With the Sharks exploding the past couple of games on the offensive side of the puck, the steady play of the team’s defense the last two games has been largely overlooked. During the four-game skid late in December, the Sharks were out shot by their opponents three times, allowing 110 shots while only managing 89.
But the young and resilient defensive core would respond in a big way, allowing a stingy 22 shots to a potent Colorado Avalanche attack on Dec. 30, the final game of 2005. Coach Ron Wilson decided to dress seven defensemen against the highest scoring team in the Western Conference, a move that seemed to pay dividends. Goaltender Vesa Toskala got the nod for the second time against the Avalanche this season, avenging his 2-5 defeat earlier in the season with a 5-2 victory.
Team Teal’s performance against the Avalanche constructed a blueprint which they would attempt to replicate in their first contest of 2006. Once again the Sharks dressed seven defensemen, once again Toskala led his team onto the ice, and once again the Sharks turned out an impressive defensive performance, this time containing the Columbus Blue Jackets and earning a 6-3 victory.
“Obviously it is hard to go out and play after long breaks but I feel better the more I play,” said Toskala. “Early in the game it’s always hard to get into it, but once you get a couple of saves, you start feeling pretty confident. The last two games we have been playing great defensively. I haven’t been screened at all and have been able to see all the shots.”
Equally impressed with the team’s play in the defensive zone was Coach Wilson.
“When your goalie makes big saves early in the game, it’s a huge help,” Wilson said. “And Vesa, the last four times he’s played, has essentially done that. He doesn’t try to do anything spectacular and in doing that, he settles down our defense quite a bit.”
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the defensive core’s play lately is they have been without the services of two of their top members, each sidelined for five-game stretches. The senior member of the core at only 28 years of age, Kyle McLaren, was out of the lineup for five games in the middle of December when he had arthroscopic surgery to release pressure that had been building up in his knee.
As for Tom Preissing, he has been out of the lineup for the past four games and is expected to miss his fifth game on Saturday with the flu.
“We hope that Tommy will be able to return on the road trip,” said Coach Wilson. “We’re being a little bit cautious because we don’t need a set back.
“It’s obvious we miss Tommy at both ends. He’s playing great defensively and he’s the best plus/minus player on our team, adding a lot of pop to the power play. It’ll be nice to get him back in there with the experience he’s earned over the past two years.”
Preissing’s absence from the lineup has allowed an impressive committee of young defenders to showcase their talent. The Sharks recalled defensemen Doug Murray and Josh Gorges who have been plugged into the system and have been playing consistently, earning praises from their coach.
“That’s been huge. They’ve bided their time and worked hard in the minors to make themselves better hockey players, stepped in and played like they’ve been here for three or four years. As they gather and gain more experience, they’re only going to get better.”
At a ripe age of 21, Gorges is excited to be positively impacting the team.
“It’s been an awesome experience. To get in the lineup first of all and then to be in consecutive games, it’s been a lot of fun. The team’s been playing well as of late so it’s always good to win and be here at the same time.”
Gorges, who played with fellow defensemen Murray, Jim Fahey and Christian Ehrhoff last season in Cleveland, is taking advantage of the opportunity and learning from his teammates.
“The guys that have been here before have proven that they can play, and me and Dougie (Murray) are trying to come up and learn from them, see how they play and try the best we can to fill in.”