Playoff hockey arrives in February for Sharks


Playoff hockey arrives in February for Sharks

SAN JOSE -- If the Sharks know whats good for them, and they so often dont, they will regard Tuesdays 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers as their first playoff game of the 2012 season.

The Sharks found the energy they had left in the airport locker at San Jose International 17 days ago, and played with a frantic purpose that they will have to replicate from this point on if they intend (a) not to miss the playoffs and (b) not to be a four-and-done.

The Sharks are what the standings say they are -- a sixth-place team, and four of the five ahead of them have legitimate claim to say they are better than The Fin. They have been the sixth-best team for a long time now, even though as the Western Division leaders they sat third in your morning standings and therefore looked better in printer ink than they have in real life.

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But the religion they got after their nine-game, five-point road trip has always been difficult for them to recreate consistently. The high revs provided by the full roster -- especially new arrival Daniel Winnik as the right side of the Joe Pavelski-Patrick Marleau line -- were a sight for jaded Sharks fans to behold.

And the defense, which had passed shoddy and eased into borderline unsightly on the trip, was considerably better, keeping the mess in front of goalie Antti Niemi manageable if not necessarily orderly. The Flyers 26 shots seemed a lot more like 38, and the saves Niemi didnt make were goalmouth scrambles that the Flyers will count at somewhere between four and eight goals they should have had.

But thats playoff hockey, and so was the low number of penalties called by Mike Leggo and Marc Joannette. Either by virtue of their veteran status, their understanding that two frustrated teams needed to blow off steam, or having an early flight, the two handled a very physical game like Montessori school teachers, calling only three penalties the entire night, one a delay of game on Colin White for shooting a puck over the glass.

Thus left to settle their issues dhomme a homme, the Sharks and Flyers produced a taut and physical thriller that could only have been better if it led to another game in a series of them.

San Jose isnt there yet, though. Their first period issues, the penalty kill issues and their inconsistency issues all conspire against their skill and general work rate to put in a position where they cannot realistically catch Vancouver or Detroit at the top of the Western Conference. Their world narrows to the Pacific Division, because there isnt much difference between third and ninth except for the golf and hunting.

Thus, San Jose, which has grown accustomed to taking their playoff plans for granted, has a more frantic finish of their own to undertake. Fourteen of their last 20 games are against either playoff locks or contenders, and 11 of those 20 and nine of the final 11 are against division opponents.

In sum, its white-knuckle time for a team that in years past was credited with having a nice manicure. These last 20 games are a hard slog for teams from six through 15, and the Sharks are No. 6. These are the playoffs, starting now, and every slow start, flat effort, bad goalie night or just plain blah performance is a knee in the nethers.

It doesnt get simpler than that. But for the Sharks, who havent experienced this sort of thing for 12 years now, simpler is often not simple enough, so well lay it out for everyone.

There are no more games to give away, period. The playoffs are now. They ignore that at their peril.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for

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


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.

Sharks' offense comes alive, leads charge in win over Canadiens


Sharks' offense comes alive, leads charge in win over Canadiens


SAN JOSE — Logan Couture credited a teammate for scoring his second goal. He took credit for the first one.

Couture scored a pair of goals and the San Jose Sharks extended their dominance of the Montreal Canadiens with a 5-2 victory on Tuesday night.

Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl also scored for the Sharks, who have won the past 11 home games against the Canadiens, a streak that dates to Nov. 23, 1999.

On a power play late in the third period, rookie Tim Heed took a shot off a face-off that bounced free in front of the net. Pavelski couldn't get his stick on it but managed to kick it across the net for Couture, who found a huge opening.

"That was pretty special," Couture said. "I don't know if he knew I was there but he kept his balance and kicked it over."

Couture opened the scoring 3:30 into the first period, grabbing a rebound off the back board, skating across the front of the net to get Price to commit and then firing into an open net.

Jonathan Drouin and Shea Weber scored for the Canadiens, who are winless since an opening night victory at the Buffalo Sabres.

"It's a very poor start from our team, from myself, from a lot of individuals," Canadiens' Max Pacioretty said. "It's a good time to look in the mirror and see what we're made of because a lot of people are probably doubting this team right now."

Martin Jones stopped 28 of 30 shots for the Sharks, who finish their season-opening homestand with a 2-3 record.

"The biggest thing is finding that energy for the whole game," Jones said. "We started OK and then we got better as the night went on."

Carey Price, who stopped 31 of 35 shots, fell to 2-7-1 in 10 games against the Sharks.

The Canadiens responded 36 seconds later when Drouin picked up a pass from Artturi Lehkonen close in and fired it over Jones' left shoulder and into the net.

Pavelski gave the Sharks the lead for good when he redirected Kevin Labanc's shot just under a minute into the second period. The shot hit Weber's left shin pad and bounced into the net.

"There were a lot of good things out there," Pavelski said. "We didn't have the homestand we wanted but we can leave on a positive note to take on the road."

Hertl padded the lead midway through the second on a power play. Standing on the right side of the net, he was trying to control a pass from Joe Thornton but the puck fluttered off his stick and got behind Price.

"I'll take it any way I can get it," Hertl said. "There are times I've had great shots that just bounced off the post."

Weber's power-play goal two minutes later kicked off Jones' skates for the score.

The Sharks needed five seconds to score on a power play late in the second period. Tim Heed shot on goal and it bounced off Pavelski's skate. Couture picked it up and found a huge opening.

NOTES: After allowing three power play goals over their first five penalty kills, the Sharks killed off 14 straight until Weber scored in the second period. ... Couture recorded his 24th career multi-goal game. ... Sharks D Tim Heed recorded his first NHL point with an assist on Couture's power-play goal. ... Brendan Gallagher needs one assist for 100 with the Canadiens.


Canadiens: plays at the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday in their second back-to-back of the season.

Sharks: open a five-game road trip on the east coast with a game at the New Jersey Devils on Friday.