Sharks fighting through 'Stanley Cup hangover'

Sharks fighting through 'Stanley Cup hangover'

SAN JOSE – After the New Jersey Devils made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012 under head coach Pete DeBoer, they didn’t really have a chance to experience that so-called Stanley Cup hangover the following season. The ensuing lockout, along with the departure of captain and heartbeat Zach Parise in the offseason, made that run a bit of a distant memory by the time NHL hockey resumed in mid-January, 2013.

DeBoer has repeatedly cautioned to his current Sharks group that they are now viewed differently by other teams around the league after what happened last season. The message from opposing head coaches is a simple one; they need only to remind their group that they’re going up against the defending Western Conference champs, a team that hasn’t changed its roster all that much from last June.

Joel Quenneville, the head coach of the Blackhawks, knows plenty about what it’s like to resume play the following autumn after a long run the season prior. Chicago has won three Stanley Cups since 2010, and although the circumstances and the teams are always different, Quenneville believes that a hangover is a tangible thing.

“Every game is challenging, teams are ready for you to begin the season,” Quenneville said last Wednesday before the Sharks-Blackhawks game. “[You have to find] a way to get momentum going, and you don’t want to play [like it’s] game 82 to get in, because it’s a long grind.

“I just think that guys eventually get it, that it’s time to play for keeps and it’s meaningful games throughout the year. … I’d say that first 20 games is probably the biggest challenge.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago’s captain, has been a part of all three Blackhawks championships.

“It definitely is difficult early in the season when you have teams coming off of a really long offseason, and they’re fresh and they’re excited and eager to redeem themselves for maybe falling short of their expectations the year before,” Toews said. “In that regard, yeah, it’s tough.”

When Quenneville’s “20 games” theory was passed on to DeBoer, he didn’t argue.

“When I consider the source, he would know probably better than any coach in the last 10 years what that’s like,” DeBoer said. “It makes sense to me. … I think every group is different. I think it takes you some time to realize that every team you’re playing is bringing their best level.”

The Sharks have played 22 games this season, posting a 12-9-1 record, and based on some of their recent efforts during a five-game homestand – including a 2-1 win over Quenneville’s Blackhawks – they are looking more and more like the team that surged up the standings in the second half of last season, culminating in that exciting run to the NHL’s final round.

On nights earlier this season, though, they didn’t appear all that interested in competing for a full 60 minutes, and the results showed in losses to Arizona, Calgary and Carolina, in particular. The power play is still struggling to score, as is the team in general, with 2.36 goals-per game (23rd in the NHL). 

The team defense, penalty kill and the goaltending have been solid, but that desire to play a hard, aggressive, forechecking game in which they get to the front of the net to create those second and third opportunities has only showed up in spurts. The Sharks are the only team in the NHL that hasn’t scored more than four goals in a game yet.

A Tuesday night in Carolina in front of 8,000 fans, of course, is a far cry from playing in front of sold out crowds at SAP Center in the Stanley Cup Final just five months ago. There is essentially no atmosphere to speak of, and the energy has to come from within.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, himself a Stanley Cup winner with Dallas in 1999 and who has been a part of plenty of long playoff runs, said that recreating that energy is not easy this time of year for teams that found success last spring.

“It looks like the teams that jumped out, especially in the east, have recreated new energy in the group and are having success. In the West, we’re all fighting for that right now,” Hitchcock said. 

“We’re all trying to find energy, we’re all trying to find chemistry. Some teams are going at it slowly, and some teams are going at it a little bit quicker, but at the end of the day, you can’t rely on what happened last year. None of us can. We have to go and recreate.”

Logan Couture understands what Hitchcock is getting at.

“I think he’s correct. You go that far, it’s so much emotion and so tough to get there, and the season restarts,” Couture said. 

“It is tough to recreate that, but it’s our job. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

Couture scores in OT, helps Sharks make up ground on Golden Knights

Couture scores in OT, helps Sharks make up ground on Golden Knights


SAN JOSE -- Seconds after almost costing the San Jose Sharks a game with a turnover, Logan Couture ended it with his backhand.

Couture scored 39 seconds into overtime after getting bailed out by goalie Martin Jones and the San Jose Sharks won their season-high sixth straight game, 2-1 over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.

"I was able to make a move on their guy," Couture said. "(Marc-Edouard Vlasic) did a good job of driving their backchecker back and I was able to go far side."

Couture's goal came at the end of an opening shift of the overtime that started with him losing the puck in his own zone, giving Jonathan Marchessault a chance alone in front. Jones got enough of the shot to stop it, and then Vlasic sent the puck ahead to Couture for the winning goal that moved San Jose within seven points of first-place Vegas with eight games remaining in the regular season.

Brent Burns also scored and Jones made 24 saves to help the Sharks open a four-point lead over third-place Los Angeles in the Pacific Division with a game in hand as the Sharks close in on home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

"For us to get a win tonight was important," captain Joe Pavelski said. "Plus, just plant that seed. If we stay hot, you never know, we might be able to catch them and get home ice. We took care of business tonight and we'll try to keep playing well."

Tomas Tatar scored the lone goal for the Golden Knights, who were kept in the game by a sterling performance by goalie Malcolm Subban. He stopped 42 shots but it wasn't enough for Vegas to come up with the win, although he helped earn a point that gave the expansion team 100 this season.

"It's impressive," forward James Neal said. "It's a great season for our guys. Guys came together real quick. A great job so far but we're not done yet."

The Golden Knights struck first on a pretty passing play early in the first period that ended when Marchessault found Tatar cutting through the slot ahead of Justin Braun. Tatar skated past Jones and backhanded the puck into the open net.

Vegas has been dominant when getting off to a lead, posting an NHL-best 31-5-1 record when scoring first heading into this game. But the Sharks carried the play in the second period, outshooting the Golden Knights 18-4 and getting the equalizer on a blast by Burns from the point after another strong shift by San Jose's fourth line.

"We want to be playing really good hockey this time of year and heading into the playoffs. I think that's the goal," coach Peter DeBoer said. "Whether we would have won tonight or lost, I like how we played for most of the game, so that's what I'm concentrating on."

Vegas managed to keep it tied despite the lopsided shot totals, killing off a four-minute penalty to Colin Miller and another late power play that started late in the second.

That penalty carried over until the third period and the Sharks got 25 seconds of a two-man advantage after Brayden McNabb was called for throwing his stick but still couldn't get anything past Subban.

The Golden Knights squandered a power-play chance later in the period when Miller was called for cross checking with the man advantage. That nearly led to a power-play goal for San Jose but Subban appeared to get a piece of a shot from in close to Joe Pavelski to keep the game tied at 1.

"He's the main reason we got the point," coach Gerard Gallant said. "He looked comfortable."

NOTES: Vegas G Marc-Andre Fleury didn't make the trip to San Jose with an undisclosed injury but is expected to join the team for Saturday's game in Colorado. ... Burns became the 15th player to play 500 career games with the Sharks.

Golden Knights: Visit Colorado on Saturday.

Sharks: Host Calgary on Saturday.


How the Sharks can catch the Golden Knights and win the Pacific


How the Sharks can catch the Golden Knights and win the Pacific

About a month ago, the Sharks appeared locked into the Pacific Division's second, third, fourth, or fifth spot. At the end of trade deadline day, they were 12 points back of the division-leading Vegas Golden Knights, and only two points up on the fifth place Calgary Flames.

24 days later, thanks to an 8-2-0 record over the last 10 games (second-best in the NHL), San Jose's still in second place. Now though, those margins are eight points and 11 points, respectively. 

The latter's pretty much locked the Sharks into a playoff spot, while the former's created a path for a late run at the Pacific Division crown. Beginning Thursday night, they will play the Golden Knights twice over both team's final nine games. 

What does the path look like to the Sharks' first division title since 2011? To start, they'll have to beat the Golden Knights twice in regulation to even have a shot. 

That is the foundation of any run at the Pacific's top spot. If the Sharks win both remaining games in regulation, they'll trail the Golden Knights by four points, leaving aside results against other teams for now.

They have to win in regulation, however. A win in overtime or the shootout on Thursday would only cut the gap to seven, and a subsequent win in regulation would leave it at five. Two losses, in any situation, would create a gap of 10-12 points, which would be nearly impossible to overcome this late in the season. 

One point doesn't seem like a lot, but this late in the season, it makes a world of difference. A five-point gap means they'll need to earn six more than the Golden Knights in those other seven games, while a four-point gap means they'll need to earn five in order to pass them. 

The simplest way to five extra points, is for the Sharks to have a record that's two wins and an overtime loss better (2-0-1) than the Golden Knights in the seven games where they don't play each other. That's impossible if Vegas earns at least 10 points in those seven games, so a 5-2-0 or 4-1-2 record would ensure a division banner raising in Sin City.

Taken all together, then, the Golden Knights' 'magic number' is 10 points. Even if the Sharks win on Thursday, their path to a Pacific title remains difficult, if not improbable. 

If a season with an expansion team leading their division has taught us anything, though -- it's that improbable is not impossible.