Since the SAP Tennis Open (formerly the Sybase Open) came to San Jose in 1994, the San Jose Sharks have gone on what has become to be known as their "tennis trip" in February almost every single season. This grueling road trip can tell you a lot about a team, as thousands of miles logged away from home during the stretch means the benefits of a home crowd and ice are nonexistent-- to borrow one of hockey's oldest and most fatigued cliches, a team must simplify their game in order to win games. Throw in the fact that it comes at a time in the season when teams are beginning to desperately fight for points considering the postseason is creeping up, and you have a recipe for some stale cookies and spoiled milk if the team isn't playing well.
Beginning with the end of the NHL Lockout in 2004-2005, the Sharks have gone on this trip a total of five times-- the only exception to the rule was in 2006 when the SAP Open coincided with the Winter Olympics, meaning San Jose was already in the midst of a break during the event and did not require a road trip in order to avoid the awkwardness that would ensue if tennis and hockey players were playing together in HP Pavilion at the same time*.
*However, watching Christian Ehrhoff double fault by regularly putting his serve wide right would have been compelling.
In those five recent road trips the Sharks have taken, none have resulted in more points per game than the one San Jose just accomplished. It's a great accomplishment for a team that had a lot of unanswered questions going into the trip, even if it comes along with relevant concerns about goal scoring and the lack of a top-level defenseman.
San Jose Sharks "Tennis Trip" Post-Lockout
||GP ||Record ||PTS/GP ||GF/GP ||GA/GP
As we can see here, San Jose's goal scoring struggles during this trip aren't too far off of from previous extended stays away from HP Pavilion-- opposing buildings are generally a tougher place to score goals due to the last change afforded to home coaches and the fact that travel can take its toll on a team. However, in what is a very positive sign for the Sharks, the amount of goals given up during the trip is lower than it has been historically. And while this micro-look at these trips should come along with the obligatory sample size disclaimer, there's no doubt that San Jose's ability to reduce their goals against on a seven game road trip is a huge plus. Especially for a team that has caused public concern over their defensive abilities to reach staggering levels during the majority of the season.
When road trips are spoken of it generally comes hand in hand with the "hangover" a team experiences when they return home. A common theme in hockey circles is that all the travel and games away from home results in a team playing on adrenaline towards the end of the trip-- the human brain is notorious for its passion to group things together (something we're doing today funnily enough), and as the story goes, the end of a trip signals the culmination of one chapter in a season and the beginning of a new one. After that adrenaline has subsided and a new leaf is turned, fatigue sets in and a team putters their way through a few games before getting their legs back again.
The results for San Jose over the last five tennis trips haven't really produced anything concrete to support this phenomenon, although it's possible that it does in fact exist. In 2007 San Jose lost their first three games back, before winning two in a row and turning things around. In 2008 the addition of Brian Campbell made the Sharks essentially invincible during the final stage of the regular season-- they blew through the end of their road trip with five wins and continued that streak afterwards, reeling off six straight before losing to Edmonton in the shootout. 2009 saw them win four in a row immediately following the trip, and 2010 saw a lack of NHL games for two weeks since the tennis trip ended right before the Winter Olympics began.
The Sharks return home to HP Pavilion on Thursday in what is bound to be an exciting game against a Washington Capitals squad that is in a similar position to the Sharks in terms of team's strengths-- the Capitals have historically been an offensive powerhouse, but have taken a much harder look at their defensive play this season and taken the steps to correct it. It's resulted in a drop from 1st to 20th in the goals per game department, but improved their goals against numbers from 16th to 6th.
Another test for San Jose. And most importantly, another opportunity to continue to acquire those much needed standings points.