Life is good in Shark land these days. Team Teal has accumulated 13 of a possible 16 points in the month of November. They are now perched atop the Pacific Division, the same Pacific they have won the previous 4 years. Yes the Sharks are the class of Division, that much is for sure. But the rest of the Western Conference isn’t such a slam dunk. The Chicago Blackhawks, who the Sharks face tonight at 7:30 from the Tank, are the leaders of the Central Division. Many have picked them to skate the Stanley Cup for the 2nd time in 3 seasons. They unceremoniously eliminated the Sharks in the 2010 Western Conference Finals en route to their first Stanley Cup since 1961.
The Hawks, who are led by their Captain Jonathan Toews, have an impressive, all-star lineup. Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane are two of the top snipers in the game. They also have one of the deepest blue lines in the league with Norris Finalist, Duncan Keith, shutdown specialist Brent Seabrook and young phenom Nick Leddy who has 15 points in 21 games. They come in a grumpy group however. They have lost their past two outings by a combined score of 14-4. They got humiliated by the upstart Edmonton Oilers 9-2 on Sunday and lost 5-2 to Calgary before that. Before that, they had won 4 straight. This is a dangerous team and i suspect they will be up for this one.
The hope around the Sharks camp is the best is yet to come. Sure the penalty kill is abysmal but other than that, this team is clicking on all cylinders. They have finally got a 4th line together with Andrew Murray, Andrew Dejardins and Brad Winchester. They have been dropping the gloves, great on the forecheck and even contributing offensively. The third line has seen Martin Havlat and Torrey Mitchell interchanging on the wing with Michael Handzus and Jaime McGinn. McLellan occasionally likes to use Mitchell’s speed on the 2nd line with Couture and Clowe. GM Doug Wilson would be a happy camper if McGinn pans out on the 3rd line. That was a glaring weakness last year and coming into this season as well.
And yes, the defense has been great. Thanks in large part to the elevated play of Marc-Eduard Vlasic. He has 7 points in his past 3 games and ranks 4th among NHL defensmen with a +11 rating. His partner Brent Burns has found his sea legs as well and has been playing a very physical brand of hockey the past 10 days. Dan Boyle is having more of a positive impact night in and night out as well. Overall this is a great defensive unit, they just need to keeping progressing.
By way of backup goalie Thomas Greiss’s terrific performance in Colorado on Sunday, that Sharks have two locked in goalies. I expect Niemi to start both tonight against his former team and Saturday against the rival Vancouver Canucks. McLellan used the back to back situation from Dallas to Colorado to get Greiss back in net fairly quickly after his 3-0 loss vs the Coyotes at home on 11/12. It worked and now the Sharks can move forward with confidence in whoever plays in net that game.
With Western Finals rematches tonight versus Chicago and Saturday versus Vancouver, this is going to be a great barometer to see how the Sharks stack up with the NHL’s elite. These are two teams the Sharks may need to get through in April and May to achieve their ultimate goal. There should be a decent amount of animosity, particularly on Saturday vs Vancouver. Joe Thornton and Ryan Kesler don’t exactly get along. The Sharks have come up short against both these teams in the playoffs recently. Until the day comes that they do win the West, they will always be another contender, and not a champion.