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Burns, Karlsson leading Sharks’ resurgence

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The San Jose Sharks are starting to look like the Stanley Cup contender we thought they would be at the start of the season.

It is their two-headed monster of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on defense that is driving them back to that level.

The Sharks enter Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Kings (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) having collected a point in 13 of their past 16 games (with 11 of those games being wins) to keep pace in the suddenly tight Pacific Division race with the Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights.

This is the type of performance we expected to see from the Sharks this season after adding Karlsson to a blue line that already boasted Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, and Brendan Dillon.

On paper, it is one of the best defensive groups in the league, and the addition of Karlsson gave them a collection of Norris Trophy caliber players that few teams in recent league history have ever had. The few teams that have had that type of star-power on their blue line have typically gone very far in the playoffs and made serious runs at the Stanley Cup (if not actually winning it).

Over the past month Karlsson and Burns have been playing at a level that makes the Sharks look like a serious threat to do just that.

[Related: Timo Meier power Sharks during breakout season]

Since Dec. 1 Burns and Karlsson are first and second in the league in scoring among defensemen with 21 and 20 points respectively, while Karlsson has recorded at least one point in 13 of his 15 games during that stretch. That includes his current 12-game point streak.

Burns, meanwhile, has been especially hot over the past two weeks with 12 points in his past five games, including at least two in each of the past four games.

For the season as a whole, both players have been among the NHL’s elite when it comes to driving possession and scoring chances and now the actual production is starting to catch up to really highlight that dominance.

It could not be happening at a better time for the Sharks given the state of the rest of their blue line.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Vlasic has had a down year from his usual standard. Making matters worse, he and Braun are both currently sidelined due to injury. Those two injuries have not only left them short on defensive depth (their third pairing on Monday is expected to be Jacob Middleton and Tim Heed) but has forced Karlsson and Burns to take on major minutes, with both logging more than 29 minutes in each of the past two games.

They have been great in those minutes.

This is what is going to make the Sharks such a tough out in the playoffs. They not only have two Norris Trophy winning defenders on their blue line (Karlsson and Burns have combined to win three, and be finalists three other times), they have a third defender in Vlasic that, when he is at his best, is a legit top-pairing defender in the NHL. When you can send a No. 1 defensemen over the boards at literally any point during a game that is a huge advantage to have in a short series, especially when one of them (Karlsson) has shown the ability to log huge minutes and carry a team on his back deep into the postseason. Given the talent he has around him on this team he won’t have to do it all on his own.

The wild card for this team is going to be getting adequate goaltending. They have managed to stay in the race for the top spot in the Pacific Division despite having some of the worst goaltending in the league with Martin Jones and Aaron Dell both checking in with save percentages under .900 for the season.

Even during this recent stretch where the Sharks have piled up wins, neither one has played at even a league average level. That, more than anything, has taken away from just how good this Sharks team (and their top defenders) can be.

If they can figure out a way to get that position settled, whether it be Jones returning to form or an in-season trade to upgrade the position in the short-term, this could be a fierce team to have to deal within the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs with that type of impact talent on defense.

More: Sharks on the rise in this week’s PHT Power Rankings

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Sharks visit Avalanche on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Sharks and Avalanche meet for the first time this season in a matchup of teams that would each be in the playoffs if the season ended today but enter the new year on very different paths. San Jose won nine of 15 games in December (9-4-2) including a 7-2-2 stretch in its last 11. Colorado, on the other hand, is mired in a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) and has lost nine of its last 11 games (2-6-3).

San Jose has been streaky over the last five weeks or so, losing four straight at the end of November into December followed by winning seven of eight and then losing three straight prior to Christmas before winning two in-a-row ahead of Monday’s loss.

Sharks captain Joe Pavelski leads the Sharks with 23 goals. The 34-year-old finished with 22 goals last season in a full 82 games. Pavelski picked a good time to be on a career pace (on track for 46 goals – career high is 41 from 2013-14), since he will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

The Avs are led by their trio – what was known as the MGM line – of Landeskog, last year’s Hart Trophy runner-up in MacKinnon and rising star Rantanen. Like the team, the three of them have come a long way since Colorado’s disastrous 2016-17 season when they finished last in the NHL.

Rantanen ranks second in the NHL in points and MacKinnon sits third. Not since Evgeni Malkin (1st) and Sidney Crosby (3rd) in 2008-09 has a pair of teammates finished in the top three in scoring in the same season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: San Jose Sharks at Colorado Avalanche
Where: Pepsi Center
When: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sharks-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SHARKS
Lukas RadilLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Marcus SorensenJoe Thornton – Joe Pavelski
Evander KaneTomas HertlJoonas Donskoi
Kevin LabancBarclay GoodrowMelker Karlsson

Marc-Edouard VlasicJustin Braun
Joakim RyanBrent Burns
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson

Starting goalie: Martin Jones

AVALANCHE
Tyson JostNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen
Gabriel LandeskogAlex KerfootJ.T. Compher
Matt NietoCarl SoderbergMatt Calvert
Gabriel Bourque – Sheldon Dries – Logan O’Connor

Sam GirardErik Johnson
Ian ColeTyson Barrie
Patrik Nemeth – Ryan Graves

Starting goaliePhilipp Grubauer

John Forslund (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Sharks-Avalanche from Pepsi Center.

WATCH LIVE: Sharks host Kings on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday afternoon’s matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks with coverage beginning at 4 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This is the second of four meetings between the two clubs this season, with San Hose edging out the Kings 3-2 in overtime on Oct. 5 with Kevin Labanc‘s winner.

The visiting Kings are coming off a convincing 4-1 win against the Western Conference-leading Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, and will look to build off their solid effort in that game. The Kings rank last in goals per game at 2.23, 28th on the power play at 13.9% and 29th on the penalty kill at 74.8%.

Interestingly enough, the Sharks lost 5-3 to the Jets their last time out on Thursday, ending a five-game winning streak. The Sharks have still enjoyed a solid December month, going 7-3-0 so far.

The Sharks sit second in the Pacific, four points behind the Calgary Flames. Joe Pavelski leads the Sharks with 22 goals this season, matching his total through 81 games last year. He’s on pace for 50 and is tied for the seventh most goals (306) since the start of the 2008-09 season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 4 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Los Angeles Kings at San Jose Sharks
Where: SAP Center
When: Saturday, Dec. 22, 4 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Kings-Sharks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

KINGS

Alex IafalloAnze KopitarDustin Brown
Adrian KempeJeff CarterTyler Toffoli
Brendan LeipsicNate ThompsonIlya Kovalchuk
Austin WagnerMichael AmadioMatt Luff

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty
Jake MuzzinSean Walker
Daniel BrickleyOscar Fantenberg

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick

SHARKS

Evander Kane – Joe Pavelski – Joonas Donskoi
Tomas HertlLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Marcus SorensenJoe Thornton – Kevin Labanc
Lukas RadilBarclay GoodrowMelker Karlsson

Radim SimekBrent Burns
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson
Marc-Edouard VlasicJustin Braun

Starting goalie: Martin Jones

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Unlikely fight: Bobby Ryan vs. Kyle Turris

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File this Monday fight under “unexpected,” as Nashville Predators center Kyle Turris dropped the gloves with Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators.

Turris was once Ryan’s teammate with the Sens, but it’s unclear if that had anything to do with it. Either way, when you consider the players involved, this was a fairly passionate bout.

It looked like Ryan got the best of Turris, at one point seemingly leaving Turris dazed.

Via Hockey Fights, it’s been quite a while for Ryan, in particular, as his last fight happened against Kris Russell in March of the 2013-14 season.

Turris, meanwhile, has seen quite a remarkable array of opponents, ranging from Tanner Glass to Marc-Edouard Vlasic, with current teammate P.K. Subban also included.

After falling behind 3-0, the Predators were able to secure a standings point by sending the game to OT at 3-3. The Senators got the last laugh, however, as Thomas Chabot scored this beautiful overtime game-winner:

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The education of Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois

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As only John Tortorella can do, in the span of 20 seconds before a late November game he went from saying Pierre-Luc Dubois’ game against the Toronto Maple Leafs “sucked” to then describing him as arguably the team’s most complete player this season.

That kind of criticism comes with the territory for a young player who plays under an old-school coach like Tortorella. It’s a young players’ NHL and the mistakes will be there, but for the 20-year-old Dubois, he’s turned himself into a reliable top-line center for the Columbus Blue Jackets after being thrust into the role unexpectedly.

When Tortorella and his coaching staff decided to move Dubois, then only 20 games into his rookie season, up to the No. 1  center position a year ago, it was because the team needed help in that spot. They were worried at first handing such an inexperienced player that kind of responsibility, but he found his footing and established himself in that job.

“Quite honestly, he made the coaches look like fools overthinking that because he took the responsibility, thrived in it and keeps growing as a player,” Tortorella said.

It helps putting Dubois between veteran producers in Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. The line has played 586:24 even strength minutes together since last season, helping drive possession (54.17 percent Corsi) and creating 39 goals together, per Natural Stat Trick.

“They’re two real good players. As a line we play well together,” Dubois told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “We all have a different style of play that complements the other ones really well.”

Size and strength helps accelerate the development process in order to become a top-flight NHL centerman. After getting that first experience as a No. 1 center last season, Dubois knew he had to get stronger in order to help win face-offs, drive to the net and win those one-on-one battles, so that became his focus over the summer. Just peeking at his Instagram page and you’ll see the short videos of his off-season workouts, adding weight and getting up to 207 lbs. on his 6-foot-4 frame.

In this era of the NHL where small and speedy is succeeding, bigger players have to adjust in order to survive. It took Dubois nearly a quarter of last year to figure out how to use his size to his advantage after making the transition from junior hockey.

“I got my first goal in my first game and then I scored [again] in my 16th game, so it took me a long time to figure out what I could and couldn’t do,” he said. “Even today, I’m still figuring [things] out. I’m stronger than last year, so I’m still figuring some stuff out like puck protection.”

Those abilities were on display during the build-up to his goal Saturday night against the New York Islanders:

Representing Canada at the IIHF World Championship in Denmark last spring afforded Dubois the opportunity to further his education. Coming off a 20-goal, 48-point season, he discussed face-offs with Ryan O’Reilly, who’s won the tenth-most draws (6,621) since entering the NHL in 2009-10 at a 55.3 percent success rate. He was also able to get some tips for playing in the offensive zone from Connor McDavid, who knows a thing or two about succeeding in that area of the ice. 

The entire experience allowed him to watch the habits of plenty of veterans like O’Reilly, McDavid, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Kyle Turris, and Josh Bailey. The faceoff talk is slowly paying off as Dubois’ success in the dot is up to 44.6 percent from 43.8 percent last season. Through 27 games he already has 13 goals and recorded 25 points in nearly two extra minutes of ice time per night. There’s still work to be done, but the strides that have been taken have impressed everyone around the Blue Jackets.

“His ability to pick up things and not feel the added pressures as a young player and get nervous about it, he’s uncanny that way,” said Tortorella. “He accepts it. He wants more. It’s a really good thing for us right now with Luc, and I can see it getting better as we keep on pushing forward.”

Dubois admits that it took him a month into last season to really get going. He wanted a better start for the 2018-19 season but it took him a handful of games to “get the right mindset going.” He says his game preparation has improved and his practices have gotten better.

“It’s not that I wasn’t working hard, I just wasn’t working the proper way,” he said. “Now the guys and the staff here has helped me a lot to refocus.”

As the Blue Jackets approach a summer where they could lose two franchise players in Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, Dubois, the youngest player on the roster, has demonstrated that he’s part of the future, a piece to build around. He’s shown growth through 109 NHL games and proven he’s willing to adapt and make changes when necessary.

“Right now, I think I’ve been playing better than last year,” Dubois said. “I took another step even since the start of the season. But I still have a long ways to go. Whether it’s being consistent, with the puck, without the puck, being a centerman is not just about scoring. That’s fun, that’s what everybody talks about, but to help your team win you’ve got to do a lot more than that. You’ve got to sacrifice some offense for the team.

“To do that on a consistent basis, that’s the next step. Play well in the D zone, help the Ds out, support everybody on the ice, get the right reads. It’s a long process, but that’s what’s going to make me a better player.”

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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.