Sharks in Sochi: Marleau, Vlasic, Pavelski debut with victories

All three Sharks skaters at the Winter Olympics were winners in their preliminary round openers today.

Throughout his career, Patrick Marleau has had more than his fair share of critics. Perhaps the most decisive referendum on the validity of those critics' arguments is the fact that Mike Babcock, widely considered the best head coach in the National Hockey League, isn't one of them. Only Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash played more minutes among forwards on the Babcock-coached Canadian team at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. If today's 3-1 Canada win over Norway is any indication, we can expect more of the same from Babcock in Sochi as only Jonathan Toews received more ice time up front for Team Canada in this game than the Sharks winger. Along with Crosby, the trio of stars were the only Canadian forwards to play over fifteen minutes.

But what Marleau accomplished with his ample playing time was even more impressive. Playing on an all-California line with Anaheim Ducks Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Marleau led all Canadian skaters in shots on goal with five, in scoring chances taken with four and was on the ice for seven Team Canada scoring chances and zero chances for Team Norway, the second-best chance differential among Canadian forwards behind only his linemate Perry. Together, that trio was easily Canada's most dangerous line offensively and generated the third Canadian goal, a beautiful backhander by defenseman Drew Doughty, that Marleau recorded an assist on.

It shouldn't be surprising that Babcock heaps praise upon Marleau, likely lobbied hard for him to get a spot on this team and uses him as much as he can in all situations (Marleau and Patrice Bergeron were the team's top penalty-killing forward tandem against Norway). Marleau constantly rewards Babcock's faith in him; he was one of Canada's best forwards en route to a gold medal in Vancouver and looks on track to do the same in Sochi. Marleau's performance was the clear highlight of the day's action from a Sharks perspective. Antti Niemi did not dress for Team Finland's 8-4 rout of Team Austria, while Vlasic looked a bit out of place during a disappointing first period for the Canadians and ended up second-to-last on the Canadian blueline in ice time.

Pavelski was the only member of Team USA to finish with a minus rating in the club's 7-1 blowout of Slovakia but that doesn't mean a whole lot. While he wasn't particularly involved in the offensive onslaught, Pavelski set up linemate Phil Kessel for a glorious chance on his first shift of the game and kickstarted the counterattack that led to John Carlson's first period goal which opened the scoring for the Americans. The one Slovakian goal he was caught on the ice for was on an offsides play and largely the fault of a Ryan Suter turnover anyway.