Pavelski Named Captain, Torres Suspended

By Mary Walsh

Monday, the San Jose Sharks named Joe Pavelksi team captain, saw Raffi Torres suspended, and cut their roster down to size.

The choice of captain was not surprising, as Pavelksi was generally presumed to be the top candidate for the job. Pavelski has been a team leader in terms of performance and poise for the past two seasons. The alternates will be Joe Thornton and Logan Couture.

Also on Monday, Raffi Torres was given a head-turning suspension of 41 games. The suspension is a response to Torres’ hit on Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg during the Sharks’ final preseason game on Saturday. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety conceded that Torres did not qualify as a repeat offender since it has been more than 18 months since his last offense. However, the NHL considered the fact that Torres has only appeared in 15 games since his most recent suspension. Further, the NHL had already warned, fined, or suspended Torres nine times in his career. The fact that so many of those offenses were due to illegal hits gave the NHL more ammunition to impose the exceptionally lengthy suspension.

The 41-game suspension certainly puts Torres in the running for most disappointing acquisition by the Sharks. Despite occasional flashes of promise as a productive forward, his knee injury and untimely suspensions have resulted in Torres playing only 16 regular season games and 12 playoff games since the Sharks traded a third round pick for him at the 2012 trade deadline.

Over the weekend, the Sharks assigned Nikolay Goldobin, Mirco Mueller and Melker Karlsson to the AHL Barracuda. They also returned the nine players called up from the AHL Barracuda for Saturday’s preseason game. Those nine were goalie Troy Grosenick, forwards Bryan Lerg, Micheal Haley, John McCarthy, Ryan Carpenter, Frazer McLaren, and Jeremy Langlois, and defensemen Karl Stollery, and Gus Young.

The final roster then includes two goaltenders, thirteen available forwards and seven defensemen. The forwards are: Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi,
Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joel Ward, Matt Nieto, Tomas Hertl, Tommy Wingels, Chris Tierney, Mike Brown, Barclay Goodrow and Ben Smith. the defensemen will be: Marc-Edouard Vlasic,Justin Braun, Paul Martin, Brent Burns, Brenden Dillon, Matt Tennyson and Dylan DeMelo.

The Sharks will open the season against the Kings in Los Angeles on Wednesday at 7:30 PT.

Torres Returns, Donskoi Shines, in Sharks Preseason Win

By Mary Walsh

The Sharks won their first preseason home game on Friday night. They defeated the Arizona Coyotes squad 3-1, or 4-1, depending on whether you count the exhibition overtime session. Sharks goals were scored by Brendan Dillon, Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Ben Smith. The Coyotes goal was scored by Antoine Vermette.

Raffi Torres returned to the lineup in the team’s third game of the preseason. He was on the starting line with Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton but after that Joonas Donskoi played on that top line. Donskoi has impressed in training camp, and his performance Friday continued to show why he is a serious contender for a spot on the NHL roster. Goaltender Al Stalock made his first preseason appearance as well, after sitting as backup for Martin Jones in Vancouver.

The first goal of the game came from Brendan Dillon less than five minutes in to the game. It was a shot from near the point, which bounced aloft in traffic in front of the net, before skipping over Anders Lindback’s shoulder. Assists went to Tommy Wingels and Dylan DeMelo.

At the ten minute mark, the Coyotes had just one shot recorded, to the Sharks’ 8. The Coyotes got another shot in the following minute. A fight and a small melee followed, landing Tommy Wingels, Brendan Dillon, and Arizona’s Brendan Shinnimin in the box. Wingels got two minutes for roughing, Shinnimin got two for slashing, and Dillon got two for cross-checking. The Coyotes had the first power play of the game. The Sharks penalty kill held up pretty well, considering how much trouble they had getting the puck cleared. Stalock made a couple of very stretchy saves to make up for the glitches in the system and preserve the lead.

The Sharks also took the second penalty, this one an interference call on Justin Braun. A penalty kill unit of Donskoi, Vlasic, Tierney and Mueller made efficient work of the first shift. Pavelski, Torres, Dillon and DeMelo finished up the kill for the Sharks.

With two minutes left in the first, the Sharks got their first power play. It was a penalty on Steve Downie for roughing. The Coyotes had less trouble clearing the puck out than the Sharks did. They cleared it a few times before the period and the power play ended, still 1-0 Sharks.

The Coyotes had almost evened the shot count by the end of the first, and did draw even in the first 30 seconds of the second, at 9-9.

The first five minutes of the second showed the Coyotes to advantage. They had several chances attacking the Sharks net, and Stalock was busy. The Coyotes took their second penalty of the game, at 7:23 of the period. It was a holding penalty to Lucas Lessio. The first power play unit again consisted of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Joonas Donskoi.

Matt Tennyson, Chris Tierney, Tommy Wingels, Brenden Dillon and Matt Nieto made up the second power play unit.

A blink after that penalty ended, the Sharks got another chance when Arizona’s Dakota Mermis went to the box for holding the stick. This time the power play started with Goldobin, Tennyson, Tierney, Wingels and Mueller. Thornton, Pavelski, Donskoi, Vlasic and Braun were on the second unit, the one that scored.

Vlasic’s shot from the point was deflected by Joe Pavelski in front of the net. The second assist went to Joe Thornton.

In the last five minutes of the period, Mike Brown was called for goaltender interference. The Sharks’ penalty kill seemed to find its feet this time around, pushing the Coyotes out quickly and even mustering a short-handed chance in the first minute.

That penalty kill was tested again, with just over two minutes left in the second. This time the penalty went to Mirco Mueller, two minutes for tripping Steve Downie. There were 28 seconds left in the period when the Coyotes finally got on the board. The power play goal was scored by Antoine Vermette. While partially screening Stalock, he tipped a shot from Connor Murphy. The second assist went to Max Domi.

By the end of the second, the Sharks were well ahead on the shot clock again, 26-18. The score was 2-1 Sharks.

The third period saw the teams off to an even start. In the first ten minutes, there were six shots, three from each team. Mirco Mueller got a round of applause for a fine hit, but there was little other clear advantage to cheer about. The teams seemed very even.

The line of Goldobin, Meier and Smith had a very good shift with around seven minutes left. Meier and Goldobin are well met when it comes to moving the puck around through traffic. It was not the most elegant showing but they showed tenacity and quickness enough to regain control many times.

With just over six minutes left in regulation, Tommy Wingels carried the puck to the net and bumped Lindback. No whistle blew, no horn went off. But the Coyotes went right back the other way and pushed Vlasic into Stalock. The penalty went to Joe Vitale for interference on Vlasic.

On the ensuing power play, Joonas Donskoi scored on the last of three tries by several Sharks in front of the net. His shot was quick and clean and from right in the slot. It was his first goal of the preseason. Assists went to Dylan DeMelo and Joe Thornton.

The final score, before the obligatory 3 on 3 overtime session, was 3-1 Sharks. The shot count stood at 37-26 Sharks. DeBoer started Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic as the first trio for the Sharks. The second group were Donskoi, Wingels and Braun. Goldobin, Nieto and Tennyson went third.

For good measure, the Ben Smith scored in the final two seconds of overtime, so the Sharks own the game and the extra game.

The even-strength lines were fairly consistent throughout the game. They were:
Tierney, Wingels, Nieto
Thornton, Pavelski, Donskoi
Goldobin, Meier, Smith
Torres, Lerg, Brown

The defense pairs were:
Tennyson, Mueller
Dillon, DeMelo
Vlasic, Braun

The Sharks shot leaders for the game were Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Joonas Donskoi. Justin Braun and Vlasic led the team in ice time. Al Stalock made 25 saves for the win.

For the Coyotes, Max Domi and Lucas Lessio led in shots, while Connor Murphy and Stephan Elliott lead the team in ice time. Anders Lindback made 34 saves for his team.

The Sharks play again Saturday at 6:00 pm.

How Will the Sharks Be Composed?

Patrick Marleau, Scott Hannan, Jonathan Quick, Logan Couture

By Mary Walsh

The San Jose Sharks are not the only team to lose a Game Seven in 2014, or even in the first round. Because they began with a three game lead, the loss was considered an upset, a collapse. Other teams who lost in Game Seven when they were expected to win include the Boston Bruins, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.The Bruins were grumpy in the handshake line, the Penguins fired their GM.

The Anaheim Ducks were the regular season Conference champions. They held a lead at one point in the series against the Los Angeles Kings, but they were not strong favorites, especially after the Kings’ first round comeback against the Sharks.

Does a little distance change how we should view what happened to the Sharks in the series against the Kings? Doesn’t it appear that they did not have to make many mistakes to lose to the Kings? Perhaps, but some of the mistakes were ones we have seen before that should have been avoidable.

When the Sharks flagged after the questionable goal that involved pushing Alex Stalock into the net, it was not unlike the 2011 Conference Finals against the Canucks. There, a bad call in the last 13 seconds of the third period left the team flat-footed. The Canucks tied the game and won the series in overtime.

What is this, and how do you fix it? Would making a lot of roster changes do it?

Sharks GM Doug Wilson said the team needs more than a band aid. The problem is that any major surgery takes time.

The first moves announced were actually non-moves. The coaching staff would be retained, Dan Boyle would not be resigned, and Marty Havlat would not be with the Sharks next season. The odds are very slim that this last means anything other than “Havlat will be bought out.” If Wilson were trying to trade him, he probably wouldn’t be announcing it to the media. This would be a first, a difficult first for a GM who has always been careful to not get into a contract he cannot live with.

The other announcement is the oddest of the three: the Sharks will use Brent Burns as a defenseman next season. Yes, he was acquired for that purpose, his contract was negotiated on that basis, he has more NHL experience as a defenseman than as a forward but… he really was a standout forward. He was maddeningly inconsistent as a defenseman.

The choice is not so shocking, but the announcement itself was strange. Was it a way of saying (unbidden) that the Sharks will not pursue a free agent defensemen this summer? Or that they will pursue a top six forward? Did that announcement have any place on the list of “questions people want answered?”

Dan Boyle, in discussing his time with the Sharks, said that the last two seasons were the Sharks’ best. Reminded that they had made the Conference Finals twice before, he admitted that perhaps recent seasons were just more vivid in his memory.

I think he was right the first time. The Pacific Division has become more formidable than it was when the Sharks went to the Conference Finals. The Sharks have been better in the last two seasons, but so has their competition. That means that success is even more about bounces than it ever was.

Bounces cannot be controlled, but the way a team handles them can be. A team’s psychological resilience can be improved by changing the players, but there are not very many players who can step in and hold a team together through a crisis. There may not be any who could do it for all teams.

Would trading Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau really improve matters? Joe Pavelski? Who? And who do you get to replace them? Keeping in mind some no movement clauses would have to be worked around, who could Wilson get back? Unfortunately, those other players might come with much heavier salary burdens, assuming they could produce as well as any of the Sharks’ leaders, and also fix what ails the team.

That is a lot to expect from some player on some team a Sharks player would agree to be traded to… it is a lot to expect from even two or three players.

Wilson may have the flexibility he wants, but he has not built the team out of an NHL Leggo set. Few successful teams are built like that. You don’t replace pieces, you replace ingredients. Each player has an effect beyond the players to either side of him on the bench. The wrong big move could doom the next few seasons.

Should they move goaltender Antti Niemi? Was he really the weakest link? A better puck-mover would be nice, but every goaltender has his weaknesses. Those with few are rarely available. How much could Wilson get in trade?

Again, would that fix what ails the Sharks? What does ail them?

Composure. This is something the Kings are being praised for. They have rebounded in two playoff series now. Their goalie has recovered from some poor outings to play at his best. Give them credit, they keep their heads.

But do they keep them so much better than the Sharks? If the Kings are such a better team than the Sharks or the Ducks, why did it take them seven games to win those series? Why did they lose so badly to start the playoffs? Perhaps their playing style has to be paced. Playing a very physical game, the sort of game that produces a high injury rate, takes its toll on both teams. Perhaps it takes the Kings a while to work up to it.

Is that what the Sharks need to do, whichever Sharks remain next season? Does that style of play guarantee a win? It has gotten the Kings farther than the Sharks have gone several seasons in a row now. So why don’t more teams emulate the Kings?

Again, why did it take them seven games, twice, if they are so much better?

Maybe the Kings are not a perfect model, they are just one that works for those players with that coach right now.

Those players. Mike Richards spent a good amount of time on the fourth line. He might be a buyout candidate this summer if he cannot return to a top six role. No team is going to willingly give a fourth liner six or seven years at $5.75 million. In the mean time, he posed an enormous threat to opposition, and not because he is so tough or gritty. What distinguished him from most fourth liners is skill.

The Sharks had Mike Brown on their fourth line. They also had Raffi Torres there, with a still very troublesome knee. Had he not been injured, would he have been on the fourth line at all?

The Sharks would do well to look for more skill to go with the grit they have relied on there. They have players who could make up an over-qualified fourth line, if they added one or two top nine forwards…

Yet the coaching staff thought it would be better to try to get Marty Havlat to play there occasionally, instead of moving someone who could do that job (like Tommy Wingels) and keeping Havlat in the roll he was acquired for– a skilled top nine forward. Unless they re-evaluate how they use their assets, it doesn’t matter who the Sharks trade or acquire.

If their roster is so flawed, then significant changes have to be made. That is unlikely to produce quick results. Whether they replace a lot of players or drastically change their style of play, both will take time to adjust to. They probably won’t get off to a quick start, they might be pushing to reach the playoffs at the end of the season. Then, if they stumble again, it can be explained away by too many changes to adjust to in one season.

Not making big changes hasn’t satisfied anyone. It will be difficult now to not make them. It does seem like a shame to waste the one useful thing the team got out of that loss to Los Angeles: a painful shared memory of what they don’t want to experience again.

Deja Vu Puts Sharks Up By Two

By Mary Walsh

SAN JOSE- Sunday, the San Jose Sharks defeated the Los Angeles Kings to take a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Quarter Finals. The game winner was scored by Justin Braun, Antti Niemi made 24 saves for the Sharks, and Jonathan Quick made 33 saves for the Kings on 40 San Jose Shots. Though the Kings scored first, the Sharks’ dominance through the second two periods was a repeat of an unexpectedly dominant Game One victory.

After the game, Mike Brown said:

Games like this, you don’t stop playing, you don’t give up. That’s how the whole series is going to go and you see what happened when we didn’t stop.

We’re planning on low-scoring games and we gotta play solid defensively. So we can’t really look at these two games and think that the series is gonna go this way.

After a 6-3 victory in Game One series, everyone knew that the Sharks would not have to navigate the mental burden of a five goal lead again. It turns out that everyone was wrong. The Sharks defeated the Kings Sunday by a score of 7-2, scoring seven unanswered goals in the second and third periods. They not only took the five goal lead, they held it until the end of the game.

Talking after the game, Sharks captain Joe Thornton summed up the Sharks’ success thus far:

To do that two games in a row… We’ve been working hard for our goals, and the fourth line just brought this game back in grip for us. But scoring seven tonight… it was… was just a weird night.

That fourth line was the clutch factor in the game. The combination of Andrew Desjardins, Raffi Torres and Mike Brown scored the first two Sharks goals of the game, bringing the Sharks back from a deficit to a tie game in the space of five minutes. After the game, Logan Couture said of the trio:

They got us going, they generate a lot of energy in the building, a lot of energy on our bench. You can tell when they’re out there that they’re going to forecheck hard and if I was a d-man I’d be scared of those guys bearing down on me all the time. So they’ve done a great job in this series.

The Kings opened the scoring under two minutes in. A Jake Muzzin shot from the point went past Sharks goalie Antti Niemi with some help from a screen set up by Marian Gaborik. Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar were awarded the assists.

The Sharks responded with a good chance of their own but Kings goalie Jonathan Quick had time and space to see the shots and stop them.

After an extended spell in their own zone, and numerous takeaways for both teams, the Kings struck again. Kings forward Jeff Carter got the puck away from Sharks defenseman Jason Demers and sent it in front of the net where Trevor Lewis tapped it in the far corner. Carter got credit for the lone assist.

By the half way point of the first period, the shots favored the Sharks 10-6, but the score was all Kings, 2-0.

One of the Sharks’ better shifts came from an offensive zone attack that included Tomas Hertl, Tommy Wingels and Scott Hannan, with about six minutes left in the first. As the shot clock indicated, the other lines were spending time in the Kings’ zone but they did not make life very uncomfortable for Quick. Many of their shots were completely unscreened.

Mike Brown gave the fans something to cheer about with some solid hits in the final four minutes, and the Thornton line joined in with a scrum in front of the Kings’ crease. Two penalties came out of that: two minutes each for roughing to Slava Voynov and Brent Burns.

The Sharks ended the first period with a two-goal deficit and a reduced lead in shots, with 15 to the Kings’ 10.

Early in the second period, Tomas Hertl took the ice with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, after taking a shift with Burns and Desjardins moments earlier.

That did not seem to do much, but the Sharks avoided being scored on for almost five minutes, then reversed the dismal trend with a goal of their own. It was Mike Brown’s first playoff goal. Andrew Desjardins centered a pass that found Brown skating into the Kings’ zone. Brown’s shot beat Quick fair and square from the slot.

Moments later, the Sharks got their first power play of the game. That produced a few good chances but did not add to the scoresheet.

It was near the half-way mark of the game when Raffi Torres scored his second of the series. After skating through traffic alongside Desjardins, he found an opening and tied the game. Assist to Andrew Desjardins.

About a minute later, Los Angeles got their first power play after Jason Demers was called for charging. It took the Sharks over 90 seconds to clear the puck for the first time in that penalty kill, but when they did they were rewarded by some inattention from the Kings that lead to an icing. With under 20 seconds left in the penalty the faceoff was in the Kings’ end. That was that and both teams remained perfect on the penalty kill.

The Sharks kept the pressure on. With 5:15 left in the period, James Sheppard won the puck along the boards and put it on net from a bad angle. The rebound went to the wall and Justin Braun, who shot it back in from the point. His hard shot flew by Tommy Wingels and Jonathan Quick to give the Sharks their first lead of the game. Assists went to Sheppard and Pavelski.

The Kings took a third penalty to finish the second, putting the Sharks on the power play to end the middle frame. It was an uninspiring power play, with the Kings ejecting the Sharks very effectively from their zone more than once before San Jose could get set up.

The period ended with shots 27-17 and the score 3-2 Sharks.

Tomas Hertl stayed on the Thornton line, with Pavelski playing third line center. The next goal did not come from either of those lines. The Sharks’ fourth goal came off a brilliant rush from the second line at 1:08 of the period. Matt Nieto centered the puck perfectly for Patrick Marleau who carried it as far as the opposite faceoff circle to put it by Jonathan Quick. Nieto and Logan Couture got the assists.

A nice neutral zone poke check from Scott Hannan started the next rush, sending the puck in for James Sheppard. Sheppard and the third line held the zone well, but it took a second neutral zone takeaway and another rush to put the Sharks up by three. Joe Pavelski scored that, after Dan Boyle  got the puck to him at the Kings’ blue line. The Kings were in the middle of a line change when Boyle snatched away that puck. Assists to Boyle and Wingels.

At 11:42 of the period, Marleau carried the puck in along the wall and passed it to Couture. Couture skated around two Los Angeles defenders to beat and unscreened Quick, who was moving across the crease.

6-2 Sharks. Assists to Marleau and Nieto.

A scrum at the Kings’ net resulted in a few penalties being doled out. Four minutes to LA for roughing, and two to San Jose for roughing. The offenders were Kings defenseman Matt Greene and Sharks’ forward Raffi Torres. Once again on the power play, the Sharks would not score in the five on four advantage, but just 30 seconds in to that penalty, Jarret Stoll gave the Sharks a two man advantage by high-sticking Joe Thornton and going to the box for two minutes.

After some nice passing around the perimeter, Thornton was left holding the puck in the right faceoff circle, with just Jonathan Quick between him and the Sharks’ seventh goal.

7-2 Sharks. The seventh goal assists went to Pavelski and Boyle. It was the Sharks’ first power play goal of the game.

With just over five minutes left, more hostilities broke out, sending several players to the locker room early and putting the Sharks on the power play again. For LA, Kyle Clifford got two minutes for roughing and a ten minute misconduct, Dustin Brown got a ten minute misconduct. For San Jose, Desjardins received a ten minute misconduct and Mike Brown got the same. Finally, the Kings’ Mike Richards went to the box for four minutes, confined for spearing.

As expected, Todd McLellan did not alter his lineup for Game Two from the group that won Game One. The scratches were Martin Havlat, Tyler Kennedy, Bracken Kearns, Matt Irwin and Adam Burish. He did exercise his right of misdirection by putting Havlat out for warmups but that was all we saw of Number 9 on Sunday.

The Sharks and the Kings meet for Game Three on Tuesday in Los Angeles.

Sharks and Kings Keeping it Interesting

By Mary Walsh

With arch rivals and married couples, the key to a thriving relationship is continuing to surprise each other. The party line between professional sports teams, of course, is that with all the history and scouting and preparation, neither team will be able to surprise the other. But if that were true they wouldn’t have to play the game, would they?

Can there be any surprises between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings? No, said Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic before Game One between San Jose and Los Angeles:

There’ll be no surprises out there. Played enough against each other in that past couple years, last year in the playoffs, three years ago in the playoffs, so not surprising at all.

Of the kind of surprises you expect to see in a game, Vlasic said:

You can surprise them by the way you come out and play. But surprises as in we don’t know what they’re gonna do and they don’t know what we’re gonna do. No, we know LA in here, they know us, well enough to know there’s no surprises out there. But the team that comes out and dictates the game will have the advantage off the start.

Seems like Vlasic predicted the game pretty accurately. Still… if there were no surprises they would not play the games. Some surprises are to be expected in any game, especially NHL playoff games.

I imagine the Los Angeles Kings were at least a little surprised to see Vlasic rushing up the ice on a very scary (for LA) short-handed chance. Later, his shot off the post landed right in Raffi Torres’ lap, so to speak, for the game winner. I think those might be called surprises. That last one had to be a little difficult to plan.

Before Game One, Kings’ head coach Darryl Sutter was asked if the Sharks could do anything to surprise the Kings:

I don’t think system-wise, neither team is going to do that because of how good they are. There’s a reason you get here, there’s a reason that you have such good regular seasons, there’s a reason that you have playoffs spots clinched with a few games left.

What happens in playoff time, a lot of time what separates winner or loser is not the team part of it, it’s the individual part of it. So there’s somebody that steps up and goes to another level or somebody that doesn’t, that’s usually at the end, what… when you call it a surprise or whatever that is, that’s usually what happens.

We have already seen some game results that were not widely anticipated. Detroit defeating Boston was only expected by those who knew the Red Wings’ speed was a better weapon against the Bruins than it would have been against the Penguins. Still, there’s a little David and Goliath going on there. And it was still a one-goal game.

Which brings me to the most unsurprising surprise of the playoffs so far: that the Sharks were one of just two teams to win Game One by a margin of more than one goal. That a game would turn out differently than anticipated is not surprising, but for the Kings to be so badly run over by the Sharks in the first two periods was unusual.

Dan Boyle’s pregame comments described what the Sharks expected in Game One, in particular from the Kings goaltender:

With Quick back there, you’ve certainly got to earn your goals…We don’t expect to score many goals. We’d like to but we’re going to have to play good defense.

So scoring six goals, only one into an empty net, was surprising.

Tomas Hertl scoring in his first playoff game was to count as a little surprising, especially after missing so much of the season getting his knee repaired.

The third period was not surprising, since a team hardly ever maintains momentum with a five-goal lead. It seems like it should be surprising, but if a two or three goal lead is dangerous, what does a five goal lead do to a team? Such a thing in the playoffs must be unsettling.

It would be folly to expect a repeat of any of that. The Kings will probably be more ready to start, and the Sharks are unlikely to face the mental challenge of another dizzying lead.

Game One might have given the Sharks a bigger advantage than the series lead. It gave Tomas Hertl and Raffi Torres a chance to get up to game speed, maybe even playoff game speed. Those are weapons the Kings probably didn’t want the Sharks to prime.

Todd McLellan opted to play Mike Brown and not have Martin Havlat in the lineup. Havlat is not a natural fit on the fourth line, but Brown was not especially helpful there either. Maybe, probably, McLellan will surprise us Sunday. He does have a few options to work with. But which would be more surprising, changing a lineup that won, or sticking with one that perhaps could be improved on?

Both teams will put Game One behind them Sunday, and perhaps they will serve up something even more predictably surprising.

Have the Sharks Figured Out Who’s On Third?

By Mary Walsh

Before last Thursday’s game in San Jose, Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau was asked about the difference between playing the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings. He said:

They’re a little further north? I think LA is more of a harder team as far as bigger and more physical, where these guys play physical but they’re a better skating team and have more depth in their scoring. I mean, if they ever get completely healthy and they have Pavelski back on the third line, that’s… that’s pretty deep. They’re as deep as any team in the NHL I think.

That comment echoes a sentiment held by most Sharks observers from the start of the season. The team is still missing Tomas Hertl and Raffi Torres, but will they need to move Joe Pavelski back to the third line at all? Or has the Sharks coaching staff finally found a new third line that doesn’t need the team’s second best scorer at its center?

The present third line includes two players who have been used most erratically through the season. Martin Havlat and James Sheppard have spent time on just about every line, including the fifth. Their performance has been accordingly inconsistent– maddeningly so– until now. Seeing them in the lineup and in the same position with some consistency is gratifying. Both players bring skill to the team, and the team will need it on a regular basis.

The budding stability of that line is somewhat dependant on the top six. Asked about the Sharks’ top line on Saturday, Washingon Capitals coach Adam Oates said: “Well first of all, which one’s their top line? They got two…”

If you look at ice time per game, you certainly don’t find a season-long indication of which Sharks make up a top line. The usual suspects are there, the top three forwards being Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, in that order. Yet they do not make up one line. The next three forwards in even strength ice time are Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Tommy Wingels. So in terms of time on ice, which points to coaching staff expectations, the top six have been a fluid group all season.

What about points? Same list, though in a slightly different order: Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Couture, Burns and Wingels. But those players are not all playing in the top six now, and the top three on both lists are not the top line, with the second three being the second line: it has been Thornton centering Burns and Pavelski, while Couture centers Marleau and Matt Neito. The performance of the top six forwards has been so even that they are hard to tell apart in terms of stats.

The Sharks are deeper than they have ever been. This is precisely why, at the start of the season, the general assumption was that the Sharks could afford to not have Joe Pavelski in the top six, that he could center an over-fortified third line. Despite that depth and due to an unprecedented number of injuries for the team, the coaching staff struggled through most of the season to find a third line that worked. The current stretch of five games in a row with the same three players there looks like a record for the 2013-14 Sharks.

The third line of Havlat, Sheppard and Wingels is not the only thing that has been fixed for the last five games. The top six have also been steady, and only one winger on the fourth line continues to rotate. This is surely a function of being in the home stretch- the team needs stability to get ready for playoffs. But it is also a sign that the coaching staff likes these lines. Otherwise, the rotation of players would probably accelerate.

Before Thursday’s game against the Ducks, Sheppard said:

I think our whole team is playing well, that helps. Everyone’s moving the puck and kind of getting into a rhythm so I think all the lines kind of benefit from that. We want to keep it simple with a little bit extra, because I think we can do both: get pucks deep and make sure we don’t turn pucks over at the blues, but at the same time we can make plays like we did in New York.

Though it isn’t the only unit settling in, the third line still jumps out at me as being a “final piece” of this team. Havlat and Sheppard have not had a chance to find their game in such a consistent situation all season. Both have been scratches, both healthy and not quite healthy. Both have played all over the board with every linemate on the the team. Until recently, their play was inconsistent at best. Wingels has done the same marathon line swapping, but he has thrived. It takes all kinds.

Much of the success of this third line can be attributed to Sheppard’s improved play. Where Havlat’s play has consistently been better when he has time with the same linemates, Sheppard’s path to a regular spot in an NHL lineup has been rocky. It was littered with enormous early pressure, an intractable injury, and finally a long road back. For him to perform consistently is not surprising given the original assessment of his skill: he was a first round draft pick and his first NHL coaching staff believed he should and could be ready to play in the NHL at 19 without any time in the AHL. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That looks to be true of James Sheppard.

If Raffi Torres comes back sooner than later (which looks increasingly unlikely), will the lines shift again to move Pavelski to the third line? Will he end up there in the playoffs? If both Torres and Tomas Hertl come back, probably there will be another significant line shuffle, but there is no rush. Tommy Wingels has shown that he can be as versatile as Pavelski, and Havlat and Sheppard are finally finding their game. The line is strong enough to not justify pulling a top scorer out of the top six.

Third Line Hot: Sheppard, Havlat Picking Up

By Mary Walsh

The San Jose Sharks started this season with an unprecedented number of injuries, some that occurred before the season and some that happened early in. One of the casualties of those injuries was a reliable third line. The team had trouble generating steady scoring without moving Joe Pavelski up to the top six, though it had been widely presumed he would be most valuable centering the third line. With just 14 games remaining, the Sharks may have finally solved the third line conundrum. The combination of James Sheppard, Martin Havlat and Tommy Wingels could be the line the team has been looking for.

The trade deadline came and went without any moves for the big club, apart from most of the injured players returning to the lineup. Some of those players are still adjusting to game speed, others have been adjusting to new linemates again and again for most of the season. Martin Havlat and James Sheppard fall into that second category. Good games from those two have been a significant factor in the team’s recent winning streak, currently at five in a row.

Tommy Wingels, of course, has balanced the trio perfectly. His consistently effective and smart play is no surprise. Of course he does well there, as he does well anywhere from first to fourth line. He is the perfect compliment to two players who have been all over the map thus far, two players the team needs to get more from.

Havlat returned from the injured list long before the Olympic break, but still sat for many games. He played 28 of a possible 59 before the Olympic break, putting him ahead of Raffi Torres and Adam Burish in playing time, but still behind the ball in terms of catching up with the rest of the team. In all, Havlat has 14 points in 35 games played this season. Since the Olympic Break, he has played seven of nine games, scoring three goals and earning an assist. Just before the break, he earned two points, meaning that six of his season points and four of his seven goals have come since February 1. His game looks to be on the upswing.

James Sheppard, who has been on the third line with Havlat for a couple of games now, has played 53 games, eight of nine since the break. In those last eight, he has seven points, including two two-point games. Like Havlat, he has earned a sizeable chunk of his 15 season points since February 1: nine in his last ten games, to be precise.

Martin Havlat and James Sheppard have had a couple of good games together now. Todd McLellan, a habitual line-juggler on a normal day, has outdone himself where Havlat is concerned, moving him all over the board. Nonetheless, Havlat’s game was lining out even before the break, without the benefit of seeing the same linemates from game to game. Whether it is a function of improved communication or confidence, passes were connecting, shots were coming, he was playing more games. That is not to say McLellan was wrong to move Havlat around, hindsight is not really 20/20. Havlat is playing well now, but that doesn’t mean he would be playing better if he had not moved so much between lines or played more. Perhaps the mad formula worked, perhaps it didn’t. In any case, Havlat’s game is strong now and that is all that matters.

How much of Havlat’s absence from the lineup has been due to health and how much to dissatisfaction with performance is unclear. In any case, McLellan seems to have found a balance he likes in terms of how much to play Havlat. As for where to play him, the jury is still out. Perhaps he has found a spot he likes him in now, but it is too early to tell. It might depend on James Sheppard.

James Sheppard is the surprise of the month. All season, the team’s observers (myself included) have assumed that the Sharks needed Joe Pavelski centering the third line to be at their best. Pavelski’s stellar performance on the top line was something that would do until the team was healthy again and he could be put back where the team really needed him. James Sheppard is the first player to really knock a hole in that assumption. Is he finally the guy to solidify that third line? Can Pavelski stay on the wing?

It is early still, only two games in to the Havlat, Sheppard, Wingels line. Unquestionably, if a line is going to work it will work better with more practice. As the regular season winds down to the playoffs, it would be a good thing for this third line to get more time together. All three have the talent to play in the top six, all three have spent some time on the fourth line. Whatever the reasoning for ever putting them on the fourth line, as a third line they could very well be the key to rolling over future opponents. Considering how long both Havlat and Sheppard have been wearing question marks over their heads, that would be a truly satisfying outcome as plot lines go.

Raffi Torres could be the line buster there. So far, McLellan has used him primarily on the fourth line, presumably to ease him back in to the game. I think it is likely that McLellan is being proactive in avoiding injury, or extra-cautious with his response to any little symptom. Some have called him over-cautious keeping Torres out after just a couple of games with limited minutes. How can you be over-cautious with a player who just returned from a long layoff? The reason people avoid surgery is that it creates more injury on top of the initial problem. It does take longer to recover when you cut the patient up. Before his return, Torres said:

I’ve done enough off the ice, I feel as good as I’m going to feel, I need to play games now I think. Ultimately I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a force out there and to be on my game. But I understand it’s a process and it takes some time and I’m cool with that.

That isn’t the same as saying that he was 100%- it only meant that the next step in his recovery was to start playing. He’s cool with that process. At the rate he has put up points in the few minutes he has played (five points in five games), everyone should be cool with it.

The Sharks would like to catch Anaheim but their spot in the playoffs is secure now. They will need every resource available to them when the post season arrives. Keeping players like Havlat and Torres ready but not tired looks like a solid plan. The time for heroics is yet to come.

The Emotion Paradox: Can Torres Keep The Hits In Check?

By Mary Walsh

Hockey is a contact sport. That is an interesting euphemism for a sport that allows or encourages collisions and physical blows. There are rules, guidelines for this violence that require a degree of composure and calm that most people don’t associate with physical violence. Like in martial arts, precision is paramount and emotion is not precise.

Raffi Torres has received as much praise for hitting more and harder as for the three goals he earned before he started hitting again. He might even be getting more press for these hits, which presumably lifted his flagging team to the win over Pittsburgh on Thursday. Hits like Torres is making are credited with inspiring the team. The problem is, he probably should not indulge in that emotional hit himself while providing it for others. That takes a rare personality that he has not displayed to this point.

Two seasons ago, not too long before he was suspended for 25 games for a hit on Marian Hossa, he explained that he needed to keep emotion out of it:

My problem’s always been, I get a little too emotional out there. That’s when I get in trouble. But I’ve just taken a step back. -Yahoo! Sports

That is ironic, in view of the fact that these hits presumably energized his team on Thursday. How? Well he wasn’t hitting Sharks, except for Tommy Wingels. So he wasn’t physically shaking them awake. The hits energize the team by way of emotion. So Torres is supposed to stay cool-headed to get his team emotionally worked up. It is sort of unfair, and fairly risky.

Obviously a hit can be effective without being spectacular. Knocking someone off the puck can be doubly effective if the hitter is not taken out of the play along with the target. The less heavy the hit, the quicker the hitter can get back in play. Big hits can also interrupt the team’s momentum if a penalty is called, or if a fight results.

The first is never a good thing anywhere. The second is not a good thing, particularly in the offensive zone. If the team is buzzing around in the right place to get a scoring chance, stopping that for a fight is not helpful. Big hits, like fights, are of limited strategic value, no matter how much some spectators like to watch them.

Like the guy in charge of carrying the explosives, Torres can’t afford to get the jitters or get angry or have any other emotional response to the game. If that is too much for him to do (and it would be entirely understandable if it is, since it would seem the other Sharks need so much help maintaining the right emotional level), maybe he should stick to scoring or setting up goals. Those can help inspire a team too. Most players jump to their feet and look very excited when their team scores. Goals also win games, no matter how many hits either team throws.

Even if the safety of opponents is not a concern, the Sharks need to consider whether Torres is worth keeping around as an asset. As his hits build, so do the odds that the team will lose him to another suspension. The Sharks would do better to find an alternative emotional booster. If the Sharks can’t wake themselves up, maybe someone should just give them a nice, non-concussion inducing slap.

Sharks hot to get mileage on current trip/Bulls look to have close games on homestand

by Larry Levitt
DALY CITY–The San Jose Sharks are on very long road trip and I don’t mean long as in time although as in multiple days in an eight day, five game road trip but the amount of travel they criss cross the United States and Canada twice. The Sharks are doing rather well, they’re not really executing and playing a very good defensive game right now
To say they got lucky Thursday night and beat the Vancouver Canucks in an overtime goal by Dan Boyle is an understatement, they didn’t really deserve to win but then again they deserve to win a couple others they didn’t get the goals scored, for now it’s payback. The best line I heard was ”the hockey Gods might be even things up.”
When the Sharks had Ryan Clowe and Michal Handzus that was their go to team and when you trade them away and they traded them away for speed but they don’t have that skill. I love that quick shot of the Sharks Joe Pevelski and Logan Courture they really get their shot off their stick quickly. You got to give the goalie some credit too but they didn’t seem like they had much of a game plan going in the last game on Thursday.The Sharks did what they could, they got what they got getting one point even though you lose a game getting one point is better than none.
The scary thing about facing a team like Edmonton in last place, the Oilers have been shut out for the last three games in a row. So you know their going to be aching to get a goal and against a team that’s struggling defensively like the Sharks are. Edmonton has a young team their in transition for quite awhile. They’re suppose to be there now and they’re working at having a good team now. The Oilers are struggling so maybe it’s a good time for them to catch up to them and straighten out your own woes.
Two inured Sharks Raffi Torres and Brett Burns the two injured Sharks, Torres is the team’s spark plug but the Sharks have been doing pretty good without them. Raffi is supposed to be the big heavy hitter but they didn’t really need a big heavy hitter. They’ve really been playing okay without him. Burns is a bigger miss. I don’t understand why he’s been out so long. Burns has been out with a mouth injury and Torres out with a torn ACL.
For sure Burns is really missed and he’s out for more than just a chipped tooth it’s going to be interesting when we finally find out probably at the end of the season to find out how bad this injury is. Burns may have a broken bone that still needs to heal. They miss his speed, they miss his recklessness down on the ice that really plays havoc with other teams.
It was also reported that Burns is suffering from an injury that could be a concussion related so the Sharks are going to have to make due without him. When Torres comes back he can bring some offense he doesn’t have to be a heavy hitter. He’s a big guy, he’s a good skater he can shoot so their out there and the team has been getting along okay and the Sharks look forward to see what comes up.
San Francisco Bulls update: The Bulls are on a two game winning streak they won their home opener on Friday night and then they won in Stockton on Veterans day Monday night, they’re looking pretty good the thing that is most impressive getting the road win in Stockton on Monday night. The thing that’s most impressive is the goaltending and they have hot goaltending with Tyler Boskorowany he’s a big guy at 6’5 210 pounds he moves really well.
Boskorowany moves pretty well, he got caught out of position a few times in Stockton but recovered really well and saved a goal. If the team can learn to play with him he’s a new goalie for the team. If they can get used to his style and used to his defense that’s in front of him they can really be a good team. Boskorowany he talks a lot and they seemed to be thriving on that and a lot of the defenseman are pretty young and are pretty new to the league.
They have been performing quite well, offensively it’s pretty interesting that the Bulls have been had some really lousy luck in terms of losing some players that had been called up or an injury. Center Ryan McDonough and right winger Dale Mitchell with injuries and left winger Riley Brace with the call up to Worcester. Players like Chris Crane have been filling that gap, he was in the top half of the shots taken so he seemed primed to move up a line but offensively they’ve had some difficult loses of players but they seem to be holding it together anyway.
Larry Levitt does Pro Hockey commentary each week for Sportstalk

Sharks lose in Overtime; Raffi Torres Hurt

By: Phillip Torres

SAN JOSE- The San Jose Sharks hosted the Anaheim Ducks at the SAP Canter in San Jose on Friday night for the Sharks first home preseason exhibition game. The Sharks lost a heart breaker in overtime 3-2 when Ducks Defenseman Ben Lovejoy found the back of the net after less than three minutes of play into the extra period.

The loss for the Sharks might not be as bad as the news that left winger Raffi Torres was banged up on a collision in the second period. Raffi Torres and Ducks forward Emerson Etem collided hard and both men spent an extended amount of time on the ice. Etem was able to come back later on in the period however Torres did not return for the rest of the game.

“He’s being checked by the medical staff, and when we know something, we’ll let you know,” said head coach Todd McLellan. “It’s obviously not a good situation for either player, Etem or Torres. A complete accident, too. We hope they’ll both be well and ready to play.”

Tomas Hertl started the scoring early for San Jose with a goal at 14:42 in the opening period. The assists were earned by Adam Burish and Captain Joe Thronton. The Ducks tied the score at 1-1 with a goal from Emerson Etem. The goal was assisted from teammates Devante Smith-Pelly and Daniel Winnik.

San Jose regained the lead shortly after with a goal from Tyler Kennedy. Kennedy scored on a short-handed two-on-one with the assist handled by Patrick Marleau. Corey Perry tied the game up again for the Ducks late in the period. with assits from Captain Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Maroon, Anaheim was back into the game. The third period was scoreless and at regulation the score was 2-2. Ben Lovejoy won the game in overtime for the Ducks and ended the Sharks night.

On the loss, McLellan said, “I thought that our team forgot a little bit how hard it was to play and how you have to make hard, firm plays and move the puck quick. We weren’t as good as we needed to be, but it’s something we can work off of.”

The Sharks continue the preseason at home Saturday night against the Phoenix Coyotes at 7:30pm.Sharks Lose To Ducks

Phillip Torres covers the San Jose Sharks for Sportsradioservice.com