In the Crease: From 'cute' back to 'shoot'
SAN JOSE -- It’s as tough a stretch on the calendar as the Sharks will see this season.
On Wednesday night, San Jose will kick off three games in four nights against rival teams that – along with the Sharks – are contenders for the top spot in the Western Conference. It begins with the two clubs that have ended the Sharks’ past two seasons in Los Angeles and St. Louis on Friday, and concludes with the first of five matchups with the Pacific Division-leading Anaheim Ducks on Saturday.
Fortunately for the Sharks, it’s a pretty good time to oppose three of the NHL’s big boys. Key difference-maker Brent Burns was welcomed back into the lineup two games ago, and the Sharks have had three full days to both catch their breath and practice since Saturday’s unconvincing 2-1 win over the New Jersey Devils.
“We’ve had an opportunity to rest, we’re as healthy as we can be right now, and there [are] no excuses," Todd McLellan said on Wednesday morning. "We got a chance to practice and polish our game up, and these three games, especially tonight starting with LA, will be a real good test of us both physically and mentally.”
Tommy Wingels said: “I think it’s a good test for us. We’ve got most of our pieces back. From the team that we had at the start of the year, this is the majority.”
The Sharks and Kings are currently tied in the Pacific Division with 35 points, although San Jose has played two fewer games. The 17-3-3 St. Louis Blues lead the NHL with an .804 winning percentage, while Anaheim sits atop the Pacific with 37 points. The Ducks have played four more games than the Sharks.
Every Sharks player who spoke with the media Friday morning seemed to be aware of just who is coming to town in the final three games of what is a season-long five-game homestand. Still, according to Wingels, it’s difficult to look at the three games as a whole. Each match is a separate entity.
“We’re well rested for this homestand and these three games, but you invest so much into each individual game, it’s tough to look ahead,” Wingels said. “You put it all on the line each game. Our focus is tonight on the LA Kings, and once that 60 minutes is over with, we’ll move on to the next one.”
Along with rest, the Sharks hope that they’ve polished up some lackluster special teams play of late with a pair of practices. On Monday they worked on the penalty kill, and on Tuesday it was the power play getting extra attention. The Sharks are 1-for-13 on the power play in the last four games, including 11 straight missed opportunities, and have allowed one power play goal in four of the last six games.
Sharks-Kings games are often tight, and that includes a 4-3 overtime win by Los Angeles at the Staples Center on Oct. 30. Special teams could play a huge role, of course.
“We’ve had time to work on some our special teams these last couple days, which we felt can be improved on. We’ll be looking to showcase that tonight,” Wingels said.
The Sharks will also try and utilize home ice. San Jose is 7-1-2 at SAP Center this season, has won eight straight over Los Angeles at home including playoffs, and is 24-3-7 in the last two seasons here.
They are 2-0 on the homestand, including a 5-1 win over Tampa Bay last Thursday to go with Saturday’s defeat of the Devils. The next three games will be much tougher.
“You’re got to face them at some point. … We’re at home, which has been good to us in the past,” Boyle said.
“These teams are obviously at the top of the conference and league for a certain reason. They all play a very similar style. All the teams are big, and try to wear you down, which is what we try to do to other teams.”
Having a healthy, energetic group should be beneficial.
“Probably, and hopefully, a good time,” Boyle said.