With each successive loss, their panic peaked higher and their ability to recover declined.

The most talked-about gaffe of the Vancouver game was Jason Demers’ bad pass followed by his worse decision to hit instead of defend. Not every Sharks player is combining errors so quickly and disastrously, but that sequence revealed the kind of hasty decisions too many Sharks are making. Did it go wrong because Demers was in the process of making the pass while he realized he should not make it? Was it just dumb luck? It doesn’t matter, he lacked poise at that moment. Demers was not the only Shark showing signs of needless panic. Blind passes, a lack of awareness and ill-conceived plays abounded from the blue paint outwards. It took the team two periods to burn off the panic.

Todd McLellan will probably respond with line changes for Sunday’s game in Winnipeg. He may sit Demers, he may shuffle forward combinations. McLellan was clearly disappointed after the Vancouver game, as was every player interviewed. Of course they were. But the team had already made the right correction. In the third period of that game, they were clearly more composed. Passes started to connect, lines were able to move the puck from here to there without giving it away. Even if Vancouver was sitting back, it still allowed the Sharks to compose themselves, go back to basics, settle down. That is exactly what the Sharks needed to do to prepare for the next game. Will they start slow again? It depends how high their pain of loss threshold is.

History suggests that McLellan will pull the lines apart and sit the most conspicuous offenders. The same history reveals a peculiar Sharks habit of allowing veterans to “play through” bad spells, while young skaters sit after  poor performances. It seems counter-intuitive that a veteran should be less able than a younger player to come in and out of the lineup. Demers has played a lot of NHL games for a defenseman of his age, but he hasn’t played more games than a professional player of his age. It is fair to say that he has yet to reach his potential. The same is even more true of Matt Irwin. To sit a game won’t hurt, but Irwin has been out for three now. His absence doesn’t seem to be helping. James Sheppard, though not a prototypical fourth liner, has shown that he can do the job if it is his to do.

Scott Hannan and Mike Brown should be better able to sit until needed. They have both played well, just not well enough to carry the team to wins recently. They shouldn’t have to do that last. Neither player was brought in to be a game changer. They were both brought in to back up a strong team. If the team is struggling with or without them, wouldn’t the ice time be better spent getting the team back on track?

All of this is true of the team’s goaltenders as well. Even if Niemi plays better when he plays more, he should not play as many games as he has in past seasons with the Sharks. If he needs to play a lot, let him do that closer to playoffs. At this time of the season, all he gains is wear and tear. Alex Stalock has shown that he can do the job and maybe he would be even better if he played more too.

If the Sharks want a different result from this season than seasons past, they should probably make some changes to their lineup, just not the ones they usually make.