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.