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Flames, Sharks meet as battle for Pacific heats up

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Thursday night’s game between the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks offers plenty of intrigue. They are the top two teams in the Pacific Division, and they are also the two highest scoring teams in the Western Conference. And after their most recent meeting on December 31 – an 8-5 Flames win – the scoreboard might not be the only place we see fireworks this evening.

In the final 41 seconds of that game, the two teams combined for 66 penalty minutes, including a match penalty for Sam Bennett after he concussed Sharks defenseman Radim Simek with a questionable hit. There was no supplemental discipline for the play, which the Sharks called “gutless” and “predatory” afterwards, so one wonders whether there will be any retribution sought by the Sharks on Bennett.

Close watch should also be kept on Evander Kane and Matthew Tkachuk, who each picked up 10-minute misconducts in a brawl just prior to the Bennett hit. There are fewer Kanes and Tkachuks in today’s NHL – both in terms of their style on the ice and their unfiltered remarks off the ice – which makes the build up to this game even more interesting. However, neither would fully take the bait when asked about things carrying over from December:

“I know what you’re asking, I know what you’re trying to get me to say. We’ll see,” Kane said via The Mercury News. “It’s something that, hopefully, everybody in this room remembers because it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a skill guy, a big guy, a tough guy or a small guy, it’s on each and every person in this room to stick up for one another. We’ll see.”

Said Tkachuk: “I’m don’t think I’m going to be the guy who’s going to give you what you want on that quote. Those games are fun to play in. I love those games. Our whole team’s thriving in those games this year. We have guys that can play that style, too. (Kane) is a good player. They’re a really good team. It’s going to be a great game.”

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer was much more definitive in downplaying the revenge factor, telling reporters yesterday, “We know where everybody is in the standings, so that’s first and foremost. This isn’t about settling scores. This is about trying to close the gap on these guys in the division. There’s going to be a lot of emotion. It’s going to be physical. That stuff takes care of itself.”

He is right about the importance of this game in the standings. Since that New Year’s Eve meeting, the Flames have not lost to a Western Conference opponent, and they now have an opportunity to create a six-point cushion over the Sharks. Considering these teams play only once more during the regular season – and not until March 31 – this may be San Jose’s best opportunity to chip away at that deficit.

It would be an even bigger boost for the Sharks considering they will be without Erik Karlsson (lower body) for a sixth straight game, however he could return on the team’s current road trip. It should be noted that in the middle of this absence, Karlsson did participate in the NHL All-Star Game.

Regardless of the outcome tonight though, it is safe to say these are two of the most complete teams in the conference. Bill Peters is a Jack Adams candidate in his first year behind the bench for the Flames, and fellow former Hurricane Elias Lindholm has joined with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau to form one of the most potent lines in hockey. The Sharks are dangerous up and down their lineup, with a pair of Norris Trophy caliber defensemen, as well as five different forwards with 19+ goals – the most such players in the league.

San Jose and Calgary have not faced each other in the playoffs since 2008, but if they keep up their play from the first four months of the season, this could wind up being a high-scoring, hard-hitting, and headline-grabbing second round Stanley Cup playoff matchup.

Senators owner outlines aggressive spending plan for ‘run of unparalleled success’

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At a corporate event on Tuesday, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk pledged that he and the organization would commit the resources necessary to make the team competitive once again, with the goal of bringing the Stanley Cup “to its rightful place in Ottawa.” This news was relayed in a press release sent during Wednesday night’s 5-4 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The statement mentions that more time is needed to rebuild the roster, but that as early as 2021, the team will begin a sustained period spending close to the salary cap ceiling. Here are the final two paragraphs from the release:

“Mr. Melnyk also confirmed during the presentation that on the hockey side of the business, the expectation is that the Senators rebuilding plan will take another season or two from now, but when his general manager confirms that the Senators have all the pieces of the foundation in place, he made the following pledge to the guests in attendance:

“The Senators will be all-in again for a five-year run of unparalleled success – where the team will plan to spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year from 2021 to 2025. He reiterated that the Senators’ current rebuild is a blueprint on how to bring the Stanley Cup home to its rightful place in Ottawa.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but the obvious place to start is whether the Senators could even be in a position to contend as early as this timeline suggests. Of course, so much depends on the future of pending unrestricted free agents Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, the team’s top two scorers. During Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN, Bob McKenzie reported that the primary concern for both players does not involve dollars and cents, but rather how soon the team would become competitive. That remains a major question considering the Sens are at the bottom of the NHL standings. To make matters worse, the potential lottery pick they would get as a “reward” for cellar-dwelling actually belongs to Colorado as a result of last year’s Duchene trade. That puts even more pressure on general manager Pierre Dorion to get deals done for his two best forwards.

Optimists can point to the return Ottawa got from San Jose in the Erik Karlsson deal, which included a heavy dose of draft picks. But a Sharks postseason appearance this year (a virtual lock at this point) means that Ottawa won’t receiving a first-rounder from them until 2020. So, barring another significant move, it will be at least another year before the Senators pick on day 1 of the draft.

Another reason to believe Ottawa can pivot quickly is that the modern NHL is rife with parity and turnover amongst playoff teams. Each of the past two seasons, seven teams made the playoffs after missing the prior year. And the Senators themselves are familiar with this, having missed the playoffs in 2015-16 before making it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final the following year. Then again, relying on recent trends does not make for a sound strategy.

Moving beyond the proposed timeline of the rebuild, how will Senators fans interpret the latest statement from their team’s owner? Over the past year-plus, Melnyk has delivered mixed messages about the franchise, most notably in December 2017, when he stirred up a controversy by raising the possibility of relocation. Though Melnyk did walk those comments back shortly thereafter, it is still understandable that fans might view this “blueprint” with a degree of skepticism.

Regardless of how this plays out, it is encouraging that Melnyk offered a specific plan for how the team will approach the future, and it gives fans something to hold him accountable to. But before Melnyk and Dorion can begin spending to the cap ceiling, they must focus on the negotiations with Duchene and Stone so the roster doesn’t suffer another Karlsson-sized subtraction. Perhaps these comments will serve as part of the sales pitch to keep them in the fold long-term.

Sharks soak in the love from fans during NHL All-Star Weekend

SAN JOSE — As the rest of the Pacific Division skated off to the locker room following their 10-4 defeat to the Central Division in the first game of the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski stayed on the ice to say thank you.

The three San Jose Sharks were enjoying their final moments of a memorable few days after their city played host to All-Star Weekend. The sold out SAP Center gave the love right back, as they had all weekend.

Sharks fans made their presence known during Friday’s All-Star Media Day at City National Civic Auditorium. As other NHL All-Stars were being interview at their individual pods in the center of the floor, Let’s Go Sharks! chants were heard. Then, when the three Sharks players were introduced for their turns with the media, the volume inside grew even louder.

“For this weekend to come to San Jose, it’s just a celebration of a lot of great players coming together for the game,” said Pavelski. “It’s fun playing [the All-Star Game] in the city you play for. Every time our names got announced or we stepped on the ice you could hear the little extra roars. That was pretty cool to be a part of.”

There wasn’t much for Sharks fans to cheer about during the game, however. Karlsson did score twice and Burns added another, but the Pacific’s night ended earlier than expected.

“The crowd was awesome,” said Burns. “Good energy.”

“Terrible outcome,” added a laughing Karlsson. “It’s been a while since I scored, so I was happy about that.”

It had been 22 years since San Jose hosted All-Star Weekend, and over that time there’s been a trend upward for the on-the-ice product and what’s happening in the community. The Sharks have only missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs three times since the 1997 All-Star game took place, which has helped grow the area into a very strong hockey market. 

Pavelski, one of longest-tenured Sharks, has personally seen the impact hockey in the area has made.

“Right when I came in [in 2006] the Shark Tank [has] been loud and awesome to play in and the fans have been great,” he said. “I haven’t seen that change over the course of years. I’ve got a kid playing youth hockey and there’s not that much available ice time for them. They only skate a couple times a week and there’s a lot of kids on the ice, so there’s a good youth movement going on here where kids are just loving to play the game and we could use more ice. They play roller hockey, everything here, so there’s a good passion for the game.”

Karlsson is the new guy to the Bay Area. After spending the first nine years of his NHL career in Ottawa, his trade to the Sharks in September bolstered the franchise’s hopes to win their first Cup, but also left a question about his future unanswered. The 28-year-old defenseman can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He’s currently eligible to sign a seven-year extension with the Sharks, but once the Feb. 25 trade deadline passes he can ink for the max eight years. 

He wasn’t going to discuss his future this weekend, but in the four months he’s been in San Jose, he’s seen what kind of market it’s become and just how strong of an organization that he’s now a part of.

“I always knew the Shark Tank was a building that was tough to play in, it was always full and loud,” he said. “But I was surprised about the Bay Area in general, how many sports fans we have, and Sharks fans. That was something I didn’t know. I think that this weekend just reiterated that, so it’s been a pleasant surprise.”

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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.

Injured Karlsson could still take part in All-Star Weekend

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

WASHINGTON (AP) — There is still a chance San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson takes part in NHL All-Star Weekend despite missing the final three games before the break with an injury.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer says Karlsson went back to California for more tests on what the team is calling a lower-body injury. DeBoer didn’t have any further update on Karlsson before his team faced the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals.

”I guess it’ll all be depending on what those results are,” DeBoer said. ”I know he wants to play. If there’s a possible way that he can play without hurting himself, then he’s going to play.”

Karlsson is one of three Sharks players picked for the All-Star Game, which is being held in San Jose. Captain Joe Pavelski and defenseman Brent Burns were also selected to represent the Sharks.

DeBoer says Karlsson wants to take part in the skills competition Friday and the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament Saturday night but won’t risk making the injury worse.

”He’s going to make that decision with our doctors,” DeBoer said. ”If he can’t do any more damage, I know he wants to play in the game. I’m sure the organization would love him in the game. If there’s more damage to be done, no one in their right mind would play. So I think it’s pretty simple.”

Karlsson is in his first season with the Sharks after they acquired him in a trade from the Ottawa Senators, and he’s set to be a free agent this summer. The 28-year-old two-time Norris Trophy winner has three goals and 40 assists in 47 games this season with San Jose.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

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Karlsson to miss Sharks next two games, All-Star Game status in doubt

After he was a late scratch for Saturday’s game, the San Jose Sharks have announced that defenseman Erik Karlsson will be shut down until the All-Star break, missing the team’s next two games on Monday and Tuesday due to an undisclosed lower-body injury.

While he will miss the upcoming games against the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals, coach Pete DeBoer said on Monday that it is still possible that Karlsson could play in this weekend’s All-Star game which will be held in San Jose.

“I just want to get him healthy, so if he’s healthy enough, I would hope he’ll play,” DeBoer said via NHL.com. “And I know he would play. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that he’s healthy enough to play.”

If he can’t play you would have to think that it would open up a spot for Calgary Flames defender Mark Giordano to get a much-deserved call to the game as he one of the many defenders in the Pacific Division (including Karlsson, and fellow Sharks All-Star Brent Burns) that are playing at a Norris Trophy level this season.

Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larson would also be a possibility, but Giordano would almost certainly be the favorite given how great he has been this season.

After a slow start on the scoresheet this season Karlsson has really come on over the past couple of months and is back to playing at the high level we’re used to seeing him at. He has 43 points in 47 games this season, and has recorded at least one point in 16 of his past 18 games, a stretch that has seen him total 27 points. He is also near the top of the league for the season when it comes to shot attempt and scoring chance differentials when he is on the ice.

Burns and Joe Pavelski are the Sharks’ other two representatives at this year’s All-Star Game.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

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.