Sharks

McLellan-comes-home one of many fascinating Sharks-Oilers storylines

McLellan-comes-home one of many fascinating Sharks-Oilers storylines

If you’re the sort who thinks that coaching matchups are compelling playoff fodder, the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers are just the thing for you.

Of course, you’re also the sort who has to drink alone a lot because, well, nobody who is the sort who thinks coaching matchups are compelling playoff fodder has a lot of friends.

But now that it seems a near certainty that the Oilers and Sharks will be the one of the eight Stanley Cup first-round matchups (Anaheim-Calgary and Montreal-New York Rangers seem equally set), there will be a steady stream of Todd McLellan-comes-home stories. They are easy to do, have a compelling hook (he didn’t leave San Jose happily or willingly, the wound is still not fully closed over, and the turmoil of his last year was the most noticeable fail-blip in the last 15 years of Sharkery).

But it isn’t what you will actually be watching when the series begins April 12 (site as yet undetermined). What you will be watching is a wounded Sharks team (probably no Joe Thornton to start the series, maybe no Logan Couture, and the slow closing of one of the longest open windows in recent NHL history) against a young, intrepid, don’t-know-enough-to-know-what-they-don’t-know Oilers team with two of the best young players in a rich lode of great young players.

For those of you who claim not to pay attention before the Cup begins, that would be Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

The Oilers are fast, offensively cheeky and profoundly inexperienced. The Sharks are deeply experienced and paced for grinding. They both have one-goalie systems (Cam Talbot v. Martin Jones). They are both sloppy with possession (San Jose is1 and Edmonton 2 in giveaways) and bad in the faceoff circle (24th and 30th), but love blocking shots (San Jose is 1 and Edmonton 7).

But those are just yearlong tendencies compared against everyone else’s yearlong tendencies. The real issue here is whether age and experience can overcome infirmities and l’arn the faster and greener a thing or two.

Put another way, whether you prefer the Sharks with Jones and Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski but without Thornton and Couture to the Oilers with McDavid and Draisaitl and Talbot and no injuries of any real note.

Much of traversing the playoffs is being and staying healthy, and avoiding a series of high-leverage games early in the process. That won’t be possible for either team, since the winner likely gets the bruise distributorship known as Anaheim in the second round.

But we have never really seen the Sharks in the postseason without Thornton (although we came close when he played one-armed against Vancouver in 2011, and he was wrongly roasted in Boston in 2004 because he played poorly while hiding torn rib cartilage), and if you double-down without Couture, it is fair to wonder if the Sharks are simply too depleted to be effective. Their last month has been largely poor even before the injuries, though momentum between games in hockey is largely a myth, so the suggestion that Edmonton is ready to advance is not an unfounded one.

But nobody saw the Sharks as a Cup finalist a year ago either. Hot teams seek their own level, and though the Sharks have to find that heat, it is not unreasonable to think that as a playoff fixture they could do that.

It’s probably not the way to bet, though, not if Edmonton can maintain the faster pace and San Jose can’t get Thornton and Couture back and useful.

In short, while Todd McLellan will be a fun one-day story, this series has enough fascinating unknowns to carry you through those dark days while the Warriors are trying to navigate either the Portland Trail Blazers or Denver Nuggets. I mean, the effective NBA season starts in more than a month, but the NHL starts right . . . about . . . now.

Martin Jones rebounds from benching to lead Sharks to fifth straight win

Martin Jones rebounds from benching to lead Sharks to fifth straight win

Through the first few months of the NHL season, the spotlight on the San Jose Sharks has spent a lot of time focused between the pipes. Even after Martin Jones’ game turned around at the start of December, his critics were back out in full force last Sunday when he was pulled in the first period after giving up three quick goals to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Clearly, Jones needed a turnaround performance on Tuesday when Peter DeBoer sent him back out to start against the Minnesota Wild. No. 31 did just that, standing tall as he notched his first shutout of the season and helped the Sharks extend their winning streak to five games with a 4-0 victory.

“Everyone has tough games, and obviously that was a tough one for him,” Logan Couture said, referring back to Sunday’s game in Chicago. “But we have all the confidence in the world in (Jones) – that he was going to rebound. He played very well tonight.”

Things did look dicey at the start of Jones’ return to the crease on Tuesday when a long shot by Minnesota's Eric Staal rang off the post. While the puck didn’t find the back of the net, it was a scary sight given Jones had given up three goals on four shots just a couple nights before. (Namely that rough game-opening marker by Alex DeBrincat that trickled right past the netminder’s pad.) After that chance by Staal, however, Jones stood on his proverbial head to keep the Wild’s trickiest shots from finding the back of the net.

DeBoer said he knew from Jones’ body of work over the last couple of seasons that he could have a rebound performance like he did. “I knew right after the Chicago game I wanted to come right back with him,” the Sharks coach said. “In my time with him, he’s always responded after a game like that [against Chicago] with a big game. Every time. I was confident we were going to get that type of game out of him tonight.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Sharks also put up a strong defensive effort in front of him. There’s no denying that stretching a detailed game out over a full 60 minutes and not giving Minnesota any room made Jones’ job a bit easier to do. It’s the kind of defensive effort the Sharks admitted they lacked earlier in the campaign.

“There’s no doubt he was left exposed by the game in front of him,” DeBoer said of San Jose’s woes from earlier in the season. “I think everyone is better than early in the season.”

Whatever the reason, it’s safe to say Jones’ game is coming around at the right time. The Sharks will now head home to host the Winnipeg Jets, who are without a doubt the hottest team in the whole league right now. San Jose might’ve been more concerned heading into a contest with the Central Division juggernaut back in November when they were giving up more goals than they were scoring.

Martin Jones’ successful rebound performance, though, showed the Sharks are ready to take on anybody.

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in 4-0 win vs. Wild as streak hits five

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in 4-0 win vs. Wild as streak hits five

BOX SCORE

There wasn’t a lot of room out on the ice between the Sharks and the Minnesota Wild at the start of Tuesday evening's contest. 

Then San Jose, broke through thanks to a two-goal evening from Logan Couture and a magnificent performance from goaltender Martin Jones. After a solid 60 minutes, the Sharks emerged victorious, 4-0.

Here are three takeaways from San Jose's fifth straight win:

Nice rebound for Jones

Jones needed a rebound performance on Tuesday evening. After a string of solid starts following his victory over the Canadiens in Montreal on Dec. 2, the netminder was pulled after giving up three goals on four shots Sunday in Chicago. 

Jones didn’t just prevent those trickle-in goals that eluded him on Sunday. He stood tall against a Wild team that skated in low, and put plenty of pucks on net.  He was particularly good when Minnesota began peppering him with shots in the start of the second period, keeping the Wild off the board.

Speaking of that frame …

Another stellar second stanza

This was the second game in a row where the Sharks have come alive in the second period. After a tight opening 20 minutes, San Jose tried to create some space for themselves. The result was Couture’s first goal on the evening, which was set up by an amazing behind-the-net pass from rookie winger Lukas Radil. 

The stretch of strong second periods is a real testament to how much the Sharks have turned their overall game around. Instead of jumping out with a strong start and then getting relaxed, they’ve taken over the pace of the game. Plus, they’ve also stayed strong in the third period.

Quality apples

The goal-scorers usually get all the glory, but three of San Jose’s goals on Tuesday were owed to highlight-reel assists. Following Radil’s crafty pass to set up Couture’s game-opening goal, Tomas Hertl made an amazing saucer pass to Joe Pavelski, who notched the second goal on a breakaway 29 seconds after Couture's. Both of those goals manifested thanks to plays created by newcomer Radim Simek in the Sharks’ zone.

In the third period, Couture added to the Sharks' lead after receiving the puck from Hertl on a crazy play created by Erik Karlsson. Yes, the same Erik Karlsson who now has a six-game point streak. 

The first two goals showed how much more defensively sound the Sharks are playing, and how they’re translating that into offensive production.