49ers face season's biggest test

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49ers face season's biggest test

SANTA CLARA – Just in case the 49ers defenders needed a reminder that their next opponent was going to provide perhaps the toughest test of the season, they got it on Monday night.

Several key defensive starters were able to catch at least a portion of New England’s 42-14 dismantling of the Houston Texans. The defending AFC champions were firing on all cylinders in front of a national audience, giving Houston just its second loss of the year.

And, the 49ers were watching. New England (10-3) has won seven straight and will host San Francisco (9-3-1) on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

“They looked good. They looked real good, man,” said defensive lineman Ray McDonald. “We’ve got to come out here really prepared for that up-tempo offense.”

Cornerback Perrish Cox said: “I thought it was going to be closer than what it was. Houston is a good team. You can never look past the Patriots at all. That’s one of the best teams of the past decade, and still is. That’s one of them teams you just can’t look past.”

Of course, the Pats’ offense starts with quarterback Tom Brady. The 13-year pro has thrown 29 touchdowns and just four interceptions, and is second in the league with a 104.2 passer rating, percentage points behind Robert Griffin III and a tenth of a point better than Niners backup Alex Smith.

On Monday against Houston, the 35-year-old San Mateo native was 21-for-35 for 296 yards with four touchdowns and no picks against one of the stronger defenses in the NFL.

“He’s more one of those laid-back, confident quarterbacks that basically you can tell his demeanor and [he] knows exactly what he’s doing,” Cox said. “He’s one of those confident quarterbacks that basically calls his own offense. He’s a vet, a very good vet that’s talented.”

“They have a lot of different weapons, a lot of guys that can make plays, but we’re really fighting against Tom Brady,” cornerback Tarell Brown said. “He has the keys to the car, and we definitely have to stop him.”

Lineman Ricky Jean Francois is hoping that pressure on Brady will lead to a more effective defense of the future Hall-of-Famer. But, that’s easier said than done.

“They have a great offensive line. The only way Tom Brady's going to be successful is when those guys are going to block,” Francois said. “For their running game to work, the O-line's got to block. You've got to take your hat off to the trenches always, first. Without the trenches, you won't have a successful offense or defense.”

McDonald said: “They are physical. They are a physical bunch. They work together, they're smart. Just watching them last night, they're not a finesse team. They can run the ball, too.”

The 49ers corners are also likely to get a healthy dose of Wes Welker, the Pats’ receiver who leads the team and is ninth in the NFL with 1,116 yards.

What makes the 5’9’’, 185-pounder so effective? Cox compared him with another skilled guy that the 49ers had trouble containing earlier this year.

“The breakout speed, I don’t think he’s really that fast, but the quickness itself, he’s just like another [Danny] Amendola,” Cox said, referring to the Rams’ wideout who caught 11 balls for 102 yards on Nov. 11 against San Francisco. “Both of them went to Texas Tech, and I was able to play against Amendola at Tech, so they’re quite similar receivers. Like I said, I really can’t answer what makes them so good, but him and quarterback is on the same page every play.”

Brown said: “You’ve just got to make plays. I think at the end of the day, they do a lot of reads on and off the field. We have to do the same thing – play with what you see, and play fast.”

In what could easily be a Super Bowl preview, Brown is anxious to learn how his club stacks up against the surging Pats, who have won 20 consecutive December home games.

“Yeah, it’s a measuring stick for all of us,” Brown said. “I think we’ll all be tested and challenged throughout the game, and that’s the good thing about it.”

Sharks' Vlasic joins Canada for World Championships

Sharks' Vlasic joins Canada for World Championships

Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic will compete in the upcoming IIHF World Championships for Team Canada, it was announced on Friday.

The tournament runs from May 5-21 in Paris, France and Cologne, Germany. 

Vlasic, 30, a native of Montreal, has played in the tournament twice before in 2009 and 2012. He also represented Canada in the 2014 Olympic Games, helping it to a gold medal, and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which Canada also captured.

In 75 games with the Sharks this season, Vlasic posted 28 points (6g, 22a) and a +4 rating. He was second on the team in shorthanded time on ice (2:04 per game) and blocked shots (146).

A pending restricted free agent in 2018, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson called getting Vlasic signed to a long-term deal an offseason priority for the club. The two sides can begin negotiations on July 1.

“Vlasic [is] arguably one of the best defensemen in the league,” Wilson said. “[He] is still one of the most underrated players in the league in the outside world.”

The Sharks lost in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs to Edmonton, although Vlasic and partner Justin Braun helped to keep Connor McDavid in check at even strength. The league's leading scorer had just one even strength point in the six-game series, an empty net goal with less than one second left in Game 6.

Boedker tops list of disappointing Sharks depth forwards

Boedker tops list of disappointing Sharks depth forwards

SAN JOSE – The Sharks didn’t make any blockbuster moves last summer, content to make another run in 2016-17 with largely the same group that came within two wins of capturing the Stanley Cup.

They still acquired a notable player, though, when Mikkel Boedker was signed on July 1 to add an element that the Sharks knew they needed more of moving forward – speed. Boedker was expected to make the team faster, after the Sharks were exposed for not having enough of that against Pittsburgh in the NHL’s final round, as well as play in a top six role. 

At the time, it was hailed as a slick, under-the-radar move that wasn’t going to change the dynamic of the club but could help push it over the top.

When Boedker was a healthy scratch in games three and four of the first round against Edmonton, the evidence became clear, though, that this was a decision that fell flat on its face. 

Frankly, Boedker – who is signed for three more years with a $4 million salary cap hit – brings back visions of Sharks bust Marty Havlat. You know the skill is there, but the desire to use it on a nightly basis while showing any semblance of a battle level is lacking. 

Should the Sharks give Boedker another chance next season, or should they do everything in their power to try and move him? That’s a question that will likely be debated in the front office over the next several weeks.

On get-away day on Monday, indications were that the Sharks were planning on sticking with the 27-year-old, who finished with 26 points in the regular season (10g, 16a) and added one goal and one assist in four games in the playoffs.

“He has the things we’re looking for: his career scoring average, his speed, [penalty killing] ability,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “Did he meet the expectations that he had for himself [or] that we had for him? No. Can we get that out of him? Pete [DeBoer] believes we can.”

DeBoer has known Boedker since he played for him in 2007-08 in Kitchener (OHL). Despite scratching him in the playoffs, DeBoer said he saw “huge improvement” in Boedker throughout the course of the season after the forward spent nearly all of his NHL career in Arizona.

“There was an adjustment. He’s played 6-7 years a certain way in the NHL,” DeBoer said. “We’ve asked him to play differently here, and there was an adjustment.”

Boedker still believes that he can be a fit in San Jose.

“I think it will be and it can be,” he said. “It’s learning period, but you’ve also got to look in the mirror yourself and see what you can change and what assets you need to bring. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m ready to do that.”

The list of Sharks depth forwads that had frustrating seasons hardly begins and ends with Boedker, though.

Veteran Joel Ward’s production dipped from 43 points last season to 29 in 2016-17, although that probably isn’t too surprising considering he’s 36. Tomas Hertl is proving to be a streaky player, too, although his season was interrupted by another a knee injury.

The bigger disappointment came from players like Chris Tierney and Joonas Donskoi, who both made big impressions in the 2016 playoffs but struggled to produce consistent offense this year. Both were mentioned by name by DeBoer on Monday.

There are some promising youngsters in the pipeline like Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen, but it’s still too early to project any of them as can’t-miss scorers at the NHL level.

“I think we’ve got a large group of guys that I like, but need to step up,” DeBoer said. “Is Sorensen [like] Donskoi next year, where he takes a step back, or [does he take a] step forward? We’ve got a lot of guys that there’s a lot of potential there – Chris Tierney. 

“There’s a lot of those guys, but they need to have big summers and take a step, and show that they’re not just one season or one month players.”