Even though it isn’t close to the time when the person in charge of such things puts in an order for a bunch of rings, the beginning of the 2006-07 season has started with direct discussion about winning the Stanley Cup, three straight wins, a team bonding trip to Banff, and a lot of happy people in the world of the San Jose Sharks. It’s been so positive that the sponsorship department is probably fielding calls from toothpaste companies looking to sponsor all of the smiles that have been emanating from the Sharks locker room.
So, what’s the difference between this edition of the Sharks and the last one, the team that fought its way into the playoffs after a slow start and wound up out just short in Games 3, 4, 5, and 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Edmonton Oilers? Well, the wins against St. Louis and the Islanders were a solid beginning, but the game in Calgary really showed a major difference: this Sharks team is a focused and dedicated lot that is bound and determined to be a very tough team to play against.
The Sharks were physically dominant, using their blazing speed first, their imposing size second, and their great skill through the roster third to take total control of the Flames. Jarome Iginla, who had lost 10 pounds during the off-season, was somber after the game in his realization as to what the Flames needed to do to get better. The Sharks were calm, but happy with their solid performance.
What’s different? The Sharks are much more difficult to play against, for starters. The additions to the team look like perfect fits, and the defense is showing how talented and deep it is. The team isn’t intimidated by any other team that it faces, either.
The Marleau line has been on fire. Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier are learning just how dominant they can be, and the captain has been doing a solid job leading the way.
The Thornton line has been excellent, starting with the superstar play of its center. Even though Jonathan Cheechoo didn’t score a goal in the first three games, he’s been getting chances, and everyone knows that the goals will come soon. Besides, Jonathan has been excellent everywhere else, including a new position: point on a 5-on-3 power play.
But that happened last year, too. Instead, I’d like to focus on one area of note in the early going: the additions of Curtis Brown and Mike Grier on the top penalty killing unit has transformed the way that the Sharks keep the opposing power plays at bay, and has changed the distribution of ice time in such a way that the team is more dangerous through three periods of each game.
Now, the forwards are pushing the opposing power play outside, and are keeping the “home plate” shaped area in front of their net as a nearly impenetrable fortress. The forwards are blocking more shots, and are more aggressive, too. Brown has been difficult to face off against, and the solid play of Patrick Rissmiller and Mark Smith has also provided more depth on the penalty kill.
What does this all do for the team? More than anything else, it allows Joe Thornton
and Patrick Marleau
to get a rest during most penalty killing situations, and focus on what they do best: dominating in the other team’s zone when the club is at even strength or on the power play. Oh, yes, they’ll be out on the penalty killing unit sometimes, but it isn’t as necessary as it was last year, primarily because of the presence of Brown and Grier.
What else is different? The defense is reacting with lightning-like speed and efficiency. Christian Ehrhoff is picking up where he left off in the playoffs. Matt Carle is looking as if he is going to be an outstanding NHL player. Kyle McLaren is hitting everything in sight. Scott Hannan and Josh Gorges are performing exceedingly well. But the most interesting just might be in that one other defenseman that I haven’t mentioned yet.
Rookie Marc-Edouard Vlasic
, who already handled the PSAT section of his NHL entrance exams with a solid pre-season, is now smack dab in the middle of the SAT portion, which will last 10 games. He’s turning heads with his intelligent play and his attention to detail, and is making it very hard to send him back to junior hockey in the next couple of weeks.
For instance, in the Calgary game, Vlasic blocked three shots in the early going, handled Jarome Iginla one-on-one with characteristic aplomb, and then, did something that had my color commentator Jamie Baker raising his eyebrows in appreciation. In the Sharks zone, Vlasic had the puck to the left of his goalie with a Calgary forward barreling in. He had a pass that he could have completed to Patrick Marleau
, but instead of doing that, as most rookies would do, he whirled away from the forecheck and held onto the puck for a little while longer before finally skating and passing it forward.
What was the significance of this play? Well, Vlasic had the presence of mind to notice, in the heat of the NHL battle, that a different Calgary player was anticipating the pass to Marleau and was ready to clock him in the neutral zone. In other words, had Vlasic passed the puck to Patrick, the Sharks captain would have been set up to be blindsided in open ice. The 19-year-old had the coolness and the intelligence to understand that and make an adjustment in a split second, while under pressure from another player himself.
All of this, along with spectacular play from Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, is making it a non-issue to deal with the absence of Mark Bell on this road trip. That might not have been the case last season.
But I’m getting to the end of my visit with you before I mention perhaps the most significant differences between this season and last. This season, the Sharks are still angry about their playoff defeat to the Oilers, and this season, they are speaking openly about winning the Stanley Cup.
This is a confident team, and this is a determined team. Although we all know that they surely will not go 82-0-0 on the year, it’s been a fantastic start, and it could very well be the beginning of something really special.
I’m Dan Rusanowsky, in Seagate Technology’s “In the Crease.”