2010-11 NHL season preview: San Jose Sharks

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toddmclellansad.jpgLast season: (51-20-11, 113 points, 1st in Pacific Division,1st in Western Conference) The Sharks had another fantastic regular season. After fighting off the pesky Avalanche and the tired Red Wings in the playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks swept them away in the Western finals. It’s always embarrassing to lose a series 4-0, but the games against the eventual Cup champs were very competitive. In a way, though, that typified the Sharks fan experience; watch your team out-shoot and skate with their opponents only to watch them lose anyway. So, ultimately, it was a ‘good news/bad news’ season in San Jose.

Head coach: In some ways, Todd McLellan inherited a no-win (or only win if you capture a Cup) situation when the team parted ways with Ron Wilson. He hasn’t been able to get the team over the hump in some ways, but the Sharks play a very Red Wings-like style of puck possession, high-shot volume and face-off dominance. Who knows if that will ever win them a Cup, but it seems like the team is in good hands with McLellan.

Key departures: G Evgeni Nabokov, D Rob Blake, F Manny Malhotra, F Jed Ortmeyer. Nabokov is the biggest loss after 10 years as the Sharks’ franchise goalie. No doubt about it, the team’s new goalies are their most interesting storyline. Blake’s mixture of physical play and booming shot will be missed, but he was getting up there in years. Malhotra is a face-off wizard and will be missed in subtle ways.

niemiasashark.jpgKey arrivals: G Antti Niemi, G Antero Niittymaki, F Jamal Mayers. The Sharks exchanged one expensive Russian goalie for a Finnish pair that will cost 2/3 of the price. The catch is that it’s unclear what they’ll get from Niemi and Niittymaki after a decade of often great, yet occasionally infuriating, work from Nabokov. Mayers is a depth forward of questionable value.

Under pressure: Isn’t it always Joe Thornton? The world-class passer will always be under the microscope once the playoffs roll around, but this year is even more pressurized because Jumbo Joe might earn a Jumbo Deal. He’s an unrestricted free agent after the  season.

Protecting the house: The Sharks got an up-close-and-personal look at Niemi as he played his best hockey for the Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals and owns a Stanley Cup ring. Niemi will have plenty of motivation from within and also from San Jose’s bench as Niittymaki was actually the team’s first netminder addition. Two decent goalies don’t make one good one, though, so one of them will need to step up for San Jose to come out smelling like roses.

Losing out on free agent Willie Mitchell this summer probably downgrades their defense from very good to solid. They have one fantastic offensive defenseman (Dan Boyle), one rock solid stopper (Marc-Edouard Vlasic) and one heavy hitter (Doug Murray). The problem comes after those three, though. Jason Demers is offensively flashy but not quite ready yet, Niclas Wallin seems a bit overpaid for his value and Kent Huskins is, well, Kent Huskins. They’re not necessarily putting their new goalies in the best position to succeed with their solid (but not superlative) defense.

sharksbigline.jpgTop line we’d like to see: Dany Heatley-Thornton-Patrick Marleau. The line that often dominated the league last season is an amazing collection of talent. Heatley brings that single-minded scoring touch, Thornton can make millionaires out of the likes of former Shark Jonathan Cheechoo because of his passing ability and Marleau can do a little of everything.

Oh captain, my captain: With Rob Blake retired, the Sharks need to name a new captain. It would probably be awkward to hand the ‘C’ back to Patrick Marleau, so I’d name one-time Cup winner and dazzling talent Dan Boyle the captain. Joe Pavelski would be an interesting choice some day, but I’m not sure he’s ready for that just yet.

Street fighting man: The Sharks aren’t really a team that emphasizes fighting, but rugged winger Scott Nichol will occasionally throw some punches if called upon. They no longer have a designated clubber like Jody Shelley. Instead they focus on employing real hockey players.

Best-case scenario: After years of frustration, we find out that it was Nabokov’s fault after all (kidding). Niemi becomes a back-to-back Cup winner while Niittymaki provides useful sport (and valuable competition) as the 1b. Thornton gets whatever playoff monkeys remained off his back with a Conn Smythe-worthy performance, but Marleau gets the playoff MVP instead. The Sharks finally win that Cup and kill the choking jokes … for at least a few years.

Worst-case scenario: Niemi and Niittymaki fall apart behind a defense that is worse than expected. Not only do the L.A. Kings pass San Jose by, but the Coyotes do as well. The Sharks eek their way into the playoffs (sorry, I can’t imagine them missing the postseason) only to suffer from another Blackhawks sweep.

Keeping it real: The Sharks still host some of the best talent in the NHL, but they have a lot working against them. Not only do they need to adjust to a new goalie in net, they also travel at least 2,000 miles more than any other team in the league. So there are reasons to be negative, but let’s face it: they’re a regular-season beast year after year for a reason. They have four elite players and some really good pieces such as Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi. The Kings will nip at their heels, but San Jose wins the division again.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Sharks get a 5. Many will jeer at this since they’ve fallen short of a championship all these years, but their chances are just as strong as anyone else.

Rinne, Predators’ special teams have nightmare game in blowout loss

ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 15:  Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators in goal against the Anaheim Ducks in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Honda Center on April 15, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

As it turns out, the Anaheim Ducks didn’t really need Ryan Getzlaf on Wednesday night.

With their captain and leading scorer sidelined due to an upper body injury, the Ducks were still able to cruise to a convincing 6-1 win over the Nashville Predators thanks in large part to a five-goal second period that saw Pekka Rinne get chased from the game and Nashville’s special teams repeatedly get torched.

It was a night that saw Anaheim’s power play go 3-for-4 thanks to goals from Nick Ritchie, Jakob Silfverberg and Ryan Kesler, while the penalty killing unit added a pair of shorthanded goals via Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano.

Giving up three power play goals is bad enough, but when you give up multiple goals when you are on the man-advantage that is probably a pretty good sign that it is not going to be your night.

Keep in mind, the Predators only allowed a league-low two shorthanded goals during the entire 2015-16 season.

They matched that total in one night.

Along with the special teams units, it was also a tough night for Rinne, seeing his first action in a week, as his evening came to an end after giving up four goals on 17 shots in only 27 minutes of action.

He was replaced by backup Marek Mazanec who then proceeded to give up two goals on the nine shots he faced in relief.

Given the makeup of their roster with a top-tier defense and a couple of young cornerstone forwards up front, the Predators are supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender in the Western Conference this season. But the one big question mark coming into the season was whether or not they could get the necessary goaltending to help them get to that level. Rinne, at one time in his career one of the better goaltenders in the league, has seen his production decline in recent years and was not particularly good a year ago. He has now given up eight goals on 59 shots in his past two starts.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that even though it is not the start anybody in Nashville wanted (2-4-0 after the loss to the Ducks) it is still ridiculously early in the season. There is plenty of time to get this turned around, and there is too much talent on this team for it to not get turned around. But Wednesday’s game was certainly eye-opening in how poorly the entire team played against a team missing two of its best players (Getzlaf to injury, Hampus Lindholm to not yet having a contract).


Video: Cam Talbot was very angry with T.J. Oshie

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Cam Talbot had another strong game for the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday night by stopping 34 of the 35 Washington Capitals shots he faced in a 4-1 win, improving his season save percentage to a robust .927.

Along with backstopping the Oilers to their sixth win in seven games to open the season, the team’s best start since a guy by the name of Wayne Gretzky played for them, he was also involved in some rough stuff in the second period when he went old school on Capitals forward T.J. Oshie for charging into his crease and cross-checking him.

Talbot’s response (as seen in the video above) was an attempt to feed Oshie his blocker pad.

The end result of that exchange was Oshie getting a two-minute minor for cross-checking and Talbot getting a two-minute minor for roughing. The NHL’s roughing rule gives officials the opportunity to eject a goalkeeper if they feel there was an attempt to injure an opponent by punching them with their glove or blocker pad.

Obviously in this case the officials determined there was no such intent on Talbot’s part, so he remained in the game to help keep the Oilers’ surprising start rolling along.

The Oilers are off to their best start since the Gretzky era

EDMONTON, AB - OCTOBER 12:  Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates a goal against the Calgary Flames on October 12, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

The Edmonton Oilers just keep on winning.

Thanks to their 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night, the Oilers are now 6-1-0 through their first seven games, have the best record in the Western Conference, and the second best record in the NHL behind only the Montreal Canadiens.

To find the last time the Oilers won six of their first seven games, you have to go all the way back to the 1985-86 season when Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey still played for them and their dynasty was just starting to take shape.

Their best start since then was a 5-1-1 start during the 2000-01 season.

The recipe on Wednesday was similar to the one we have seen from the Oilers in every game this season. Cam Talbot gave them capable goaltending in net, while Connor McDavid dominated at times and added a couple of more points.

With his two assists in the win, including an incredible display of speed to set up Patrick Maroon‘s goal early in the third period, the second-year superstar is back in sole possession of the NHL’s scoring lead with 11 points, moving one point ahead of Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews.

Benoit Pouliot also scored a pair of goals on Wednesday giving him four on the year, while Milan Lucic added his third goal of the season.

Alex Ovechkin scored the lone Capitals goal, extending his current goal-scoring streak to four.

The big question now is whether or not the Oilers can sustain this and are for real. Their schedule to this point hasn’t been too daunting based on last year’s standings, but of the two playoff teams from a year ago that they have faced (St. Louis and Washington) they have beaten by a combined score of 7-2.

They have some real talent up front, and if Talbot can continue to give them strong goaltending that is going to be a pleasant change from what they have had in recent years.

The biggest issue is whether or not the defense can hold up over the course of the season because they do give up a ton of shots and have been on the wrong end of the shot charts more often than not so far. That is not usually a great sign for future performance. But whether they maintain this early season success or start to regress back toward where they were expected to be, two things are very clear early on: They do look like a much improved hockey team, and they are really fun to watch.

McDavid has a lot to do with both improvements.

Rangers storm back, crush Bruins


For the first half of Wednesday’s game in New York, everything was going pretty great for the Boston Bruins.

They not only had a two-goal lead, but rookie goalie Zane McIntyre was playing extremely well in his first NHL start as he filled in for injured veterans Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin.

And then everything kind of fell apart for him and the Bruins defense.

The Rangers stormed back for five consecutive goals on their way to a 5-2 win, handing the Bruins their fourth loss in seven games to start the season, and their second lopsided loss in a row.

This game was always going to be a struggle for Boston given the injury situation both in goal and up front (David Backes was also sidelined for this game) and the fact it was their second game in as many days.

But even though he gave up five goals on 29 shots, including one on a Kevin Hayes bank-shot from below the goal line, it is tough to put too much of this on the rookie McIntyre.

This loss was a total team effort.

The Bruins got into penalty trouble in the second period and the defense in front of their rookie was simply not good enough, something that is going to continue to be an issue for the rest of the season until the front office addresses the personnel.

That defense turned out to be a brutal matchup against a Rangers team that has some great forward depth and the floodgates finally started to open for them in the second half of the game.

Rick Nash opened the scoring for New York with a power play goal midway through the second period, and then added an assist later in the game to help put it out of reach when he set up rookie forward Jimmy Vesey for his fourth goal of the season.

Brandon Pirri, one of the many bargain free agent additions the Rangers made to their forward group over the summer, also added a pair of goals including the game-winner in the second period to break the 2-2 tie.

The Bruins have now lost three games in a row and have been outscored by a 15-4 margin.