Heatley returns to Ottawa, Sharks shut out Sens 4-0

Tonight, a former Ottawa hockey player who left town to join the San Jose Sharks organization returned for the first time since leaving. He scored two goals. Welcome back, Logan Couture.

Oh, right, Dany Heatley.

Tonight’s game was possibly the most talked-about game leading up to the drop of the puck for the Sharks in a number of years. Ever since the schedules were put out, people around the league marked December 2 on their calendars – the day that Dany Heatley returned to Ottawa, the city he spurned. For a team that usually flies under the radar of the league outside of quick playoff failure jokes, the almost undivided attention the hockey world had towards this game was unfamiliar. "Heatley" was a top trending topic on Twitter in both Canada and San Francisco. Seemingly every general NHL reporter out there filed a story on the match up. It was, in a phrase, a big deal.

Predictably, Senators fans in attendance booed Heatley whenever he touched the puck, a practice that Sharks fans have already witnessed in Edmonton this year. However, they went a few steps farther: they also booed him whenever he stepped onto the ice, something that I rather appreciated as I tried to make out the numbers on a fuzzy television reception. A group of Senators fans (including one in a "Leafs Suck" #19 sweater) even went as far as throwing their old Heatley sweaters onto the ice as the two teams were getting ready for a faceoff in the third.

As a side note: I was always under the impression that anything thrown onto the ice besides a hat would give the home team a two minute delay of game penalty. Not sure why this rule is no longer being upheld.

Dany Heatley was not the goal-scoring force that people expected/hoped him to be tonight, recording only one assist. However, he had two different breakaways where he was hooked before getting a shot off, drawing a penalty on both. The Sharks subsequently went 2-for-2 on the power play, one of the goals a Patrick Marleau tally off of a Dan Boyle rebound, and the other being Justin Braun’s first NHL goal, a shot from the high slot. The Braun goal went under review for a potential high stick, but in a first for this season, a Sharks goal under review stood up.

Speaking of Justin Braun, he rebounded extremely well from a sub-par game against the Detroit Red Wings. Thrust into a top four role since his second NHL game, he’s taken the chance and shown considerable ability. His shot from the point that more often than not gets through to the goalie is something that was sorely missed after Rob Blake’s retirement, and his defense is getting better with every game. He now has four points in four games as a defenseman, and while he likely won’t keep this pace up, he’s definitely making a case to stay in the NHL after Jason Demers, Kent Huskins, and Niclas Wallin return from injury.

Switching to the other standout Sharks rookie, on TSN, the broadcasters called Logan Couture "the best three zone rookie" in the league. Couture backed that statement up, scoring two goals and continuing to impress in his role of newly-ordained second line center. After his first goal, a big cheer went up for the former Ottawa 67s captain. After his second, Pierre McGuire dubbed him a "monster," which is the greatest honor McGuire can bestow upon a player. Ladies and gentlemen, Logan Couture has officially arrived.

After Couture’s second and the Sharks’ fourth goal, all energy and drive seemed to have left the Ottawa Senators. Sure, there were a few scoring chances generated, but none of that intensity that was prevalent through the first two periods of the game. Even the crowd was out of it, electing to only boo Heatley when he had the puck, rather than whenever he was on the ice as it was during the first two periods.

Antti Niemi had by far his best start as a Shark. Not only did he record the first shutout of the year for the Sharks – making 28 saves in the effort – but he made several fantastic saves to preserve that achievement. His newly-found glove hand was making a presence. There was a notable save in the first period that saw the Senators with a 2-on-1, with the lone Sharks defenseman playing the player with the puck rather than the pass. The Sens player was able to get off the pass, but Niemi somehow got over and made the save with his glove.

Also notable was how he froze the puck whenever the Sens were pressing; before, he would shoot out rebounds for the Sharks defensemen to pick up and transition out of the zone with – well, at least, that was the intent. More often than not the opposition would get the rebound and have another scoring chance, or a goal. Tonight saw Niemi freeze the puck and let the second-best faceoff team in the league do their work, which has proven to be much more successful.

The top line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley may have only scored one point each, but they were flat-out dominant tonight. For the first part of the game, Senators coach Cory Clouston matched up top line with top line, but late in the second period he switched the matchup to the other lines because the match up was so ineffective. There was a point where Heatley, Marleau, and Thornton had the puck in the Senators’ zone in the third period, and all they did with it was play keep-away for a minute or two. No shots, just a bunch of fancy passes and nifty skating moves. "They’re going Globetrotters on them right now," said Pierre McGuire. Joe Thornton was a backchecking machine in particular; there was one shift where he alone generated two turnovers purely through hard work.

But it wasn’t just the top line that played well against the Senators; all four lines hemmed the Senators in their zone throughout the game. The Ferriero-Couture-Clowe line in particular played extremely well, and Couture had two goals to show for it. The McGinn-Pavelski-Mitchell line had a great forecheck going all night, with a few chances by Pavelski in particular that almost went in. Each member of the fourth line – Jamal Mayers, Scott Nichol, and John McCarthy – had a breakaway at one point or another, but none buried it.

One of the most impressive aspects of tonight’s game by the Sharks was their overall commitment to defense. Each player forechecked, backchecked, pokechecked, and every other type of check in between. There were a few defensive gaffes, particularly ones that led to an odd-man rush the other way, but Niemi was able to stand tall. Despite having three rookie defensemen, the Sharks were able to shut the Senators down. If they continue to play that way, not many teams can beat them.

Tonight’s game was a good bounce back from the loss against Detroit; a good, all-around effort that saw every member of the team play hard. It follows the trend of the Sharks supporting their own, whether it be helping Niittymaki and Niemi recording wins over the Lightning and Blackhawks respectively, or getting Dany Heatley a win against a town who doesn’t like him all that much. The question is now whether or not the Sharks can continue that level of play without needing an extra motivating factor, as they will not be having one most nights.

That said, tonight’s win was a great one, and was a reminder of how the Sharks can play when they’re on. Go Sharks.

Notes: According to David Pollak, fifteen of Ryane Clowe’s friends showed up to the game wearing San Jose Sharks Heatley sweaters… Three of the Sharks’ six defensemen tonight – Justin Braun, Derek Joslin, and Mike Moore – have a combined 53 games in the NHL. Derek Joslin has 44 of those games alone… Tonight marked Ottawa native Dan Boyle’s 700th game in the league.