Key storylines for Sharks

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Key storylines for Sharks

SAN JOSE -- After two straight appearances in the Western Conference Final, logic would dictate that the Sharks needed only a few tweaks to their roster to secure a trip to the Stanley Cup Final -- and maybe a Cup itself -- in 2011-12.

Of course, as Sharks followers well know, thats not exactly how the NHL, or sports in general, works.

Still, the club looks great on paper. A bulked-up, more experienced and skilled defense -- along with some high-octane scorers and a proven goalie -- give the Sharks as good a chance as any club to go all the way.

Lets take a look at some early storylines as the Sharks get set to open their season on Saturday at home against Phoenix.

PREVIEW: Sharks open Saturday night vs. Phoenix

The new guys
The player who will command the attention of the most eyeballs among the new Sharks is defenseman Brent Burns -- and not just because hes 6-5, 230. Along with Dan Boyle, the Sharks now possess a 1-2 punch on defense that they sorely lacked last season, following Rob Blake's retirement. Burns presence should immediately help the penalty kill, he can put up points on offense, and can punish opposing forwards skating in his direction.

Martin Havlat will replace some of the speed the Sharks lost with the trade of Devin Setoguchi, and can break games open with his skill. Michal Handzus will center the third line and also contribute key minutes shorthanded, so guys like Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski can rest up when the team is down a man.

Also, dont discount the signings of Jim Vandermeer and Colin White. While there probably isnt room for both of them on opening night, having an experienced seventh defenseman is sure to come in handy at some point.

Backing up Niemi
The Sharks were dealt a pretty significant blow when they learned that Antero Niittymaki wouldnt be available for the first 12 weeks of the season. Even though Antti Niemi is the No. 1, Niittymaki is a veteran goalie who can win games. In his absence, backup duty falls to Thomas Greiss -- a familiar name here, but also a guy who spent last season playing in Sweden.

The Sharks had the cap room to go out and get an experienced backup, but chose to stick with Greiss, who will start on Saturday and probably play at least five or six games in the first couple months of the season. The Sharks are putting an emphasis on avoiding the slow start they suffered through last season, so Greiss is going to have to be good when hes in the net. Its far too early to rely solely on one goaltender, even when Niemi gets healthy.

Scouting the calendar
The Los Angeles Kings are a sexy pick to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. They made some major moves, and are solid at every position. Its a good bet that the Kings and Sharks are going to battle it out all season for the division title, as the Ducks, Coyotes and Stars arent expected to be serious contenders.

The rivals will face each other twice in November (Nov. 7 at home, Nov. 28 in L.A.), a couple more times later in the season, and then finish up with a home-and-home to end the regular season. Its not a stretch to say that those two games in April may decide who wins the Pacific.

In the spotlight
With Dany Heatley in Minnesota, Pavelski will get his chance on the Sharks top line with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Hell be on the wing, which is a bit of a change from his natural position at center, but should be able to at least equal his already more-than-respectable point total of 66 last season.

Lines are sure to change throughout the year, but keep an eye on Pavelski early on to see if he clicks with his highly skilled mates.

Avoiding the sophomore slump
Logan Couture seemingly came out of nowhere to establish himself as one of the Sharks top scoring threats last season (which should have ended with the Calder Trophy, but thats a story for another day). The difference this season is that the club will expect Couture to at least duplicate that output -- specifically his 32 goals. Thats a good bit of pressure on a 22-year-old, who's now slotted securely on the teams second line.

He should be able to do it, as Couture possesses a scoring touch that you cant teach. Still, hell want to avoid getting off to a slow start, otherwise he may fall victim to trying to do too much as some young players are wont to do.

Finally...
Let us know in your comments below what youre going to be looking for when the puck drops, or what you think we may have missed.

Despite loss, Sharks 'in a good spot' headed into bye week

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Despite loss, Sharks 'in a good spot' headed into bye week

SAN JOSE – Despite what was technically their sixth loss in the last eight games, the Sharks seemed to put more stock in the point they gained in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Bruins on Sunday night at SAP Center, rather than the one they left on the table.

They have that luxury. 

The Sharks will enter their bye week five points ahead of Edmonton and Anaheim for first place in the Pacific Division, and figure they’re due for some time off after a short summer followed by a World Cup for some, and a brutal condensed NHL schedule for all.

“[We’ve] showed up and played hard,” Joe Pavelski said. “We’ve been in a lot of games. Games we’ve lost, we’ve battled. There hasn’t been any cheat in [our] game. Defensively, we’ve been strong. There’s a lot of good areas in our game that we like right now.”

Playing in the second of a back-to-back against a Bruins team had was coming off of its own bye week, the Sharks fell behind 1-0 on a first period goal by Ryan Spooner, but notched a Patrick Marleau equalizer in a second period in which they outshot the Bruins 16-9. An evenly played third period gave way to overtime, where Brad Marchand scored on a breakaway to give the Bruins their fourth straight win since changing head coaches.

The Sharks spoke before the weekend about finishing the final two games strong before the respite. They ended up gaining three of four points, including Saturday’s 4-1 win in Arizona, and were pleased with their effort against the Bruins as they capped off 10 games in 20 days since the All-Star break.

“It was an important push into this break,” Pete DeBoer said. “To go in up [five points] on the next closest team is a real testament to our group.”

Paul Martin said: “I thought we played pretty well, considering the back-to-back with some travel, and a team that was waiting for us.”

Perhaps the most encouraging performance came from Martin Jones, who was one of a number of Sharks players that was looking particularly fatigued lately. The goaltender entered the game with a 1-0-2 record, 4.46 goals-against average and .837 save percentage in his last four starts, including getting pulled after the first period in Boston just 10 days ago.

Jones was impressive, though, making a vital pad stop on the dangerous David Pastrnak in front of the net midway through the third period to keep it a 1-1 score.

“It was a good game. Two teams playing hard,” Jones said. “We can take a lot of positives from that one. It was a good hard game, just didn’t go our way tonight.”

Overtimes have been an issue lately, though. The Sharks have lost their last four games decided during the three-on-three, all coming within the last two weeks. As satisfied as they are with their cushion in the division, it could have been cushier.

Against the Bruins, Tuukka Rask denied Brent Burns on a two-on-one in overtime, and Marchand scored off of the ensuing faceoff, blowing the zone past Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and corralling a long toss from Torey Krug before sliding it home.

“We get to overtime, shootouts – we expect to get that extra point,” Pavelski said. “We haven’t found it lately. We’ll just keep looking for it.”

DeBoer said: “The points are critical, they’re valuable. I don’t read a lot into [overtime decisions], we’ve won our share over the time I’ve been here. We had a chance to win tonight, too. … I concentrate on the effort, and I thought we got better as the game went on.”

Being focused and energized, as they have been most of the season to this point, shouldn’t be a problem when the season resumes next Saturday in Vancouver. The Sharks are in prime position to win their first division title since 2010-11, and a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final is a distinct possibility.

Losing six of eight won’t be nearly as acceptable coming out of the break as it apparently is going into it, but that’s not something to worry about now, even after another defeat. 

“There are some games you wish you could get back and get those points, but we’re still in a good spot,” Marleau said.

Instant Replay: Bruins score in overtime, send Sharks to the break with a loss

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Instant Replay: Bruins score in overtime, send Sharks to the break with a loss

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE – The Boston Bruins skated past the San Jose Sharks on Sunday at SAP Center, 2-1 in overtime.

Brad Marchand’s breakaway goal after the Bruins won a defensive zone faceoff gave Boston the win, as Torey Krug found the forward charging towards the San Jose net. Marchand slipped the puck through Martin Jones’ five hole at 2:36.

San Jose has dropped its last four games decided in the three-on-three.

The Sharks lost for the sixth time in their last eight games (2-1-5), headed into the bye week. They will not play or practice from Monday through Friday, and resume their season on Saturday in Vancouver.

Boston extended its winning streak to four games since firing Claude Julien and naming Bruce Cassidy the interim head coach. The streak began with a 6-3 win over the Sharks at TD Garden on Feb. 9.

The Bruins were just the fourth team of 20 to win the first game after their bye week (4-12-4).

Boston scored the only goal in the first period, while the Sharks answered with a second period tally.

Ryan Spooner’s marker at 11:05 of the opening frame put Boston ahead. An Adam McQuaid point shot found Jimmy Hayes in the slot, and after Hayes fired wide of the net, Spooner tucked in the loose puck.

San Jose turned up the pressure late in the second, finally resulting in a goal by Patrick Marleau. During a four-on-four situation, Brent Burns’ wrist shot deflected right to Marleau’s tape, and he easily flipped in his 502nd career goal at 17:37.

Sharks coach Pete DeBoer shortened his bench for the third period, leaving Mikkel Boedker and Nikolay Goldobin planted on the pine. Melker Karlsson took Boedker’s place on the second line, while Chris Tierney skated on the third line with Tomas Hertl and Joel Ward.

The Sharks are 6-3-1 in the second half of back-to-backs.

Special teams

Each team had just one power play in the game, failing to convert.

The Sharks are 3-for-24 on the power play over their last eight games (12.5 percent), but a perfect 8-for-8 on the PK in their last five.

In goal

Jones was facing the Bruins just 10 days after he was pulled to start the second period in Boston when he allowed three goals on 12 shots. He allowed two goals on 27 shots.

Tuukka Rask made 29 saves for the win.

Lineup

The Sharks’ lineup was unchanged from Saturday’s win in Arizona, other than the goaltender. Goldobin played in his second game of the season.

Joe Thornton remains two assists away from 1000 in his career. His five-game point streak came to an end.

Burns had 20 shot attempts, including seven on net.

Up next

Saturday’s game in Vancouver begins a stretch where the Sharks will play their final 22 games over a 43-day span. On Feb. 2, they won the first of five meetings with the Canucks, 4-1 at Rogers Arena.

Vancouver, which hosted Philadelphia on Sunday, also has its bye week from Feb. 20-24.