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LOS ANGELES – Marty Havlat will make his season debut on Wednesday night in Los Angeles, after recovering from offseason pelvic surgery that has kept him out for the first month of the NHL regular season.
Havlat will skate in place of an injured Matt Nieto, who remains out with a hand injury, on a line with Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels.
“I think we have to be fair with [Havlat] and give him every opportunity to get his feet going and get involved,” Todd McLellan said. “But, the key is get his feet going. For Marty to be effective in our team environment, he’s going to have to play with some tempo and some speed. He’s going to have to play a north-south game. He knows that, and he can play that way.”
The 10-1-1 Sharks enter Wednesday night’s game with their rivals with the NHL’s best record, thanks to a change in identity late last season that they've carried over into 2013-14. They are able to play both a fast and a heavy game, with an emphasis on skating in straight lines, shooting the puck, and getting it back. Contact and tenacity are required.
Whether Havlat, 32, fits that team mentality is to be determined. The winger left Game 1 of the first round against Vancouver with a lower body injury, and after Raffi Torres was placed in his spot with Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture, that line developed into the team’s best trio against the Canucks in a four-game sweep. In other words, they were better off without Havlat.
Havlat declared himself ready to return in Game 3 of the second round series against the Kings, but left his teammates shorthanded before the midway point of the first period. It was a head-scratching situation, coming in a game that the Sharks absolutely had to win, as they trailed the Kings 2-0 in the best-of-seven series at the time. The team later removed his locker stall from the dressing room.
Does Havlat – whose skills are undeniable, but who has played a decidedly soft and often times ineffective game since signing a massive six-year, $30 million contract with Minnesota in 2009 – have something to prove, now that he’s been cleared to return?
McLellan, who called Havlat a "capable, high-end" NHL player, was blunt in his response.
“The way the game is being played, or the way we would like to play it – that, for me, is the proving part,” McLellan said.
“It’s not about scoring goals and having the skill and all that type of stuff. Can he play his game in our structure and our environment, and be effective? That is the only part he has to prove to anybody – to himself, to his teammates, to the coaching staff. We certainly believe he can.”
McLellan suggested that he didn’t necessarily want to tinker with what has been a successful lineup, but that Nieto is still not 100 percent and hasn’t skated since Saturday’s game in Montreal, which may have been the rookie’s best as a professional.
But with forwards Nieto, Torres, Brent Burns and Adam Burish all out, Havlat will get his chance. The Sharks will try and close out a five-game road swing with four wins.
Pavelski is hopeful that Havlat’s return won’t have an effect on his line.
“It shouldn’t change it. It really shouldn’t,” Pavelski said. “We’ve been playing a certain way, and he should be able to insert and play that fast game, shoot the puck, and all those things. He’s a highly skilled player and he can make a few plays in certain areas that other players might not.”
The question is, will Havlat be willing to get to those areas in order to be effective? It’s time to find out.