|San Jose Sharks center Kyle Wellwood smiles during a news conference in San Jose, Calif., Friday, May 13, 2011. The Sharks won the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference semifinal playoff series on Thursday, May 12, by defeating the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in Game 7. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) |
A little over a year ago at the Winter Olympics, Joe Thornton
, Patrick Marleau
, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle
won gold medals in Vancouver and Joe Pavelski
captured the silver. However, when the media assembles to greet the Sharks, much attention will be on former Canucks center Kyle Wellwood.
Wellwood spent two seasons in Vancouver and reached the second round in each postseason appearance. Now, almost a year removed from when Chicago eliminated his Canucks, Wellwood will be looking to beat his former team. In a business move, Wellwood and the Canucks politely parted ways last summer, but Wellwood has fond memories from his two-year stint.
“It’s a wonderful city to play in and the players and management were great to me,” Wellwood said. “Certainly I was rooting for them to get this far, but now I’ve got to play them.”
Rooting for your friends one night and then having to play them is a bit ironic, but it’s the nature of professional hockey. As Vancouver is the only Canadian club still alive, Wellwood knows the eyes of his homeland will be focused out west.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Wellwood said. “It’s a great time of year there to visit. To play hockey at that level in Canada is going to be a lot of fun. I’ve got a lot of friends on that team, so it’s nice they’ve made it this far.”
Wellwood is one lucky person. He started the year in hockey oblivion in Russia. Wellwood signed with St. Louis after he was allowed to leave his Russian contract, but San Jose claimed him when he had to clear waivers.
“Since I came, the team started playing a little better and we’ve got some chemistry on the lines,” Wellwood said. “It’s worked out and we’ve just kind of rolled from there and it’s led us to a couple of good wins in the playoffs.”
The addition of Wellwood has allowed Head Coach Todd McLellan to put his players in all the right spots.
“He’s been a very important player for our organization from the middle of January on,” McLellan said. “There’s no surprise our turnaround coincided with his and Ben Eager’s arrival. He has allowed players to play in their roles, putting fourth line players in a fourth line position, moving some second line players up. I found that he’s very comfortable in that situation.”
Wellwood and his linemates, Torrey Mitchell
and Joe Pavelski
, enjoy a special chemistry that can’t be measured, but it somehow works and they relish their assignment.
|San Jose Sharks defenseman Ian White, not shown, scores past Phoenix Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (30) as San Jose center Kyle Wellwood (20) watches in the second period of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Saturday, April 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) |
“I think we’re certainly the third line,” Wellwood said. “We get the easier matchups. We don’t play against the other team’s top D. Jumbo’s (Joe Thornton
) line usually takes care of the top players. I think we read off each other well and are able to hold onto pucks. We forecheck really well and we don’t make a lot of defensive mistakes. At the end of most nights, were ahead in shots and when we put them it, it raises our plus/minus.”
San Jose’s puck possession game has been a perfect marriage for Wellwood’s skill set which isn’t always a given when a talented player arrives on a talented team.
“A lot of players here just play hockey, more like pond hockey where you're holding on to pucks and passing. You’re taking care of defense, but you want to make plays, so I fit in nice,” Wellwood said.
“I think he’s something we’ve lacked in the past,” Dan Boyle
said. “He’s a guy with a lot of poise with the puck. In tight spaces, he finds a way. He’s shifty and makes his way through and his passes make their way through. He’s very smart and very poised and it’s something we needed.”
In addition to enjoying his role, Wellwood, a natural center, has readily accepted playing the wing alongside Pavelski.
“He’s a centerman and he’s played there a lot in his career, so you put him on the left side, the right side, he understands what he’s doing,” McLellan said. “All three guys on that line are interchangeable pieces. They support each other well and they’re fairly good defensively.”
Wellwood could provide a little bit of inside information on the Canucks, much in the way Vancouver’s former Sharks (Manny Malhotra, Christian Ehrhoff and even Mikael Samuelsson) could on San Jose, but like the Sharks, Vancouver had adjusted their game to be more playoff ready.
“They’ve got a different style than they’ve had the last few years and it’s taken them farther,” Wellwood said. “It’s a matter of us countering them.”
Tomorrow, Wellwood will return to a part of his past, but it’s his current club that will have his abilities in the present.
There's a lot of hardware between the two netminders as Antti Niemi
(with Chicago last year) is the reigning Stanley Cup-winning goaltender and Roberto Luongo (Canada) is the current gold medal-winning netminder. Unlike last year in the Western Conference Final, the Sharks won’t have to worry about Niemi, but they will have Luongo to deal with this year.
“In order to beat him we’re going to have to continue to get shots on net and get guys in front of him,” Devin Setoguchi said.
“I’ve said enough about Nemo, he’s been getting it done for two years now and we’re going to need him,” Boyle said. “As far as Luongo goes, I’ve played with him both in Florida and in the Olympics and I know what he’s capable of. He’s very capable of stealing games.”
On the flip side, the Canucks will be dealing the goalie who closed them out in the second round last year.
Game 1 of the Western Conference Final with Vancouver will be at 5 p.m. and will be on Versus, 98.5/102.1 KFOX-FM and www.sjsharks.com