2011-2012 season preview: San Jose Sharks

2010-2011 record: 48-25-9, 105 points; 1st in Pacific, 2nd in West

Playoffs: Defeated Los Angeles 4-2 in Western quarterfinals, defeated Detroit 4-3 in Western semifinals, lost to Vancouver 4-1 in Western finals

Even though the Sharks are the only team to make the conference finals over the last two seasons, some people continue to hold onto the notion that they choke in the playoffs. Not anymore. The past two seasons, the Sharks have proven throughout the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs that they’re one of the elite teams in the league. Two years ago they fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and last year they lost to the stacked Vancouver Canucks. Now that they’ve proven they’re among the league’s elite, will they be able to take the next step?

Offense

The Sharks have high-end scoring forwards that most teams would kill to have in their lineup. Joe Thornton is still one of the premier playmakers in the league, Patrick Marleau can sleepwalk through a season and score 30-plus points and newcomer Martin Havlat should be able to reap the benefits of playing next to some highly-skilled forwards. Down the middle, the Sharks have the likes of Calder Trophy finalist Logan Couture, underrated two-way veteran Michal Handzus, and Andrew Desjardins — not to mention guys like Torre Mitchell and Joe Pavelski who broke into the league as centermen. Wingers like Ryane Clowe and Jamie McGinn could mix in the needed grit to give the Sharks everything they could ever want up front.

Defense

The Sharks made a huge blockbuster trade on draft day to add a little more star power to their blue line. By trading away Devin Setoguchi, highly-touted prospect Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick, San Jose was able to land Minnesota defenseman Brent Burns (then they subsequently signed him to a multi-year contract extension). Burns will join Dan Boyle as the offensive catalysts from the blue line. Douglas Murray has evolved into a top-flight shutdown defenseman and Marc-Edouard Vlasic has proven that he’s a good stay-at-home defenseman as well. All in all, the Sharks have a solid defense that will get more respect with Burns’ arrival.

Goalies

The Sharks were ready to go into the season with Antero Niittymaki as the No. 1 last season until Antti Niemi suddenly became available. Now, there’s no question that this is Niemi’s job. He showed with the Blackhawks that he can steal games in the playoffs and is capable of leading his team to a Stanley Cup. It’s probably the quality that most sold the Sharks organization on the Finnish goaltender in the first place. Niemi will have to be good early on in the season because Niittymaki will be out 2-3 months after hip surgery. Sharks fans shouldn’t worry — Niemi proved in the second half of last season that he thrives under pressure and a heavy workload.

Coaching

All Todd McLellan has done since taking over in San Jose three years ago is win three Pacific crowns, averaged 112 points per season and made back-to-back appearances in the Western Conference finals. He’s managed to combine the high-skilled stars perfectly with the heart-and-soul two-way players. He has guys like Thornton, Couture and Marleau buying into a two-way game as well.

Breakout candidate

Is it really possible for a guy like Havlat to be considered a breakout player? Consider this: after a pair of relatively healthy seasons in Minnesota, he could be playing on a line with Thornton and Marleau. If you wonder what that can do for a guy’s statistics, just ask former linemates like Setoguchi or Jonathan Cheechoo. The last time Havlat played on a lineup with this much talent, he scored 29 goals and 77 points with Chicago. If he can stay healthy, Havlat could a sniper on one of the most dangerous lines in all of hockey.

Best-case scenario

Expectations are high in San Jose. The Sharks added an All-Star defenseman in Burns to their blue line who will be able to create offense on the power play and reduce the workload for Boyle. They added an All-Star sniper in Havlat to the right wing who will bring more speed and a better locker room presence than the departed Dany Heatley. Handzus can still kill penalties with the best of them — there’s no reason that fans in San Jose should shoot any lower than a Stanley Cup.

Reality

The Sharks will be in a dogfight for the Pacific title with much-improved Los Angeles. San Jose has proven over the last few seasons that it has very few weaknesses and only the elite teams can exploit those flaws. As usual, the Sharks will hit the 100 point mark and should be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time. We think they’ll fall just short of the Kings in the standings — but will still earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Rangers’ losing streak continues with OT defeat vs. Penguins

Getty
1 Comment

The New York Rangers needed a win.

Their slow start is among the surprises early this season, as the Rangers have now lost four in a row with only one win to their record through seven games so far. They’ve had trouble scoring. Mistakes at inopportune moments have been costly.

Facing the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, the Rangers had a brutal start and a brutal finish in a 5-4 overtime loss to their Metropolitan Division foes.

Phil Kessel scored just 43 seconds into the game, utilizing that dangerous wrist shot off the rush to beat Henrik Lundqvist top corner. By the end of one period, it was 2-0 Pittsburgh.

Despite a second-period comeback, with three goals in under three minutes, and taking the lead in the third period, the Rangers couldn’t hang on and the Penguins won in overtime.

Sidney Crosby scored a crafty tying goal with only 56 seconds remaining in regulation, waiting for the Rangers defender to touch the puck negating what would’ve likely been called a hand pass on Pittsburgh before firing a no-look backhander toward the net from behind the red line. The puck deflected in off Lundqvist, helping send this one to overtime.

Evgeni Malkin capped off a four-point night with the overtime winner.

“Right now it’s a little bit challenging as far as putting a whole game together for us,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault following the game. “But this group is very accountable … and I’m very confident that if we keep doing a lot of the things we’re doing right now, we’re going to be on the right track.”

A trio of Rangers recorded their first goals of the season. That included David Desharnais, Michael Grabner and Pavel Buchnevich, although the latter played less than 10 minutes on Tuesday, despite nearly four minutes in power play time, and of course the goal.

The Rangers host the New York Islanders on Thursday. Another loss, and one has to wonder how hot the seat may be getting under Vigneault.

————

Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Kucherov joins elite company with hot start, but Devils defeat Bolts

Leave a comment

The Nikita Kucherov Show continues.

The Tampa Bay Lightning star forward maintained his torrid pace Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils, scoring his eighth goal of the season — in just his seventh game.

The Bolts took the lead in the second period on goals from Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, but couldn’t hang on and ultimately lost to the Devils (how about this start for New Jersey?) by a score of 5-4 in the shootout.

There is no denying, however, that this has been a special start for the 24-year-old Kucherov and he has joined elite company as a result.

That’s a perfect shot on Cory Schneider.

Read more: Kucherov’s star continues to rise

Kucherov also added an assist on Vladislav Namestnikov‘s beautiful first-period goal. The Devils, though, completed the comeback to continue their strong start to the season, both in wins and goals for. They entered Tuesday’s contest among the league leaders in scoring and surged out to an early lead following a wild five-goal first period.

Drew Stafford opened the scoring for New Jersey and then tied it late in the third period. Kyle Palmieri scored the winner in the shootout.

————

Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

WATCH LIVE: Canadiens at Sharks

Getty
Leave a comment

It’s been a difficult start to the season for both the San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens, however both clubs have an opportunity to change that beginning tonight.

The Sharks host the Habs and you can catch the action on NBCSN (10:30 p.m. ET) or via the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Here are some links to check out for tonight’s game:

Rangers, Sharks need to wake up from early slumps

Canadiens looking to spark, not ‘bury’ Alex Galchenyuk after move to fourth line

It’s early but the Habs are struggling to find the back of the net

————

Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Video: Nolan Patrick’s sweet drop pass sets up Dale Weise

Getty
2 Comments

That was quite the second period for the Philadelphia Flyers against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.

The Flyers scored four straight goals to take a commanding lead, but Nolan Patrick put the exclamation point on the frenzied frame with this sweet drop pass to set up Dale Weise for Philadelphia’s fourth goal.

That’s the second assist and third point of the season for the 19-year-old Patrick.

————

Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS: