Following a grueling five-game road trip through Western Canada and the Midwest that featured the team changing time zones prior to each contest, the Sharks are probably pleased to be opening up a five-game homestand that takes them through the Thanksgiving holiday tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They'll likely be even happier if defenseman-turned-power-forward Brent Burns returns to the lineup after a month-long absence, and there's a distinct possibility he will after participating in line rushes yesterday morning in his familiar spot alongside Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl.
San Jose was 6-3-4 over the 13 games for which they were Burns-less, which seems like a decent enough record but belies a tumble in their underlying numbers. During the eight games for which Burns was in the lineup this season, the Sharks earned 60.7% of all even-strength shot attempts in score-close situations but have been clicking at just 50.7% since his injury. Some of that is certainly due to an overlapping injury to Dan Boyle but there's little doubt Burns helps transform the Sharks from a solid possession team into a spectacular one. If Burns draws back in, it looks like Tommy Wingels will have the latest crack at skating with Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture.
The big story surrounding tonight's opponent is the fact that the Lightning will be without their best player, superstar center Steven Stamkos, who was tied for the NHL goal-scoring lead when he broke his right tibia after colliding with a goalpost in Boston last Monday. Apart from that gruesome injury, the Bolts have largely been a feel-good story at the quarter mark of the 2013-14 season. After missing the playoffs in each of the past two years, Tampa Bay currently sits second in the Atlantic Division. They're reaping the benefits of developing what might be the deepest pipeline of forward talent in the NHL, with Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Brett Connolly, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik all playing key roles for this Bolts team after leading Syracuse to the AHL's Calder Cup Final last spring.
Ageless wonder Martin St. Louis, who won the scoring title a season ago, continues to be a stud, Victor Hedman might be the best defenseman you've never heard of and Ben Bishop, acquired at last season's trade deadline, has won the starting job between the pipes and currently boasts a sterling .921 SV%. It's been a great comeback year for the Lightning, at least prior to the start of their current road swing, which kicked off with big losses in Phoenix and Los Angeles earlier in the week. The Sharks hope to continue making the west coast inhospitable terrain for the Bolts, and being able to reunite Burns with Thornton and Hertl would go a long way towards accomplishing that.
|14-7-0, 28 points
||13-3-5, 31 points|
|2nd in Atlantic
||2nd in Pacific