Sharks

Couture playing through pain, giving Sharks emotional lift

Couture playing through pain, giving Sharks emotional lift

EDMONTON – There are always doctors and dentists on duty at NHL games. These days, they are likely paying a little more attention to one player than any other.

Logan Couture revealed after Tuesday’s 7-0 Sharks in in Game 4 that after getting hit up high by Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, he had to get a little procedure done between periods.

“They just had to put some numbing into my face,” he said. “Got hit in teeth again. The dentist put some numbing in, and felt good the rest of the game.”
 
Couture ditched the full cage that he was wearing prior to Game 3, saying that if he were to take another puck to the mouth like he did on March 25 in Nashville, he’d probably be the “unluckiest guy in the world.”

While that may be true, the exposed lower half of his face is still susceptible to errant sticks, elbows or fists, as Game 4 showed. The Oilers seem to be targeting Couture, too, including a high hit from Eric Gryba in Game 1 and another by Zack Kassian in Game 2.

Still, Couture motors on, and in Game 4 he was arguably the Sharks’ best player as he posted his first playoff points – a pair of goals – in San Jose’s win. All the while, the hardware in his mouth is visible, as he has what is called an arch bar keeping his bottom teeth from falling out and some plastic bonding keeping the remaining top ones in place.

Every NHL player that’s fortunate enough to still be playing in the postseason is dealing with bumps and bruises, but Couture’s willingness to play through the kind of injury that he suffered – as well as the dental work that’s in his future, as at least half a dozen of his teeth will get replaced – seems especially fearless, even by NHL player standards.

His teammates have noticed.

“It definitely gives you an extra jolt on the ice, seeing him [and Joe Thornton], guys battling through injuries, guys coming back from painful situations and giving 100 percent out on the ice and just giving it all – it’s really inspiring,” Chris Tierney said. “It gives a lot of jump to us, and gives the team a lot of energy.”

Joel Ward said: “For him to come back like that, obviously he’s a warrior. For him not to just be there but contribute as much as he has, key minutes – he’s a talented dude. The guys love him, just excited for him to be back. He definitely gives us a big lift.”

It’s a positive sign for the Sharks, too, that Couture seems to be improving with each game. Had the Sharks managed to beat the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final last June, Couture likely would have been the Conn Smythe Award winner for playoff MVP, posting a league-leading 30 points in 24 games. That’s the Couture they need on the ice if they’re going to make a run.

For now, Couture can continue giving the Sharks an emotional boost as he continues to improve physically.

Pete DeBoer said: “When you see your best players with that type of commitment level – refusing to use injuries as an excuse, the behind the scenes stuff and what they’re going through getting prepared to play and help us – obviously, that’s motivating.”

As Joakim Ryan returns home, Sharks reunite with a former top prospect

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AP

As Joakim Ryan returns home, Sharks reunite with a former top prospect

When Joakim Ryan suits up in his first NHL road game against the New Jersey Devils Friday night, he’ll do so in a familiar place.

Ryan, a New Jersey-born Swede, played for the Devils’ youth program and nearby Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) in high school. In fact, he’s already played at the Prudential Center, skating in the state championship game with CBA in 2009.

He’s not the only one due for something of a homecoming, as the Sharks may see a familiar face line up on the opposing blueline.

This is the Sharks’ first matchup against New Jersey since trading 2013 first round pick Mirco Mueller ahead of June’s Expansion Draft. Mueller was once considered the future on the San Jose blueline, a smooth-skating defenseman with size to boot.

The Swiss defender never fulfilled his potential, in part because his development was rushed from the start. He made the NHL roster as a rookie in 2014-15, almost by default. Other than Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the only defensemen ahead of him on left side of the depth chart were a far past-his-prime Scott Hannan and regular scratch Matt Irwin. Such was the nature of the Sharks’ “step back” that year.

Mueller finally got regular playing time, albeit in the minors, during his second professional season. By then, he was pushed down the organizational depth chart by the team’s acquisitions of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak, and the development of Dylan DeMelo. David Schlemko’s signing last summer kept Mueller there for most of 2016-17, but it was Ryan and Tim Heed that ensured Mueller’s NHL future would lie elsewhere. The Swedes surpassed him, and emerged as perhaps the AHL’s best defensive pair in the process.

It’s fitting, then, that Ryan and Heed will be in the lineup tonight, and Mueller may not, as the fresh start he needed hasn’t quite panned out. He’s averaging a career-high 18:44 in ice time, but has been scratched in three of New Jersey’s seven games, including Thursday night’s overtime win in Ottawa.

So Ryan comes home to New Jersey under much happier circumstances than Mueller will reunite with the Sharks. One prodigal son returns, and the other is simply trying to save face.

It’s still early in his Devils tenure, of course, and Mueller may yet emerge as a regular on the New Jersey blueline. His Sharks reunion, though, will serve as a reminder of what once was, what could have been, and what is now San Jose’s future on defense.

Sharks headed in right direction, road trip to reveal who they really are

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USATSI

Sharks headed in right direction, road trip to reveal who they really are

The difference between a 2-3-0 start and a 1-4-0 start is bigger than two standings points.

The former is far from ideal, but if you squint hard enough, there's enough wiggle room to improve. There's still time with the latter, too, but the margin for error is much thinner moving forward.

The Sharks experienced that difference firsthand after Tuesday’s 5-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens. It's not an ideal record, but they’ve managed to salvage a poor start. 

There are still some flaws, to be sure. The power play isn't just the Kevin Labanc show after the top unit scored all three power play goals Tuesday, but is still carrying a disproportionate offensive load. The penalty kill’s scoreless streak came to an end, but they were called into action six times.

Despite all that, Tuesday's win was San Jose’s best effort this season. Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Joe Thornton all had multi-point games for the first time this year. Martin Jones had another strong game, and appears to have shaken off his slow start.

In short, San Jose’s game is headed in the right direction. It needs to be, with a five-game road trip beginning on Friday. 

Now comes the hard part.

It's on the road where we’ll get our best sense of who this team really is. Peter DeBoer won’t have the benefit of last change, and won't be able to dictate matchups. 

Under these circumstances, we’ll begin to really see if Joakim Ryan is ready for a top-four role, whether Kevin Labanc is a viable first-line winger, and how the rest of the young reinforcements stack up. They will have less time off, too, as all but one game occurs after one day (or less) of rest and travel. That missed practice time isn't ideal for any team, let alone one still trying to work out the kinks.

Fortunately, the competition is forgiving, at least on paper. Other than the Devils, none of the Sharks’ four other road trip opponents have winning records as of this writing. The topsy turvy nature of the standings, though, show how little “on paper” means this early in the season.

We’ll know a lot more about who these San Jose Sharks are by the time their road trip ends. Their record still won't tell the whole story, but by then, they'll have played about an eighth of the season. 

And by then, we’ll have a much better idea of how good this team really is.