Sharks-Panthers: What to watch for

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Sharks-Panthers: What to watch for

SAN JOSE The Florida Panthers visit HP Pavilion tonight to face the Sharks as one of the more pleasant surprises in the NHL. They lead the Southeast Division with 30 points (13-8-4), as rivals like Washington and Tampa Bay have struggled to find consistency.

A new coach Kevin Dineen as well as key offseason additions like Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell, Tomas Fleischmann and Jose Theodore have rejuvenated a franchise that has been at or near the bottom of the standings in recent years.

Now that the NHL season has passed the quarter point, though, the rebuilt Panthers are sneaking up on teams no longer.

The team was torn down somewhat, and rebuilt with a number of new bodies. Its a clean slate, and everybody had a chance to prove themselves to a new coach or manager in the organization, said Todd McLellan. Theyve done a very good job, and theyre a hell of a hockey team.

The Panthers are the second straight club to visit HP Pavilion that the Sharks rarely see, after San Jose managed to defeat the Montreal Canadiens in a shootout on Thursday, 4-3. The teams met just once last season, a 3-2 win for the Panthers in South Florida.

The Panthers are concluding a four-game road trip, looking to fly home with a 2-2 mark. Theyve scored just eight goals in their last five games, but are getting leading scorer Kris Versteeg back after he missed the 2-1 loss in Los Angeles on Thursday with a broken nose, courtesy of former Shark Derek Joslin.

Hes a game breaker, he adds a lot to our lineup, and it will be good to get him back in there, said Dineen of Versteeg.

Rebound effort for top line: As good as the Sharks second line of Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture and Marty Havlat was in Thursdays win, the top line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski struggled. Those three were scoreless and a combined -8 after being reunited at the start of a game for the first time in more than three weeks.

Marleau, who was the Sharks most consistent scorer with 11 points in nine games while centering the second line, said there was an adjustment period for him in moving back to the wing.

There was a little bit in the first. Sometimes as a winger you get stuck on the boards a little bit and have to remind yourself to get skating and push the pace a little bit and try to create things that way, he said. As a center youre always in and around the play, but as a winger you have to make sure that you go to it.

The second lines combined five points masked the poor performance of the top line, but McLellan points out that the opposite has been true on plenty of other nights.

The top lines teammates bailed them out, much like theyve done for them in the past, said the coach. I have no problem putting them back on the ice tonight, and I expect much better from them.
Battle of the backups: Thomas Greiss is the confirmed starter for San Jose, while all signs point to the Panthers inserting Scott Clemmensen in the net in favor of regular starter Jose Theodore.

Greiss last appearance was Nov. 20 at Colorado, when he made 36 saves in a 4-1 Sharks win over the Avalanche.

Hes played well for us, and I say the same thing every time he goes in, said McLellan. We trust him and we think hell give us a good night.

Griess is 4-3 with a 1.99 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

Clemmensen, on the other hand, has played in just a single game while Theodore has impressed in getting the bulk of the work. His one was an excellent one, though, as he recorded a shutout by making 25 saves in Dallas on Nov. 15.
Pressure the D: The Panthers generate much of their offense from the blue line, led by former Shark Brian Campbells 20 points (tied for second in the NHL in points among defensemen). Jason Garrisons eight goals are tops among NHL defenders, while Dmitry Kulikov has 14 assists.

Pressuring the defensemen on the points and getting in hard on the forecheck are the keys to countering Floridas impressive blue line corps.

Campbell is the passer and Garrison is the shooter, and hes got eight goals already. Five-on-five, the penalty kill, it will be very important to get in the lane on him, and Campbell too, who can skate it and pass it, said Marc-Edouard Vlasic. It will be a big challenge for our forwards and our d-men.

Were going to have to be aware of where their d-men are. It starts in the offensive zone, said McLellan. If you get lazy on the forecheck or get caught on the boards, theyll beat you up ice.

Getting in shooting lanes is always important on the penalty kill, and will be even more so tonight for San Jose due to the Panthers defense. The Sharks penalty kill enters the game last in the league at home (73.0 percent), although San Jose has been shorthanded just 68 times fewest in the NHL. The Panthers have the second fewest with 71.

Thats a good sign, but at the same time if we only have one or two we have to make sure we kill them off, said Vlasic.
Odds and ends: Colin White will likely replace Jim Vandermeer on the teams third defense pair, along with Jason Demers. Floridas roster features several former Sharks, including Marco Sturm, who was acquired from Vancouver on Oct. 23. He and Brian Campbell are the only ones expected in the lineup tonight, though, as Marcel Goc, Mikael Samuelsson and Matt Bradley are all hurt. Florida is still without winger Scottie Upshall (upper body). San Jose has won its last four home games against Florida, outscoring them 18-3 in the process.

Sharks rue 'key moments' as they are knocked out by Oilers

Sharks rue 'key moments' as they are knocked out by Oilers

SAN JOSE – The clock said there was seven minutes and 48 seconds remaining in the third period. It was frozen there for a bit after Patrick Marleau’s goal brought the Sharks back to within a single score of Edmonton.

Filled to capacity, the Shark Tank came to life, ravenous for the equalizer. The next several minutes offered a reminder of the team’s thrilling 2016 playoff run, when the Sharks finished just two wins away from a championship while taking their fans along for a ride they had never been on in a quarter-century.

But those seven minutes and 48 seconds quickly wound down, leaving the Sharks worlds away from what they did just a year ago. The Oilers held on for a 3-1 win, ending the Sharks’ season in a first round series that lasted six games.

Other than Game 4, a Sharks blowout victory, all the games were competitive.

“There were just a couple key moments in the series,” Joe Pavelski said.

In Game 6, the key moments that won the game for Edmonton came early in the second period. Justin Braun’s point shot was blocked leading to Leon Draisaitl’s goal to open the scoring, and Chris Tierney’s pass to Paul Martin at the point was just off the mark, allowing Anton Slepyshev to glide ahead untouched for another goal. The scores both came within the first two minutes of the middle frame, and were just 56 seconds apart.

That was probably poetic justice in that the Oilers were the much more aggressive and hungry team in the first period, they just weren't rewarded on the scoreboard.

Joe Thornton agreed with a suggestion that the Sharks were “a little bit sloppy” early, “but we got better. I thought we played a great second period and pushed in the third period. Just not enough time left on the clock.”

The Sharks did seem to get their game going just after Slepyshev’s score, but couldn’t solve Cam Talbot more than once. Pavelski nearly tied it with 3:45 to go, but his backhander from down low glanced off of both the crossbar and the post.

Key moments.

“It felt good coming off the stick, it really did,” Pavelski said of his chance. “It was there.”

Connor McDavid’s empty net goal with less than a second on the clock capped the scoring, sending the Oilers and former Sharks coach Todd McLellan on to the second round. 

Other than Game 4, which they dominated 7-0, the Sharks managed just seven goals in the other five games. Brent Burns failed to record a point in five of the six games, while Pavelski had just a single assist outside of Game 4.

The depth scorers also failed to come through, no surprise after the Sharks got little from them for much of the season.

“They defended well, Talbot played well. They were all close games,” Pete DeBoer said. “You’ve got to find a way to win 1-0, 2-1 in the playoffs. It’s not realistic you’re going to get three or four every night. They found a way to win more of the close games than we did.”

Burns said: “Series was pretty tight. I think it’s like Pavs said, it’s just little moments here and there. So much is luck, just puck luck, creating that luck. It’s a tight series, back and forth.”

The Sharks face an uncertain offseason, as there is little reason to believe their current roster, as constructed, will be able to compete with an Oilers team that has not only proven to be better now but is only going to improve. Whether Thornton and Marleau return remains an uncertainty, too.

“This is a big summer. We’ve got some guys that are up, and the expansion draft and whatnot,” Logan Couture said. 

“Every year I’ve been in this league, the team has never been the same the next year. There’s always been changes. Unfortunately, that’s the way that this league works. We’ll see what happens this summer, and come back hungrier next year.”

In the meantime, the Oilers will continue their push for a Stanley Cup while San Jose’s visit to the final round last year will only become more and more of a distant memory.

San Jose Sharks fans may have just witnessed the end of an era

San Jose Sharks fans may have just witnessed the end of an era

Melodrama demands that San Jose’s exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs be portrayed as the very likely end of the Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau Era.

It probably won’t work that way, and probably shouldn't as will be explained further down your reading, but when you get shoved out of the postseason in your own building, melancholy is the order of the day. Even if the melancholy isn’t for any player in particular, but for an entire era.

Nobody will blame Saturday’s 3-1 loss in Game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinal on bad luck (although Joe Pavelski going crossbar/post on the final power play of their season was close enough to it), or unjust officiating, or even lousy ice (though that was a fairly clear by-product for those who like their hockey a little less sticky). Edmonton took advantage of two critical Sharks errors 56 seconds apart in the second period, Oiler goaltender Cam Talbot cheated the gods multiple times when the Sharks weren’t vomiting up chances on their own, and young legs joined up with growing know-how to make this a just outcome.

But for Thornton and Marleau, a quick round of 30-on-1 interviews asking them if they thought their days in Finville Heights had finally come to an end were their mutual introduction to yet another unfulfilling offseason.

And a team whose core is among the league’s oldest was just exposed for that very flaw by a team that, in head coach Todd McLellan’s words, “Grew up, learned how to get into the playoffs, how to get a lead, how to play with it, and how to deal with a desperate team at the end of a game. Now we’ll see what they have to learn next.”

That learning will comes against the Anaheim Ducks, who are 15-0-3 in their last 18 games, including four straight against the Calgary Flames.

As for the rest of it, Edmonton earned its advancement without a big series, or even a single big game, from Connor McDavid. Rather, their difference makers were Talbot, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (whose work with Jordan Eberle and Milan Lucic against the Marleau-Thornton-Pavelski line was the defining matchup) Leon Draisaitl (after a rocky start), Oskar Klefbom (their best defenseman), Zack Kassian (who made the most of his 15 minutes of fame), and Drake Caggiula (whose promotion to the McDavid line at the expense of Patrick Maroon helped wake up Draisaitl).

Plus, McLellan finally got to deliver a rebuttal for his firing by the Sharks two years ago. He didn’t, of course, at least not where anyone could hear it, but the exploding fumigant of the 2015 season never sat right with him as the one who paid the full retail price. Now, with this result, he can let the NHL’s Stanley Cup media guide do the talking for him.

That, and having the team of the future, while San Jose is trying to sort out its past. This is a closing window, one which stayed open a very long time and actually pried itself back open a year ago for the run that took them to the Cup final, but it is now clear that they play at a pace the modern game has outrun. Thornton is still hugely important (he remained an impact player despite the leg injury that cost him Games 1 and 2), and there are no clear young replacements for the central group.

This is why all the melodramatic speculations about Thornton and Marleau in particular and perhaps the entire era ignore one central truth – there are not nearly enough replacements for a reboot, or even a course correction. They may be stuck as what they are – a group whose veterans are still their best players, playing a game that younger and faster players are likely to do better. The Pacific Division, being easily the thinnest of the four, may allow one more year of status quo, but while the day of reckoning has not yet arrived, the method is now clear.

And Edmonton, young, impetuous, sprightly and McLellanized Edmonton, has been the instrument of San Jose’s education.