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.

Brooks Orpik leaves Game 7 after Paquette’s hit from behind

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While the Washington Capitals built up a lead in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday, they lost two players before the end of the second period.

First, Devante Smith-Pelly blocked a Ryan McDonagh shot with the back of his neck in the first period. After returning to the game, he would leave the Capitals’ bench late in the second period.

Joining him would be Orpik, who took a big hit from behind along the boards from Lightning forward Cedric Paquette. As Orpik was being tended to, the officials got together and determined that there would no penalty on the play, which is an odd decision.

As Orpik goes to get the puck in the corner, he does peek over his shoulder and sees Paquette a ways away, but he doesn’t change his body position as Paquette drills him. He’s probably not expecting to get hit even with the Lightning forward in the area. That would have easily been at least a major, maybe even a game misconduct (Remember Steve Bernier?).

The Capitals would respond to the hit two minutes later. On the scoreboard. Andre Burakovsky potted his second goal of the night to give Washington a commanding 3-0 lead heading into the third period.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Goal, fight, ripped jersey highlight wild first period in Game 7

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So, Alex Ovechkin isn’t a big game player, you say?

What say you, then, about Ovi’s goal 62 seconds into Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday?

Ovechkin called Game 7 the biggest game for himself, the team and the Capitals organization on Tuesday and he wasted no time putting an early stamp on it.

His shot was vintage Ovi, just slightly higher in his “office” than usual. But the result was the same: a seeing-eye clapper that sailed past Andrei Vasilevkiy for a 1-0 lead.

Ovi’s goal kicked off a wild first period.

Game 6 was a brilliant hockey game, and if we got even half that energy in Game 7, it was always going to be a doozy.

Devante Smith-Pelly, who was the hero in Game 6, made quite the sacrifice after getting drilled in the head with slapshot off the stick of Ryan McDonagh. Smith-Pelly remained down before getting helped off the ice and down the tunnel to the room.

He returned a short time later.

The period also featured a spirited scrap between Tom Wilson and Braydon Coburn. The two exchanged pleasantries earlier in the period in a scuffle after the whistle, where Coburn ripped off Wilson’s helmet and both were handed penalties.

When their time in the sin bin ran out, each exited the penalty box and immediately tried to knock each other’s head off.

Wilson and Coburn were involved in much of the fun in the first.

Wilson’s hit on Chris Kunitz helped set up the rush that led to Ovechkin’s goal.

Coburn, meanwhile, was trying to collect all the Capitals gear he could in the period. After ripping off Wilson’s helmet, he then stole Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s jersey right off his back in the same scuffle.

MORE:
• Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
• Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Capitals, Lightning meet in Game 7

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Game 7: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (Series tied 3-3)
NBCSN
Call: Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
• Stream here
Series preview
Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team

Braden Holtby dominated when the Capitals needed him most
Lightning don’t expect Kucherov to be ‘invisible’ in Game 7
Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
Barry Trotz takes his turn at the Capitals’ hot lap ahead of Game 7
Ovechkin, Capitals prepare for ‘biggest game of life’
Game 7 history for Ovechkin’s Capitals, Stamkos’ Lightning
•  What the Capitals mean to the D.C. community

MORE:
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Ovechkin, Capitals prepare for ‘biggest game of life’

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is closer than ever to playing for the Stanley Cup, and he’s determined to make the most of the opportunity.

”I’ve never been in this position before,” he said Tuesday, looking ahead to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The winner Wednesday night earns a berth in the Stanley Cup Final opposite the Vegas Golden Knights, who will try for hockey’s biggest prize in their inaugural season.

Ovechkin and the Caps are hoping to shed a label as playoff underachievers, a franchise that dazzles during the regular season only to disappoint at the most important time of the year.

”I’m excited. We’re all excited. … We all want to be in this position and move forward,” said Ovechkin, who is playing in the conference final for the first time during his prolific 13-year career.

”(Wednesday night) is probably biggest game in my life, this team, organization probably. … We still haven’t reached our goal. Tomorrow is going to be a huge step forward.”

Not if the Lightning have their way.

Tampa Bay is playing Game 7 in the conference final for the third time in four years. It beat the New York Rangers on the road to advance to the 2015 Cup Final, but fell short the following year against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

”Experience is always a good thing, but it’s nothing I’m going to sit and lean on,” said Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman, who is 7-1 in Game 7s during his career. ”It’s about doing your job at the highest level you possibly can.”

Washington forced Wednesday’s winner-take-all matchup with a dominating 3-0 victory in Game 6.

In a series where home ice has not been a clear advantage, the Lightning are hoping it provides an edge in Game 7.

Washington won Games 1 and 2 in Tampa, then dropped the next two at home. The Capitals are 7-2 on the road this postseason.

”When you get this deep into a series, everyone knows each other by heart. Now it really comes down to a little bit of will. You have to will yourself for this moment,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

”I do like the fact there will be 19,000 people helping us, to will us to victory. I want the guys to enjoy the game. It will be a phenomenal experience. … You just have to remember, don’t let the game get bigger than it really is. Go out there, execute, leave everything out there and we’ll see what happens.”

This will be Washington’s 11th Game 7 since the start of the 2008 playoffs, most among all NHL teams in that span. None of them, however, have been for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said after Monday night’s win in Washington that there’s no other team he has coached that he would rather lead into a seventh game.

”We just keep taking whatever challenge is thrown at us and build off it. This group doesn’t waver. It has a spirit about it, a strong spirit,” he said.

”This team has done a lot of special things this year, it’s grown, it continues to do that,” Trotz added. ”What an opportunity going into Tampa. … We’ll see if we can earn the right to keep playing.”

And while that undoubtedly would be a major breakthrough for Ovechkin, Trotz reiterated the Capitals all have a lot invested.

”The opportunity is not only for Alex, but for everybody,” he said. ”Everybody that gets a chance to be in a Game 7, which will allow you to go to the finals. It’s exciting, it’s fun.”

More AP hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey