Through 17 games this season, the San Jose Sharks (11-4-2) are in a familiar spot – near the top of the Western Conference standings. Dominant during the regular season with an average of 51 wins the past three seasons, it’s the postseason where San Jose has struggled to meet expectations with early exits.
“They have all the talent,” said Chris Kunitz
, who has seen the talent-level of San Jose several times a season when he played for their division rival the Anaheim Ducks. “They work well.
“I’ve talked to guys that have played here and they say it’s a great area, great organization to play for. They’re a good team. They’ve shown through 82 games and that’s just as hard in the playoffs in a seven-game series. It’s just one of those things and I’m sure they’ll break through.”
Excellent draft classes combined with key trades have allowed the Sharks to morph from pretenders prior to the lockout – 28 wins in 2002-03 – to a team with realistic expectations to ask each season “Is this the year?”
“They look really good as always,” said Bill Guerin, who spent 16 games with the Sharks at the end of the 2006-07 season. “The last couple years have been disappointing in the playoffs but to me, they still have the tools, they still have what it takes. They’re well coached. They have everything. I think the timing just has to be right.”
San Jose does appear to have everything. Their forward ranks are as deep as they come, both in supreme offensive talent and in workmanlike professionals on the bottom lines. Their defense boasts skill, skating ability and physicality and Evgeni Nabokov between the pipes has proven to be all-world at keeping pucks in front of him.
The Sharks took off on Nov. 30, 2005 when they sent forwards Wayne Primeau and Marco Sturm along with defensemen Brad Stuart to the Boston Bruins for playmaker extraordinaire Joe Thornton. Teaming with the since-traded Jonathan Cheechoo, Thornton became the first player in league history to capture the Art Ross Trophy after changing teams during the season, scoring 92 (20G-72A) of his league-high 125 points in San Jose during the 2005-06 season.
At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Thornton is a nightmare for opposing defenses below the goal line. Responsible defensively and among the top faceoff-specialists, Thornton’s only real “weakness” is his lack of goal-scoring prowess. He has scored 30-plus goals twice in his career, but for some reason fans and observers believe he could help the Sharks even more by using his powerful shot.
“He’s such a good playmaker first,” Marc-Andre Fleury
said. “He sees everybody on the ice. He’s able to get the pass through to pretty much anywhere. He can shoot too so you have to be aware of him.”
Speaking of shooting, there are not many players to ever pick up a hockey stick who can shoot a puck like sniper Dany Heatley, acquired from Ottawa on Sept. 12 for Cheechoo and Milan Michalek. San Jose believes Heatley is the missing link and the complement Thornton needs to get them over the hump in the postseason.
Penguins fans know all-too-well how dangerous Heatley can be when at the top of his game after facing the superstar back-to-back years in the postseason during his tenure in Ottawa. Heatley is one of those rare players in this day and age with the capability to beat a netminder from anywhere in the offensive zone thanks to his heavy shot and ability to score in traffic.
Head coach Dan Bylsma is plenty aware of the chemistry already being formed between Thornton and Heatley on the Sharks’ top line.
“You have a guy who can skate, hold onto the puck and make a play like Joe Thornton. Then you add a guy (Heatley) who can put it in the net with a huge shot. He has the ability to find the open space power-play wise, 5-on-5 and in the offensive zone.
“They’ve shown they can be very dangerous. It can happen at any time with the skill that they have. That’s a tough thing to deal with. We are aware of that and we’re going to have to be ready at all times to defend against those two.”
Defending San Jose, however, involves much more than simply stopping those two. Second-line center Patrick Marleau (third in the league with 22 points), power forward Ryan Clowe (career-high 22 goals last season) and speedy but currently injured Devin Setoguchi provide secondary scoring and blazing speed that can be tough to contend with.
When the Penguins don't have the puck, as many nights the opposition doesn’t when facing San Jose, they have to be aware of the whereabouts of blueliner Dan Boyle, the second-leading scorer (tied) among defensemen in ’09-10 with 14 points (2G-12A). Boyle can skate and snipe as well as most forwards, and when you watch him in the offensive zone sometimes you would be under the impression he is a fourth forward with how often he ventures below the faceoff circles.
Led by former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Todd McLellan, the Sharks play an up-and-down offensive-minded system. They rank just ahead of the Penguins averaging 3.18 goals per game, ninth-best figure in the league. The Sharks also like to pepper opposing backstops, averaging a robust 31.5 shots per game. Pittsburgh looks forward to the challenge the Sharks present.
“It’s exciting and easier to stay in the game,” Fleury said. “It’s more fun to play when something’s happening on both sides instead of trapping and waiting.”
“You like going back and forth,” Kunitz said. “You don’t like going chance for chance; that can be a little scary at times. When it’s a fast-paced game you’re into it. It goes by so quick. We’re looking forward to a fast-paced game.
“They’ve got a really good team with high-end players. The addition of Dany Heatley, he’s a real goal-scoring threat. Any time he’s on the ice he gets a good shot. Their defense is mobile and can move the puck, skate up the ice and move the puck. It’s going to be hopefully not too high scoring. Hopefully we’ll stay out of the box. But it should be entertaining.”