Sharks Gameday: Reflection Before A Chance For Redemption

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5:00 PST
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19-11-4, 42 points 24-13-2, 50 points
10th in Western Conference 2nd in Western Conference

Television
NBC Sports Network
Radio
98.5 KFOX, Sjsharks.com
Antagonists
Five For Fisting
The Province

San Jose has had a four day layoff since last facing Vancouver, but the Canucks have been busy wrapping up a Californian road trip since. Following a 5-2 win over Anaheim on Thursday and a 4-1 loss to Los Angeles on Saturday, the Canucks head home for a rematch against a Sharks team they have handled mightily over their last eleven meetings.

San Jose is 2-7-1 against the Canucks in that time frame in case you needed a reminder.

18 out of the next 28 Sharks games will be on the road, something that we covered in December as the Sharks began their six game homestand that just concluded. The Sharks were successful in that span, going 4-1-1 and accumulating 9 out of 12 standings points. That is exactly the type of performance they needed heading into the New Year and one that should make these next two months somewhat easier as they continue their quest to lock down the Pacific Division title.

Heading into the New Year there still remains some questions as to what direction this team seems to be headed. As Derek pointed out in his scoring chance roundup, the Sharks are an elite team in generating scoring chances for and restricting scoring chances against. Furthermore, the Sharks consistently find themselves amongst the Western Conference elite in three team-wide metrics that do a good job of indicating sustained success over the course of a season. Both of these are positive signs going forward and tell many of us what we already know—the Sharks are a Stanley Cup contending squad that has been built to go deep in the playoffs.

From a qualitative standpoint I like what San Jose has received out of their bottom six forwards this season. It has been awhile since the Sharks have been able to state that their depth guys are contributing, but this year has flipped the narrative and placed them as a legitimate answer to opposing team’s forwards.

The third line has seen a breakout offensive season from Jamie McGinn (8 goals, 5 assists) who has meshed well with rugged defensive forward Michal Handzus (3 goals, 11 assists) in the offensive zone and given San Jose some consistent physical presence as well. This duo will be one of the keys for San Jose going forward from a depth standpoint, as they give the team a nice blend of scoring and defensive play to go along with whatever third line forward (Torrey Mitchell currently) that gets placed on their wing.

The fourth line has also been excellent despite receiving bottom-feeder minutes, as Andrew Murray, Brad Winchester, and Andrew Desjardins have managed to find ways to stay physical, stay out of the penalty box, and work teams down low on the cycle. I’ve really enjoyed watching this line thus far this season and see them as a fourth line Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan will be able to trust down the stretch.

Where the Sharks have come up a little short is in the top six forward category. This is by no means a criticism of their talent level (San Jose has one of the best top six forward groups in the NHL), nor is it necessarily indicative of their results (San Jose has gotten acceptable production out of these players). However, with moderately disappointing seasons from Ryane Clowe and Martin Havlat thus far, the amount of high-end production takes a dip once you get past the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture.

Furthermore, expecting a point per game pace from the top line may seem a little needy, but the difference between needy and a team need tends to become blurred once you get into tough games down the stretch.

Perhaps it is a little aloof to expect Thornton (30 points), Marleau (27 points), Pavelski (27 points), and Couture (27 points) to produce more than they already have, especially when all four are at or around the pace they set for themselves during 2010-2011, but I think it is fair to consider last season one that fell below expectations performance from the Sharks offensive core outside of Couture. Getting more production out of the Sharks top six is something that should be on the team’s to do list in the New Year, and an achievement that would put the team on solid footing heading into the postseason. Hockey is a team game, sure, but there hasn't been many games this season where you sat back and said, "Wow, the top six absolutely took over that game and consistently punished their opposition." San Jose needs more of that this year.

On the defensive end of the ice there is Marc-Edouard Vlasic and then there is everyone else. Vlasic has been absolutely dynamite this season and continues to showcase why he is one of the best defensive defenseman in the Western Conference, but the rest of the blueline hasn't followed suit with the same consistency.

At the top you have Dan Boyle, who played the first twenty or so games of the year with a broken foot that visibly effected his game. Boyle has shaken those cobwebs off as of late, and turned in a very good performance against Vancouver last week, so the hope here is that he's gotten over the hump and will continue to be the Sharks most important blueliner. Brent Burns is an interesting case in many ways-- he's been excellent at driving the play in the right direction and amassing some truly stellar CORSI numbers, but the boxscore production hasn't been were many of us expected it to be this year. Whether it's beginning to get the breaks or changing his approach, the Sharks need Burns to have a little more game-changer in him compared to a guy who seems to be most dangerous with the team down a goal with ten minutes left in the third period.

Jason Demers had a brutal start to the year that saw him get benched in favor of Justin Braun for the most of November, but his recent play has vaulted him back into McLellan's good graces. He's on the upswing and seems to be on the right track towards recapturing the magic he showed last year, a positive sign for a player we expect to be a big part of the team in the future. Alongside Jason Demers has been Colin White, another player who came up well short of expectations at the start of the year but has managed to right the ship-- White is currently injured with no firm timetable set for his return, so his starting role could be in jeopardy if Justin Braun or James Vandermeer can jump into the spot. Both Braun and Vandermeer have had fine seasons-- Braun's underlying metrics are solid even if his results haven't quite followed suit while Vandermeer has been acceptable in his limited minutes-- so there's not much more you can expect out of them.

In net you'll get no complaints from me-- Niemi is always prone to the softie, but his play has been legendary at best and acceptable at worst. He's the go-to guy in net and has done a fine job in fulfilling that role. Thomas Greiss lit the world on fire at the start of the season but hasn't had much opportunity as of late, while Antero Niittymaki wrapped up a solid stint in Worcester after being injured for the majority of the season. We expect one of these two goaltenders to be moved at some point in the season, with Niemi remaining the number one goaltender.

All in all you can say the Sharks have had a good season thus far, even if inconsistency has reared its ugly head for the second straight year. It really comes down to San Jose getting all-world play from their top players (Thornton, Marleau, Havlat, Boyle, and Burns in particular) in order for them to enter the postseason as "The Team To Beat" instead of "One of Three Teams To Beat."

As we've learned over the last two seasons, that label isn't especially important-- two straight Western Conference Finals appearances came after regular seasons both good and mediocre. But with Los Angeles beginning to find their legs (4-0-2 since Sutter took over), and teams such as Vancouver, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis looking as dangerous as ever, locking up a top two seed will make that ultimate goal all the much easier to obtain.

It starts tonight against a team that has had their number over the last two seasons.

Prediction: Sharks win 4-3. Goals by McGinn, Burns, Marleau, and Clowe, as The Stanchion silently watches, bidding his time for another day.

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