VANCOUVER -- As if the Vancouver Canucks weren't already having enough trouble handling the San Jose Sharks, now they have to deal with the hottest player in the NHL, rookie Tomas Hertl.
San Jose has already beaten the Canucks eight straight, including a first-round sweep in last season's Stanley Cup Playoffs and the season opener for both teams Oct. 3.
The Sharks will be without defenseman Brad Stuart, who begins a three-game suspension for an illegal hit on New York Rangers forward Rick Nash. But Stuart was also out with a lower-body injury when the Sharks handed the Canucks a 4-1 loss to start the season in San Jose.
As if worrying about a trio down the middle of Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski wasn't enough, Vancouver must also deal with a hot Hertl, who became an overnight sensation when he capped a four-goal game against the Rangers by tucking the puck between his legs and lifting it over goalie Martin Biron on a breakaway.
The 19-year-old Czech rookie leads the League with six goals and seven points in three games.
"Tonight's game is not about the kid, it's about the team we're facing and obviously they have a lot of skill players on that team," goalie Roberto Luongo said. "Just like every other skill player, you want to limit their time and space, you want to be in their face, you want to be physical with them, and make it a hard night for them."
Vancouver will counter with a lineup move and feel-good story of its own, with homegrown forward Mike Santorelli starting on the top line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Not bad for a 27-year-old who played for three teams, including a stint in the American Hockey League last season, before signing a two-way contract as a free agent this summer. Expected to start in the AHL as a depth call-up option, Santorelli played his way into the Canucks' lineup and has emerged as a top-line forward. He's already eclipsed last season's goal total with three, including consecutive overtime winners.
"It's a pretty good story for a guy coming to a pretty good team and simply saying, 'I am going to make this club,' just by his actions," coach John Tortorella said. "He doesn't say boo. I don't think I have said one word to him, and he just goes out and plays. And forget about the goals, there are a lot of the little things he does that I'm looking down the bench in all situations for him, so it's a really good story."
As for needing to end the Sharks' recent dominance over them, the Canucks, who have won three straight since losing to San Jose, were being careful not to call it a statement game so early in the season.
"I don't believe in the measuring stick," Tortorella said. "It's such a long year and so many things happen. It's not measuring yourself up against another team. It's what you're doing as a club. I have not watched one other team. I don't believe in counter-punching, I believe in inflicting and trying to play your style."
Here's how the lineups of both teams are expected to look Thursday night:
Daniel Sedin – Henrik Sedin – Mike Santorelli
Chris Higgins – Ryan Kesler – David Booth
Dale Weise – Brad Richardson – Jannik Hansen
Tom Sestito – Zac Dalpe – Yannick Weber
Dan Hamhuis – ?????????Jason Garrison
Alexander Edler????????? – Kevin Bieksa
Ryan Stanton – Christopher Tanev
Scratched: Andrew Alberts
Injured: Jordan Schroeder (foot), Alexandre Burrows (foot)
Suspended: Zack Kassian
Tomas Hertl – Joe Thornton – Brent Burns
Patrick Marleau – Logan Couture – Tyler Kennedy
Matthew Nieto – Joe Pavelski – Tommy Wingels
James Sheppard – Andrew Desjardins – Matt Pelech
Matt Irwin – Dan Boyle
Marc-Edouard Vlasic – Justin Braun
Scott Hannan – Jason Demers
Injured: Adam Burish (lower body) Martin Havlat (pelvic surgery), Raffi Torres (knee surgery).
Suspended: Brad Stuart