So there you have it. It’s the end of a seven game win streak, a terrific if not perfect home stand and the start of another huge road trip for the Sharks. And what an important 8 game stretch it was. On March 23rd the Sharks lost 2-0 in Minnesota and were a tired hockey team having played 14 of their prior 19 games on the road. It was an exhausting grind that had them in 9th place in the West at 13-11-6 record and 32 points. But two nights later in Anaheim they beat the Ducks 5-3 and it would be the start of a profound turnaround to their season.
Fast forward to this morning as they boarded their charter flight for Columbus and the Sharks are now 20-11-7 with 47 points and they are 5th in the West, only a point behind 4th placed Los Angeles but more importantly 7 points clear of the dreaded 9th spot. Not a bad little run of 7 straight wins and 8 straights games with at least a point.
Trying to predict the outcome of NHL games is difficult/ridiculous proposition. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to do it anyway.
When you examined the Sharks current seven game home stand before it began it looked like it was going to be tough. Certainly the first five games against Anaheim, Detroit, Phoenix, Vancouver and Minnesota were going to be difficult matchups. Now that the Sharks have won all five of those games, it’s natural to look ahead.
Can the Sharks beat Calgary tonight and Dallas on Sunday and sweep all seven games? On paper the chances look good. The Flames have traded the face of their franchise, Jarome Iginla along with minute munching defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and they got spanked against Edmonton two nights ago by an 8-2 score. Dallas also traded their captain Brendan Morrow and then moved future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr on trade deadline day. And just like the Flames, Dallas has lost 3 games in a row and doesn’t look like a playoff team. On paper it looks good for a Sharks sweep.
But games are played on the ice and once the puck is dropped all bets are off. Pride and professionalism run deep in the organizational DNA’s of most teams in the league and in Calgary and Dallas, where Stanley Cup banners fly, those traits are absolutely expected. Injuries, fatigue, mistakes, officiating, luck and a lot of other factors contribute to the outcome of every game in the NHL. On paper, should the Sharks complete their home-stand sweep and beat Calgary and Dallas? Probably. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little aren’t we?
As a friend of mine used to say, “Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, just win tonight!”
I’m Randy Hahn
Has the job of NHL General Manager ever been more challenging than it is this week? The trade deadline is Noon Pacific time Wednesday. Between now and the deadline there will be 16 games played, 9 tonight and 7 more tomorrow. As of today there are 11 teams not in a playoff spot that are only 4 or fewer points away from getting in. What to do?
There’s so much to take into consideration. If you’re close to making the playoffs do you add to your team in the hopes of getting in? Or even if you think you can get into the playoffs do you really believe your team has a chance of going deep or will it be a one and done? Are you a buyer? Are you a seller? Do you stand pat and put your faith in the group you already have? Are you sending your team a negative message if you don’t add to the roster or if you subtract from the roster?
There are lots of questions and a myriad of answers. This is a week when the NHL’s General Managers are earning their pay and a week upon which they will be judged going forward.
I’m Randy Hahn.
It’s impossible to know what stretch of the Sharks season will end up being the most important to their playoff hopes. Maybe it was the 7 game winning streak at the beginning of the year that gave them a cushion? Or it could come down to the final two games of the season on the road in Phoenix and LA. But the next 4 home games against Anaheim, Detroit, Phoenix and Vancouver will certainly tell us a lot about where the team is heading and perhaps where some individual players are or are not heading.
The NHL trade deadline is a week from today. As of this morning the Sharks are in a playoff spot, 8th in the West. If the next 4 games go well they’ll be in good shape at the deadline. If things go sideways they could fall out of the top 8 in a hurry.
I’m not required to provide “keys to the game”. That duty is left for far more advanced hockey minds than mine. (Remenda, Baker, Hedican, Brown) But these are MY Great White Bites, so here are my keys to victory tonight against Anaheim.
Urgency and focus.
It was great that the Sharks broke out against Anaheim Monday and scored 5 goals. But it’s hardly time to start feeling comfortable. I’m guessing the Ducks are going to be in a snarly mood tonight and the Sharks have to match that with urgency from the first drop of the puck.
And then there’s the issue of focus. When things have gone bad for the Sharks it’s usually been a loss of focus/composure over a 2 or 3-minute stretch that sees the game get away from them. They overcame some adversity within that game Monday and settled down to close it out. That needs to happen again tonight.
I’m Randy Hahn.
Leftovers from the Road
It started February 11th in Columbus. It ended March 25th in Anaheim. “It” was a heinous stretch in the Sharks season that had them playing 15 out of 20 games on the road. I realize that plenty of teams have had less than perfect schedules in this lockout shortened year but the past 6 weeks was a real challenge.
The final tally saw the Sharks go 7-9-4 during the stretch, picking up 18 out of a possible 40 points in the standings. The good news is that they returned home in 8th place in the Western Conference and finished the marathon with a character win over the rival Anaheim Ducks. With 11 of their final 17 games on home ice the Sharks are in a good position to push for a playoff spot.
It was tough to see longtime Shark Douglas Murray leave the team for the Pittsburgh Penguins via trade. Murray wasn’t just popular in the dressing room; he was an all around good guy and would routinely wish even the broadcasters good luck on game nights. With so many teams still in the playoff hunt and the trade deadline approaching next Wednesday, the price is very high for established players.
GM Doug Wilson was able to extract two 2nd round picks from the Penguins for Murray who was originally an 8th round selection back in 1999 and will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. While the Sharks will miss Murray’s many talents, the bottom line is that the team must get faster and the trade allows quicker and younger defensemen like Justin Braun, Matt Irwin and Jason Demers the opportunity to develop and compete for more ice time.
Sitting here in front of my computer at the Sharks Saint Paul hotel, I can’t remember a game where there were so many “connections” like tomorrows’ against the Minnesota Wild.
Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and Torrey Mitchell all played for the Sharks and Charlie Coyle was drafted and developed by the Sharks and ended up with the Wild as part of the Brent Burns trade. On the other side Burns, Martin Havlat and James Sheppard all played for Minnesota. But the connections don’t end there.
Todd McLellan spent 4 years in the Wild organization as their AHL Head Coach at Houston and won a championship there. Assistant Coach Jim Johnson is a University of Minnesota-Duluth Hall of Famer. Defenseman Justin Braun was born in Vadnais Heights, just outside the Twin Cities. Goaltender Alex Stalock was born and raised here in St. Paul and won a WCHA championship with UMD, Johnson’s alma mater. Sharks Assistant General Manger Joe Will worked for the old Minnesota North Stars before he joined the Sharks and scouts Pat Funk and Rob Grillo are both Minnesota guys.
And last but not least there’s the immensely popular Sharks former Assistant Equipment Manager Rick “Rickey Bobby” Bronwell, who now holds down the same position with the Wild.
Connections aside it’ll be “All Business” tomorrow as the Sharks and Wild meet for the first time this season and continue the battle to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In case you haven’t noticed the Sharks have been on the road a lot lately. And guess what? The Sharks are going to be on the road a lot going forward.
We’re not quite halfway through March and the team has travelled to Vancouver, Calgary, Colorado and St. Louis. After tomorrow’s brief pit stop at home to host the Kings, the Sharks go to LA on Friday to kick off a 5 game 11-day trip with stops in Anaheim, Edmonton, Minnesota and finally back to Anaheim.
The payoff will come late in the month and into April when the Sharks have a 7 game home stand. However as I write this, the Sharks have dropped to 9th place in the West with 28 points and a road record of 4-7-2. It goes without saying that this upcoming road trip will be BIG.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Time to unpack so that I can pack.
I’m Randy Hahn
“Mixed emotions.” That’s how head coach Todd McLellan sized up Sunday night’s stunning overtime loss in Colorado.
As the Sharks have now reached the halfway point of the NHL season, mixed emotions also sums up the first 24 games. For the first 11 days and seven games, the Sharks could do no wrong. They were the hottest things on ice and the top line of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski was running roughshod over the top of the scoring leaderboard.
But something changed on Groundhog Day in a 2-1 shootout loss to Nashville. The offense sputtered and after that some nights dried up completely. After scoring no fewer than four goals in each of the first five games, the Sharks failed to score that many in any of the subsequent 19 games, a streak that is still intact.
What happened? Where did the goals go? Did the team’s elite scorers forget how to put the puck in the net? What about the offense from Lines 2, 3 and 4? What about scoring from the blueline? These are all questions yet to be answered but certainly must be at the top of McLellan’s list.
And then there’s the good. After finishing one spot from the bottom on the penalty kill last year, the Sharks are third right now. It’s a strength that has kept them in many games the past six weeks.
The goaltending has been great to excellent. The Sharks are 5th in goals against per game. Solid goaltending, strong team defense and a good penalty kill are the foundation for any team hoping for postseason success, and the Sharks appear to have those pillars in place.
We’ve pretty much reached the halfway point of the season so the “Halfway NHL Award Winners” lists are hitting the web and the airways. Yesterday, ESPN NHL columnist Scott Burnside gave his halfway Vezina Trophy to the Sharks Antti Niemi. The Vezina Trophy is annually awarded to the NHL’s best goaltender as determined by a vote of the leagues general managers.
It’s a given that Niemi has been the Sharks team MVP up to this point. Going into Saturday’s game against St. Louis he had a 10-4-4 record with a 1.83 goals against average and .935 save percentage. His one shutout came in a shootout loss to Phoenix.
In a season when the Sharks have often struggled to score goals, Niemi has kept them in game after game. He has allowed 2 or fewer goals in 13 of the 18 games he’s started. With a little more offensive support he would likely be leading the league in victories.
If the Sharks can find a way to improve their offense and get to that “magical” third goal, on a game-to-game basis, Niemi’s excellent goaltending should serve them well in nailing down a playoff spot.
Vancouver – I’m often asked what my favorite NHL road city is. There are plenty of good ones but Vancouver has to be at the top of my list.
The natural beauty and cultural diversity makes it special, think San Francisco with snow capped mountains.
For a Bay Area Sharks fan it’s the perfect roadie location. The flight is about 2 hours. You can drive it in a little over a day. Once you get here the options are endless.
I’m a jogger so a run around world famous Stanley Park is a must for me, but its also perfect for cycling or just walking. There are many unique neighborhoods like Kitsilano, Gastown or Robson Street.
The food and drink destinations are outstanding. My favorites include Joe Forte’s and Cardero’s. Both feature fresh British Columbia salmon and mussels.
And finally there’s the passion for hockey. Vancouverite’s eat, breathe and sleep Canucks hockey.
If a hockey road trip is in your future, try Vancouver. Rain or shine it’s my top stop in the league.