Inside the newly redesigned Sharks locker room is a plaque mounted on the wall that reads: "Exceed Expectations." Coming into this season, I had no idea what to expect out of these Sharks. After an eventful offseason, all I could expect was a fresh start. Frankly, after the last two seasons, that’s all I really wanted.
Now, after back-to-back victories over 2 of their toughest division rivals, I have gone ahead and let my expectations run rampant. The Sharks have certainly set the bar for their season moving forward.
Saturday night’s home opener and 2-0 shutout victory established a number of things for the Sharks hereafter. Netminder Martin Jones, who recorded his first shutout in teal, is going to be a crucial factor in the Sharks’ success. Consistency of the Sharks defense, revamped since last season, will be equally important as goaltending prowess.
Here are a few more thoughts on what we learned from the Sharks season home opener.
The Sharks can outplay the size and speed of Anaheim.
Managing the size and speed of the Anaheim Ducks has been a problem for the Sharks in the past. A team like the Ducks uses their size to wear out their opponents. After 60-minutes of hockey, however, the Sharks showed that they can endure the kind of hard play that Anaheim has to offer and not only outlast, but also outplay the Ducks.
Maybe it’s because it’s early in the season and that kind of energy just isn’t going to last for the remaining 6 and a half months of hockey, but unlike years past, the fundamental drive and strategy are both there for the Sharks to draw from come challenging match-ups against the Ducks or teams with a similar physical profile and playing style.
The Sharks did a pretty good job keeping up with the physicality. Even less-physical players like Tomas Hertl got in on the action, landing a big hit on Rikard Rakell in the second period. Even with Raffi Torres out for awhile, the Sharks still have key players who have shown to be quite aggressive when the time is right. Tommy Wingels and Brendan Dillon, for example, can definitely lay out the big hits and glass-rattling checks.
San Jose can play with grit, too, and I expect to see them embrace more of this physicality against teams besides the Ducks.
The Ducks are a favorite to take the Pacific Division and the fact that the Sharks were able to outplay them and dominate the SOG 44-27 is significant, even this early on. If nothing else, it certainly makes the statement that the Sharks have returned to their victory-hungry form that their longtime fans have missed in the recent past.
San Jose couldn’t have won this game without their newcomers. Offseason acquisition, Joel Ward, who has been playing on a line with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau since the early days of training camp, notched 2 assists in last night’s victory. It can be hard sometimes for teams to figure out where the new guy will fit in, but Ward has transitioned seamlessly into playing alongside his new line mates.
Similarly, blueliners Paul Martin and Brent Burns were a solid defensive pairing for the Sharks. Martin did a terrific job pressuring the Ducks’ offense, forcing them to make plays on the fly, and thereby limiting their options. Anaheim often dominates puck possession, but Martin’s persistence resulted in the Ducks ability to hang onto the puck to falter enough to give the Sharks more opportunities than they would have had otherwise.
Martin Jones got the shutout. Martin Jones kept the Sharks in the game long enough for Patrick Marleau to break the nothing-nothing tie and then tack on the insurance goal. Jones settled into the game quickly, and he looked comfortable early on — a good sign for the Sharks.
While it seems like a good thing to spend a good portion of the opening minutes in the offensive zone, I’ve always heard that goaltenders don’t like to be completely without action early in the game. Jones had a chance in this game to see a few pucks in the first and faced a handful of shots from the Ducks before the pace of the game really picked up. All throughout — beginning, middle, and end — Jones appeared calm and collected (maybe he was freaking out behind that mask, we'll never know.) In any case, he was always positioned to make a save, anticipated puck movement, and controlled rebounds.
Jones’ smooth and clean style is a relief, especially in contrast to former Sharks starter Antti Niemi’s more erratic play. Consistent goaltending was definitely a key issue San Jose set out to fix this offseason, and after just 2 games, I’m convinced that Martin Jones is, indeed, the solution for which the Sharks have searched long and hard.
I know it's too early to say much more about this, but can I just say, after last February (the dreaded month where the Sharks lost every single home game) and the months that followed, it feels good to win the home opener.
I thought long and hard about this, but in the end, I decided that Patrick Marleau’s goal-scoring abilities aren’t anything new. It was great to see Marleau find the back of the net not only once, but twice, but we’ve seen him excel offensively before, and all along, I’ve expected him to bounce back from his off-year. Head coach Pete DeBoer said it best:
"This guy is one of the best players in the last 10 or 15 years," Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said. "Not surprised. He's in great shape. I think last year was a bit of an aberration. He's come out with a lot of other guys to prove that."
I am ready for the Sharks to knock me off my feet. Thus far, I’ve already been surprised by how San Jose has come out of the gate, a combination of fresh and familiar faces ready to exceed expectations. I can’t wait to see more.