Sharks-Maple Leafs: What to watch for

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Sharks-Maple Leafs: What to watch for

PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Sharks and Maple Leafs drop the puck at 4 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet California, preceded by Shark Byte at 3:30. You can catch catch Sharks Postgame Live following the game for all the news and analysis.

TORONTO -- If you just so happened to possess a crystal ball, and told the Sharks a dozen days ago that they would come home with a .500 record on their season-long nine-game road trip, they wouldnt have been very happy about it.

At this point, though, that would be considered a remarkable accomplishment. San Jose, 1-4-1 on the trip so far, will try and right the ship once again tonight against the Maple Leafs and put an end to its four-game losing streak.

Dan Boyle said the Sharks lacked desperation, an ever-so-popular term this time of year, in their ugly 6-3 defeat to the NHLs last place Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night.

But, I think were going to see it tonight, Boyle said. I think were aware of where were at, and we need to start putting some wins together and taking care of our own fate.

Where theyre at is now tied for first in the Pacific Division with the Phoenix Coyotes, and although the Sharks have two games in hand, could easily find themselves as the seventh seed in the Western Conference as early as the end of the night. The Coyotes face off in Calgary two hours after the Sharks drop the puck with the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.

You definitely dont want to limp going into the playoffs, Joe Thornton said. Weve got 24 games left, so weve got to play some good hockey.

Head coach Todd McLellan wants to make sure that the team looks at tonight as a fresh game, rather than carry the weight of its longest losing streak of the season.

When you carry baggage with you from one game to another, it becomes heavy on your shoulders. We talked about that a little bit yesterday. We erred, we werent ready, we didnt perform the way the way we wanted to against Columbus.

But, weve got to move on now, and play a little freer with a little less baggage on our shoulders. Well see what that does for us tonight.

Niemi vs. Reimer: A pair of struggling netminders will take the crease for their respective clubs as Antti Niemi opposes James Reimer.

Niemi was pulled after allowing three goals on 11 shots in the first period against the Blue Jackets, and has been wildly inconsistent for more than a month now, leading to some calls for more playing time for backup Thomas Greiss.

Greiss will likely play in one of the two games this weekend in Nashville and Minnesota, but tonight its up to Niemi to try and get his game going.

Its not just Niemis fault that the Sharks have given up 36 goals in their last nine games, of course (an average of 4.0 per game).

We dont blame anybody. We realize weve been giving up too many Grade-A chances, Thornton said. Both of our goaltenders have been playing good all year, so weve got to give them some support with coming down low, blocking shots and doing little things to not make those chances happen.

Boyle said: Defensively weve been strong all year, but unfortunately thats been our weakest point in the last couple weeks. Were giving up way too many goals. It starts on the back end with the goalie and ourselves, the d-men. Were a big strong team when we want to be, and weve got to work on it.

Reimer is also playing for the first time since getting pulled, when he allowed four goals on 18 shots in Vancouver on Feb. 18. The Maple Leafs' poor goaltending, including Jonas Gustavsson, has led to speculation that the club is looking to add a netminder before the trade deadeline.

Mitchell returning: Dominic Moores lower body injury means that Torrey Mitchell will likely return to the lineup after being a healthy scratch against the Blue Jackets. It was the second time Mitchell was pulled from the lineup this year as a coachs decision.

The first time, Mitchell responded well, with a goal and an assist on Jan. 7 against Washington.

I expect a complete repetition of what happened last time, McLellan said. It has to happen again. He has to be reminded. Hes much too effective of a player to not be contributing on a steady basis.

Sharks PP still surging: Although the Sharks are scuffling, the power play is still humming. It has scored at least a goal in nine of the last 11 games, going 14-for-39 over that span (35.9 percent).

On the season, that's bumped them up to third in the league at 21.2 percent. Matched up against the Leafs 29th ranked penalty kill (77.0 percent), and that may be something the Sharks could take advantage of on Thursday.

Its starting to get where were used to. Weve got a lot of movement, and just getting shots to the net and jamming away at some rebounds and the puck is going in for us, Marleau said of the man advantage.

Couture pacing the offense: Logan Couture has nine goals and 10 assists in his last 14 games. Hes showing no signs of slowing down, either, with a pair of goals in Columbus on Tuesday.

Hed rather be doing it while the team is playing well, though.

I guess Im in one of those grooves where the puck seems to find me and find the back of the net. Its nice scoring goals, but youd rather have the team win games and go goalless for five games if the team could win the next five, he said. Hopefully, we can get things on track tonight.

McLellan was also asked to comment on his budding star by the large contingent of Toronto media.

He tends to be on a line without the Thorntons and the Marleaus, so the focus still goes onto the big boys. Logan still doesnt always play against the top checking line so he has some freedom that way. When Thornton and Marleau are playing well, it frees up some space for him, said McLellan.

Incidentally, Couture, from nearby Guelph, Ontario, is looking forward to playing his first career game at the Air Canada Centre.

Im excited, and I was excited last night laying in bed thinking about it, he said. I watched a lot of Leaf games growing up, and I know a lot of Leaf fans. Hopefully we can beat em.

Odds and ends: Along with Dominic Moore, the Sharks are still without Douglas Murray, and will be for the rest of the road trip. Toronto is 1-5-1 in its last seven games. This is the only meeting of the season between these clubs. Joe Thornton has five goals and 10 assists in his last 11 games.

While many bristle over NHL's new bye week rule, Sharks wait their turn

While many bristle over NHL's new bye week rule, Sharks wait their turn

SAN JOSE – Nearly everyone in the NHL is in agreement that this season’s schedule is rough. The World Cup in September pushed the start of the regular season back about a week, and combined with the institution of the new bye week, as requested by the NHLPA, it’s meant more games in fewer days for every team.

Where opinions diverge, though, is whether the bye week is a good idea. 

Just this week, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall called it “the most asinine thing I’ve ever seen.” Kings head coach Darryl Sutter, when asked if he liked it, said: “No, no, no, no. … It’s been an awful schedule this year.”

The Sharks are currently in the middle of a stretch of seven games in just 11 days before the All-Star break. In a normal season, that kind of schedule is rare. This season, it’s commonplace.

Some teams have already had their bye weeks. The Islanders and Penguins were the first, taking the opening week of January off. The Sharks’ bye week isn’t until Feb. 20-24. Only Anaheim’s is later.

Sharks coach Pete DeBoer didn’t give his opinion on the bye week, but indicated that if it’s going to happen, late February is a good time to get some rest.

“The way it laid out for us, I’m happy with that scheduling,” DeBoer said. “There’s not many happy moments when I look at our schedule, but that is one that I felt laid out right for us.”

Neither DeBoer, nor Hextall, nor Sutter is playing games, of course. Polling some Sharks players, they seemed to like the idea of getting some down time in the middle of playing a condensed schedule. The Sharks won’t even be allowed to practice over those five days, and will resume their season on Feb. 25 in Vancouver (the Canucks have the exact same bye week, so they’ll be in the same situation when the teams face off).

The majority of the current Sharks team is coming off of a short summer following a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and no NHL team had more than the five representatives San Jose had in the final round of the World Cup between Team Canada and Team Europe. Key contributors Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Martin Jones are all headed to the All-Star Game at the end of the month, too.

So, is having the bye week worth it for the condensed schedule?

“Yeah, I think it is, because if you take away those five days and you sprinkle two games in there, there’s no guarantees that you’re going to get a day off in between those days,” Pavelski said.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic said: “If I’m in San Jose I might as well play hockey, I’m not sitting around and watching. I get five days to go back home, which is good.”

It’s difficult to predict how the Sharks will respond to their bye week. Joel Ward preferred to take the wait-and-see approach.

“I think with a lot of hockey, it might be beneficial for us, especially for a lot of guys that played in the World Cup, played that many [games] and have played high minutes,” Ward said. “I think it could be beneficial for those guys, and some guys going to the All-Star Game, too. Hopefully it works out in our favor with some rest for our key guys. We’ll see how it plays out.”

Vlasic took issue with the way the bye week has been instituted. He thought it was the same week for every team, which isn’t the case.

“Weird is putting it nicely,” said the defenseman. “Why do some teams have a break in January when there’s an All-Star break coming up, and we get it the last possible week right before the playoff push? I’m not saying we shouldn’t have it at that time, but everyone should have it at the same time.”

A case can be made, too, that the bye week is adversely affecting the NHL product.

Take one game back on Dec. 18 when the Sharks were in Chicago. Instead of what should have been a thrilling matchup between two of the Western Conferences best teams, the game was tremendously dull for the first period-and-a-half. The Sharks were wrapping up a stretch of four road games in six days, while the Blackhawks were playing their fifth game in eight days, and second of a back-to-back with travel.

Playing so many games, with practice time at a minimum, leads to bad hockey, and that’s a disservice to the fans.

For at least one season, though, it’s something everyone is stuck with. The schedule is a reality, and Pavelski believes the Sharks are handling it well.

“At the end of the day, you get ready, you do what you need to do to prepare, and you show up and play,” said the captain. “I believe this group has done a tremendous job of that this year. We haven’t had any games where it’s just been a complete dud from the start.”

Three takeaways: Carpenter making case to stay with Sharks

Three takeaways: Carpenter making case to stay with Sharks

SAN JOSE – Logan Couture got all the attention postgame, and rightfully so, but there were some other notable developments from the Sharks’ 2-1 win over Tampa Bay on Thursday night. Here are three takeaways from San Jose’s third straight win…

1 – Finding a way

It was easy to tell on Wednesday night in the visitor’s dressing room at Staples Center that the Sharks’ win over the Kings was maybe their most rewarding of the season, being down some key players yet taking the rubber match of the five-game season series.

The flip side of that is the game with the Lightning, on the second of a back-to-back against a non-rival, was tougher to get up for. The Sharks found a way, though, despite getting a bit overwhelmed over the first half of the first period.

“We expected the first 10 minutes to be tough coming back from L.A., an emotional win, and they're sitting here waiting for us,” Pete DeBoer said. “I thought we kept them to the perimeter, even though the shot clock wasn't in our favor. As the game went on, I thought we got better."

Aaron Dell said: "We were a little bit tired to start, I think. I think they knew that, so they made an early push. I think we fended it off pretty well."

DeBoer pointed out after the game that the other teams around the Sharks in the Pacific Division are winning lately, too. Anaheim is 5-0-1 in its last six, while the Oilers have won four straight since losing to the Sharks last week.

“We have to find a way, and tonight was one of those find-a-way games,” he said. “They're not easy to play. The deck's stacked against you coming in. We found a way."

2 – Carpenter contributing

Rookie Ryan Carpenter admitted he was a bit surprised to see his name in the lineup when he got to the rink on Thursday. Even with Couture and Joonas Donskoi healthy again, Carpenter remained as the fourth line center, while injured forwards Timo Meier and Micheal Haley were not able to play.

His goal in the second period staked the Sharks a 1-0 lead, marking the second straight game that a fourth liner got on the board in what was another one-goal victory.

The Sharks were pressing the Lightning in their own end before Carpenter hopped over the boards, and he was the beneficiary of some tired defenders.

“[Joel Ward] does a good job in front of the net to create traffic, and even the shift before that, they got a lot of zone time and I just kind of jumped out there,” Carpenter said. “Kind of benefited from that, so that was nice.”

The way he’s played, it’s fair to wonder if Carpenter could be the latest Barracuda player to push one of the regulars out of the lineup. He’s been effective.

“He's been hard, he's been physical, he's a big body and defensively responsible, and he's chipped in some offense,” DeBoer said. “He plays the way we want to play. He's done a real good job for us."

3 – Important win for Dell

Any good NHL goaltender has to have an ability to put bad games, and bad goals, behind them. Aaron Dell wasn’t awful in Calgary on Jan. 11, but he looked shaky for the majority of the game.

Not against the Lightning, though. Dell played very well, particularly early when the Sharks weren’t skating very well in front of him, and late, when they were holding on to that slim one goal edge.

“We like playing in front of him,” Joe Pavelski said. “You see him, he’s aggressive, he’s into the game, he’s attacking pucks. That’s everything you want from your goalie. He’s made all the saves that we can ask him to make.”

The one he allowed was impossible to stop, as Jonathan Drouin easily held off Mikkel Boedker (who was benched for the third period again) in the neutral zone and skated around Marc-Edouard Vlasic before slipping it through. 

“He's a skilled player, made a skilled play,” Dell said. “I didn't think he could get it around me on that one."

Vlasic, of course, rarely gets beat like that. He joked that when he saw he was requested by the media after the game, “I knew you were going to ask me about that.”

“We won the game. It was 2-1. It was a positive win, so we’ll take the positives from the win,” Vlasic said.