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Dan's Thought of the Day - 3/31/2014

by Dan Rusanowsky / San Jose Sharks

At this time of the year, the hard work and extra effort that the San Jose Sharks have put in really starts to pay off.

It starts at the top with the management, hockey operations, and scouting. All have to work together to properly field a team, take care of the budget, deal with injuries, and prepare for contingencies. It continues with the coaching staff, in the area of managing players’ ice time during a difficult, condensed schedule, developing players in practice, and getting results on game nights.

But perhaps the greatest area of importance lies in the players’ conditioning base, body maintenance, and sheer resolve during the difficult grind of the season. That’s something that begins in the early summer, when the Sharks work out their individual training programs with Mike Potenza, Ray Tufts, and the staff. Sometimes they train with specialized coaches, whether it’s for off-ice training, or for skating edge work. But summer is no longer a leisurely time for hockey players. It’s the time when hard work is banked for future dividend collection later.

“Later” is now. Sharks Hockey has just finished a stretch of playing 14 games in 26 days, with travel to and from three of the four time zones on the North American continent. As for the one time zone they didn’t play in, the Central Time Zone, they had to fly through it to get to where they were going. They’ve had to face the likes of top rated clubs like the Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins, desperate clubs like the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals, a few teams out of the hunt but with a lot to prove like Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg, and a few afternoon games thrown in to boot. In addition, the team put together an 8-3-3 record in those games.

That’s a schedule that is being played out throughout the National Hockey League, and we are starting to see a few injuries, some serious, as a result. Through the process, fatigue sometimes results in a fluky play. That was the case on Saturday, when Colorado’s Matt Duchene was injured on an unfortunate collision with his linemate, Jamie McGinn, just 32 seconds into the game.

Later in the contest, McGinn, who had the lighting rod attached to his body for most of the day, threw a body check on James Sheppard, who fell awkwardly into the boards. It was another scary moment, but it was great to see Sheppard return to action and make another tremendous contribution to the team’s effort.

Sheppard’s story is an excellent story. He essentially missed two full seasons after seriously injuring his knee in the summer of 2010. Provided a chance by the Sharks, who acquired him from Minnesota for a third round selection in the 2013 NHL Draft, Sheppard has worked diligently on restoring his health and has transformed his game, and in the stretch drive, he has provided lots of value to his team. In his last 5 games, he’s scored 2 goals and added 3 assists, and has looked very comfortable at center along with his usual linemates, Tommy Wingels and Marty Havlat, who have shown good chemistry together.

When called upon, Alex Stalock’s solid goaltending has been another show of depth on the squad. Stalock, another amazing story of medical recovery, has pushed Antti Niemi to be at his best and has provided 11 wins, 2 shutouts, and a 1.91 goals-against average to the table. He and Niemi are always working on their game.

With Adam Burish out indefinitely after hand surgery, the Sharks depth was showcased when Andrew Desjardins was put together with Mike Brown and Tyler Kennedy. Even though the Sharks lost in Colorado on Saturday afternoon, this unit succeeded in drawing two penalties, including one that led to a power play goal by Joe Pavelski. This line is not simply “eating up minutes,” it’s also providing important value to the team.

It’s in games like these, coming up, that are really showcasing the hard work of players such as these. They set things up for the top scorers like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture, and are important parts of any championship club.

All of us can’t wait until the playoffs begin, but the final stretch of the regular season should prove to be a dramatic and spectacular roadway to that exciting time. How will the Sharks do in their final six games of the season? Where will they finish up? Who will be in the playoff lineup for Game One, and what team will the Sharks face?

All questions will be answered soon, but one has been answered already. The San Jose Sharks have been preparing for this time of year for a long time. I’m Dan Rusanowsky, for sjsharks.com.

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