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.

Oilers lament plenty of ‘individual miscues’ in loss to Ducks

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The Anaheim Ducks are apparently heading out of town, reportedly flying a short distance west to Kelowna, B.C., and leaving behind the playoff-crazed city of Edmonton until the series resumes for Game 4.

On the other hand, the Edmonton Oilers are left to contemplate what went wrong in a 6-3 loss to the Ducks on Sunday, as Anaheim got back in the series but still trails 2-1.

From the 25-second mark of the first period, it seemed the Oilers were on a losing path in this one after Rickard Rakell opened the scoring.

Edmonton did come back, but then quickly gave the game right back to the Ducks, who scored three unanswered goals and had completely taken the crowd in Edmonton out of it in the third period. They did a pretty good job of silencing the fans in Edmonton right away, with three goals before the game was 12 minutes old.

“We worked our way back in, but it wasn’t our night,” said Oilers coach Todd McLellan. “We weren’t sharp enough. Individual miscues were plenty. They were all over the board. You couldn’t even shorten the bench to find two or three lines. There were that many who were erring on a consistent basis.”

The Oilers were able to escape Game 2 with a victory — and Anaheim with a 2-0 series lead — thanks largely to the play of goalie Cam Talbot, but the Ducks solved him Sunday, scoring six times on just 28 shots.

The Oilers may have sparked a brief comeback, but there was really no sugar-coating this one, especially after Anaheim regained the lead and then badly outplayed the hosts in the third period — when the Oilers needed to push for the equalizer.

 

Ducks light up Cam Talbot to defeat Oilers

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Chris Wagner‘s first career playoff goal was the turning point in Game 3 for the Anaheim Ducks, as they defeated the Edmonton Oilers 6-3 to get their first win of this series.

Connor McDavid had just scored (another) spectacular goal, this one to get the Oilers back on even terms at three goals apiece after they fell behind 3-0 in the opening period. The orange crush at Rogers Place was, naturally, in a frenzy at the time.

The tide of this game had suddenly turned in favor of the home team, which had a 2-0 series lead.

As suddenly as the Oilers had come back to tie the game, the Ducks regained the lead. Wagner fired the puck from the side boards toward Cam Talbot, who misplayed the puck off his right arm and into the net.

That was only one part of a difficult night for Talbot, who allowed six goals on 28 shots. Anaheim had built up a three-goal lead less than 12 minutes in and needed only six shots to do so.

Talk about a quick turn of events. Talbot was sensational in Game 2, backstopping the Oilers to another road win with a 39-save performance.Edmonton’s troubles started early in Game 3. Rickard Rakell scored just 25 seconds in on a breakaway and the Ducks were rolling from there.

Wagner’s goal came just 48 seconds after McDavid tied the game. Jakob Silfverberg and Ryan Kesler increased the Anaheim lead in the third period.

This time, there was no inspired comeback from the Oilers.

While the Ducks found their scoring touch, they also received a 24-save performance from John Gibson. He was at his best in the second period, making a couple of key saves, including a great shoulder stop off a three-on-one rush.

Game 4 goes Wednesday in Edmonton.

Video: Connor McDavid puts on a show with this spectacular goal

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Connor McDavid has his first goal of this series against the Anaheim Ducks — and it was a beauty.

(Another spectacular McDavid goal? Get out!)

With one assist so far in this series, McDavid brought the crowd in Edmonton to its feet with a quick stop and cut back to his left against Sami Vatanen, followed immediately with a perfect wrist shot top corner on John Gibson.

“McWow!” is right.

The Oilers fell behind 3-0 in the first period, but that goal from McDavid tied the game before the midway point of the second period.

The celebration didn’t last long.

Just 48 seconds later, Chris Wagner‘s shot from the side boards, a rather harmless looking attempt, was misplayed by Cam Talbot to put Anaheim back in front by a score of 4-3. That’s the score heading into the third period.

‘We weren’t even competitive’ — Blues coach hints at lineup changes for Game 4

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Lineup adjustments can be a common occurrence in the playoffs. Based on his comments Sunday, St. Louis Blues coach Mike Yeo is seriously looking to make some changes for Game 4.

The Blues trail the Nashville Predators 2-1 in the series, following a disappointing 3-1 loss on Sunday.

Nashville dominated puck possession for long stretches, putting this one away on a goal from Roman Josi after just such a shift — caused by a Blues turnover in the defensive end — late in the third period.

Yeo praised the Predators for the way they checked the Blues, but was straight to the point with his assessment of his team’s performance.

“I mean, we scored one goal tonight. Fact of the matter is, for a large part of the game, we weren’t even competitive,” he told reporters.

“We obviously have to be way better. We have to make a couple of changes, personnel-wise, for the next game and look at the tape and see what we can do … a little bit better than tonight because it wasn’t good enough.”

Despite getting outplayed, the Blues were, for much of the second half of the game, one shot away from the tying goal. But hopes of a possible comeback were nullified after a shift of about 1:10 of furious Nashville possession in the offensive zone capped off by the Josi blast.

Blues defensemen Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko — who both had a miserable day in terms of puck possession — had been stuck on the ice for almost two minutes before Josi scored, per NHL.com.

That’s one glaring example.

“The way we played in our [defensive zone] matched the way that we executed, matched the way that we competed all over the ice,” said Yeo.

“We were waiting to see what they were going to do. We were reacting to that. So we’ve got to initiate much better.”