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Inside the Cage: Return of Road Ice Advantage

Sharks Hit the Road After Uncharacteristically Few Number of Away Games Thus Far This Season

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon / sjsharks.com

Time for the Sharks to spend some time on the road less traveled.

San Jose has enjoyed an uncharacteristic early-season stretch at home thus far, so much so that the usually frequent-flying Sharks will have played the fewest number of away games by a Western Conference team by the time they face off Tuesday against the Flyers in Philadelphia.

The Sharks look to avenge a 5-3 Opening Night home loss to the Flyers, who will have played at Pittsburgh against their intrastate rivals and defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins the night before. San Jose also hopes to cap a winning month of November (6-3-2) with points in a fifth successive game to eclipse its season-best run from Oct. 28-Nov. 11 with points earned in four straight.

The Sharks played only eight of their first 22 games on foreign ice, and earned points on all but two stops while posting a 5-2-1 record. The division-rival Ducks were scheduled to play their ninth road game on Monday, leaving only the East's Senators and Rangers with as few away contests as the Sharks.

San Jose has traditionally done some of its best work in unfriendly confines. Under Peter DeBoer, the Sharks went 20-18-3 to garner 43 points away from home last season a year after setting franchise marks for road wins (28) and points (59) during the head coach's first season that didn't end until Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The Sharks, in fact, have bucked the odds to endure only two losing seasons on the road in the last 13 years - or Doug Wilson's entire tenure as general manager - since the start of 2003-04.

It's a small sample size in 2017-18, but with 11 in eight outings already the Sharks are on pace to earn 56 points on the road. San Jose went 3-2 on its only extended stay back East from Oct. 20-28 including wins at New Jersey, Madison Square Garden and Buffalo, a city where the team has often struggled to earn points. In addition, the Sharks have road wins against division rivals in Los Angeles and Arizona.

With games at Tampa Bay, Florida and Washington over a four-day span to conclude the current trip following two days off after playing Philly, the Sharks will have completed only the third of 10 multi-city treks this season.

The good news is San Jose never plays more than five straight away from home, is done with travel to the Eastern time zone after a Feb. 4 visit to Carolina and the Sharks won't be among the league's leaders in air miles this season for a change. San Jose is set to log 43,457 miles, still a good chunk of travel, but that ranks 10th most in the league. Most years the Sharks rank in the top three. Last year with their 48,872 miles they were No. 2 to Edmonton's league-leading total of 49,272.

Still, teams in the West have to look upon those in the East with envy. Pittsburgh is set to travel the least in the league with 34,041 miles on its schedule. Teams with the fewest miles total 14 - and they'll all in the East - before you get to No. 15 Los Angeles with 39,915 miles.

The Kings can thank their close proximity for divisional road games at Anaheim, Arizona and expansion Vegas for their reduction in travel miles. Eight other teams in the West including Arizona, Calgary, Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Edmonton, Minnesota and Vancouver will accrue more miles in the air this season than San Jose.

This trip - and with the Sharks in a stretch of playing nine of 13 games away - could come at a good time considering they still are looking for a number players relatively new to the roster (Tim Heed, Joakim Ryan, Ryan Carpenter, Danny O'Regan, Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier) to continue to bond with their more veteran teammates.

To get on the road, too, during a time of the year when there are distractions including the holidays and the pressure of winning (and entertaining) at home, are advantages to capitalize upon. It may go a long way in explaining why the Sharks can stay focused and continue their winnings ways.

There are three things distinctively working right now:

  • Logan Couture's All-Star caliber contributions at both ends of the ice. Couture already has 13 goals, and his 19 points no only lead the team but are five more than annual leader Joe Thornton. "He's been excellent," Sharks assistant coach Steve Spott said. "He's doing as much offensively as he does defensively. He's very much an unsung hero for what he does defensively. That's what you want from your best players. When guys like Logan do it it sends the right message to our young guys."

  • The re-configured power-play units have converted at a 50-percent clip in the last two games combined, and the Sharks are looking for power-play goals in a third straight game for only the second time this season. "We've got two balanced units now so I think that's definitely a big part of it," Spott said. "Both units know the other one can get the job done. It's such a big part of our hockey club. We need it to be successful and, thankfully, lately both units have been successful. It's going to be a big part of it going forward."

  • Goalie Martin Jones continues to backbone a strong season-long defensive effort as the Sharks rank No. 1 in goals-against (2.21). In addition, with Paul Martin limited to only two games due to injury, the Sharks have successfully rotated Dylan DeMelo into the mix over the last three games with Heed returning after two games as a healthy scratch and Ryan taking a turn in the stands. With DeMelo paired with Heed on his off-side, the Sharks didn't skip a beat in shutting out the offensively-potent Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. "It doesn't matter who we put in, the guys will play the system and break out well," defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. "DeMelo came in, he's played three games in a row, and I think he's been outstanding for us. We have eight defensemen who are capable of playing on any given night so it's a tough decision to make."

In addition to looking to improve their power-play numbers on the road (3-for-25) and maintain success on the penalty kill (27-for-31), the Sharks have a couple players on the verge or milestones. Captain Joe Pavelski's next goal will be No. 300, and Thornton continues to ascend on the all-time lists for points and assists. Jumbo can match his uniform number when he collects four more points to catch Dale Hawerchuk - No. 19 all-time with 1,409 points.

While the aforementioned could happen on this trip, Thornton will have to wait a little longer to reach Mario Lemieux, who sits No. 11 on the all-time assists list with 1,033. Thornton is currently 12th with 1,016.

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