The San Jose Sharks might not be the consensus pre-season pick to win the Stanley Cup as they were a few years ago, but make no mistake – any team that has stars Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (to say nothing of injured centre Logan Couture) in the lineup is going to be tough to beat. And as they prepared to face the Sharks Thursday at Air Canada Centre, the Maple Leafs all spoke of the high regard in which they hold the visiting team.
“Obviously the big names they have are still there,” said Leafs defenceman Matt Hunwick. “They’ve got a lot of veterans over there that have produced big numbers over their careers, so it’s definitely a tough matchup for us. I don’t know how big they are anymore, but I know that Burns and Thornton and those guys are tough to handle down low.”
“They’ve always been good,” winger P-A Parenteau added of the Sharks, who’ve amassed a 15-14-1 record this season. “They’re a big team, fast, they play the game well and the right way. It’s no different this year. They’re not where they want to be record-wise, but you can’t take them lightly. They’ve got so much firepower, and we have to respect them.”
The Sharks currently sit second in the Pacific Division, and one of the oddities of their season is the stark difference between their home record (4-9-0) and their road mark (11-5-1). However, San Jose is still being led by their core, including Pavelski (who has 14 goals and 28 points in 30 games), Marleau (12 goals and 23 points in 30 games) and Thornton (four goals and 17 points in 30 games). And on the back end, veterans Burns and Vlasic provide a varied-yet-equally dangerous punch, and one Toronto head coach Mike Babcock knows full well from his battles with them when he coached the Detroit Red Wings.
“(Vlasic) is a high, high end thinker,” Babcock said. “Slides good, skates good, really good without the puck. Burns has got real high-end skill, really jumps on offense, got an absolute bomb….Patty (Marleau) and Joe (Thornton) are a little bit older, but I think Couture and Pavelski are really good players. I think Pavelski now sets the competition level for this team. They’re a good team, but as we all know, it’s hard to be good every single year in the league, and it’s hard to have a run that lasts longer than 10 years. That’s just the way it is. If you set your group up real well, you can have a good run. Today with the (salary) cap, it’s harder.”
The Leafs will go with rookie Garret Sparks in net Thursday. The 22-year-old has earned the confidence of team brass since being recalled in late November.
“Three weeks ago, I called (Marlies coach) Sheldon (Keefe) and Sheldon said to me don’t worry about him, he’s not scared of anything, he’s going to be great,” Babcock said. “I thought that was a positive thing. He’s gone 3-1, and a big part of it is the guys believe in him. When your guys believe, they don’t play nervous in their own zone and everyone does their own job. When the guys don’t believe, everybody’s so busy doing someone else's job, no one does their own job. So goaltending’s a huge part of things.”