When Radim Simek was sidelined last March with a torn ACL and MCL, the Sharks insisted that they would be able to maintain their status as a dominant team in the defenseman's absence.
But in his return to game action Tuesday night, nearly eight months later, it immediately became clear what a considerable impact the young blueliner has when he's in San Jose's lineup.
"He makes a big difference," head coach Peter DeBoer told reporters after Team Teal's 4-2 win over the visiting Chicago Blackhawks. "When he was in our lineup last year we were a different team."
The Sharks' defense played a big role in Tuesday's win, keeping Chicago out of their zone and limiting their chances. San Jose played heavier and harder in Simek's return, as he tallied four blocks and tied for the team lead with five hits. His first-period hit on rookie center Kirby Dach not only epitomized the grit that San Jose's blue line has been missing, but showed that his physical play is already where it needs to be.
Simek clocked 20:37 minutes of ice time in his first game back, just 20 fewer seconds than Erik Karlsson. Karlsson and Brent Burns have been logging heavy minutes since the start of the season due to multiple injuries and replacements proving unable to pick up the slack. With a healthy Simek back in the mix, the two Norris Trophy winners now can play more manageable minutes.
"It allows us the luxury of not having to overplay guys," DeBoer said. "Their minutes are more where they need to be, which allows us to hop over the board with energy and defend harder. So it was nice to have [Simek] back."
That improved energy on the blue line was evident throughout the game, as the Sharks' retooled defensive pairs controlled a good portion of the contest. Simek looked right at home reunited with Burns, while Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic recreated some of the chemistry they established playing together last season. Even the Sharks' new all-lefty combo of Brenden Dillon and Mario Ferraro had a good night and set up a short-handed goal in the process.
Now, of course, the Sharks need to harness that energy and play with that same kind of heaviness on a nightly basis.
While Tuesday's win helped snap a five-game losing streak, San Jose's journey isn't going to get any easier. The Sharks' homestand continues this week against a Minnesota Wild team coming off a win over the Ducks, and against a Nashville Predators squad that is sure to test San Jose's physicality. If the Sharks want to turn one win into the start of a streak, their defense is going to have to keep rolling.
With Radim Simek back in the mix, they have a better chance of doing that.