Sharks start 'final push,' prepare for last East Coast road trip

Sharks start 'final push,' prepare for last East Coast road trip

SAN JOSE -- The Sharks routinely have one of the worst travel schedules in the NHL. There isn’t a single road game that doesn’t require a flight of at least an hour.

Still, after this week’s trek through Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia and New Jersey, the Sharks will have knocked out all of their cross-country expeditions by mid-February. For a team that would prefer to be well rested ahead of the playoffs in April, that’s a huge benefit.

“Yeah, it is. It’s been a tough road,” Pete DeBoer said. “It will be nice to finish March and April at least in the west, within a time zone or two of California, not having to do that travel. Come playoff time – and obviously we want to make sure we secure a spot first – but there’s going to be some heavy mileage there, I’m assuming.”

Joel Ward said: “Getting tired of these five-hour plane rides, so if we can knock them out, it will be good.”

On the other hand, the Sharks have had wonderful success against the Eastern Conference. Their 16-6-0 mark against eastern teams is the best mark in the Western Conference, after they posted a 20-11-1 record against them last season.

No Western team has more than the Sharks’ 36 wins against the Eastern Conference since the start of the 2015-16 season, while their impressive .685 points percentage against the opposing conference is the best of any NHL team over that span.

DeBoer chalked that up to coincidence more than anything else, comparing it to the Sharks’ bad home record but NHL-best road record last season.

“I think every team is different. I don’t think there is an explanation,” he said. “It’s like our home and road record, you guys (the media) last year – we couldn’t win at home and there were all those questions, and now we do nothing but win at home. I don’t know if there’s an explanation for it. We’re jut going about business and trying to win games.”

Still, DeBoer and his staff probably deserve some credit here. They’re the ones in charge of getting the team prepared to play against opposing players that aren’t quite as familiar to their club.

The pregame meetings take on a little more importance when you’re facing an unacquainted foe.

“The homework is there, for sure,” Ward said. “[The coaches] definitely do a really good job of laying it out there for us, it’s just a matter of executing. When you don’t see teams too often I think the emphasis on some meetings could be a little bit longer and more important, just to key on a few guys.”

Brenden Dillon said: “There’s a little bit of personnel [discussion], guys you don’t know as much about. You’re definitely watching a little bit more video, asking a few more questions.”

After next Sunday’s game against the Devils, the Sharks will have just six games remaining against Eastern Conference teams. All of them will be in the friendly confines of the SAP Center, though.

They’ll take an 8-1-1 record in their last 10 games into their final significant roadie, enjoy the bye week later this month, and go into March with a division title on their minds.

“Where we’re at with the schedule here, this is the final push,” Dillon said.

Logan Couture returns to Sharks practice after collision with teammate


Logan Couture returns to Sharks practice after collision with teammate

Sharks fans can breathe a sigh of relief, because Logan Couture returned to practice Wednesday morning.

Couture was sidelined at the end of Tuesday morning's practice after he collided with rookie center Rourke Chartier during three-on-three drills. DeBoer didn't immediately have an update on the center's status following Tuesday's practice, but indicated Wednesday that everything was okay.

No. 39 has three points (1 goal, 2 assists) through six games so far this season, all of which were logged during the Sharks' five-game road trip. He made the early-season highlight reel when he set up Kevin Labanc for the game-winning overtime goal against the LA Kings on Friday, October 5.

San Jose was hit with early season injury woes after top line staple Joe Thornton was sidelined after the second game of the regular season due to an infection in his surgically repaired knee. The 39-year-old forward rejoined the team on Tuesday after missing the tail end of the team's road trip.

He has participated in both practices since the Sharks have returned to San Jose, although there isn't clear when he'll next suit up for a game.

Sharks notes: Joe Thornton applauds team for 'playing great' in his absence

San Jose Sharks

Sharks notes: Joe Thornton applauds team for 'playing great' in his absence

SAN JOSE -- Sharks center Joe Thornton had a fan’s view of the team’s last four games, and he said he liked what he saw.

“I think they’re playing great,” Thornton said Tuesday after his first practice since going on injured reserve Oct. 7. “I think the record could be 5-1, 4-2. We looked solid, [five-on-five] play looked really solid.

“But I really, really like our five-on-five play. It felt like what I was watching we were dictating most of the games.”

Thornton experienced swelling in his surgically repaired right knee the day after San Jose’s 3-2 overtime win over the Los Angeles Kings. In the next four games, the Sharks largely controlled play at even strength, attempting 58.92 percent of the five-on-five shots and out-chancing opponents 102-76, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Yet, the Sharks finished the Thornton-less portion of the trip 1-2-1, falling to 2-3-1 overall. That’s, at least in part, because San Jose scored on just 6.56 percent of its five-on-five shots, and 7.27 percent overall.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said the team wants to clean up some details but also must be prepared to just ride out this stretch. 

“I think there are some things you can do to help yourself,” DeBoer said. “Some net-front traffic, and some more commitment to bearing down. But I also think you’ve got to be careful, too, and some of it is just sticking with it. There are stretches where it just doesn’t go [in].”

Risk-y Business

So, how did Thornton spend his week away from the team?

“Watched the games, played some Risk on my computer, go to hockey games with my kid,” Thornton said. “There’s always stuff to be busy with.”

Yes, Thornton -- along with a surprising number of NHL players, as Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt documented in a great story last year -- is an avid player of the Hasbro classic.

He grew up playing with his older brothers during his childhood summers, and has gotten some of his current and former teammates hooked: HC Davos roommate Rick Nash and former Sharks center Chris Tierney were among the converts mentioned in Prewitt’s story.

Gambrell earns 'a look here soon'

The Sharks did not practice Monday, so rookie center Dylan Gambrell spent the night in an AHL game, suiting up for the San Jose Barracuda. Gambrell scored or assisted on both of San Jose’s regulation goals, all with DeBoer in attendance.

The 22-year-old was one of the last cuts of training camp, and he traveled with the team after Thornton was placed on injured reserve. Gambrell has not played for the Sharks yet this season, but he now has five points in two AHL games. 

“He’s gone down and handled the demotion the right way by being the best player on the ice most nights he’s down there,” DeBoer said. “He’s gonna get a look here soon, and hopefully he takes it and runs with it.”

Gambrell played on the wing at Tuesday’s practice, skating with Timo Meier and Logan Couture while Tomas Hertl sat for a maintenance day. Gambrell played on the wing in the preseason, too, and DeBoer said that can only help his cause. 

“If you’re a centerman, you want to be able to knock on the coach’s door and say, ‘Hey, listen, I can also play wing until you need [one],' ” DeBoer said. “He’s got that versatility to his game because of his speed, so I think the more positions he can play, the more opportunities he’s going to get.” 

Fine Lines

While Kevin Labanc also sat for a maintenance day, Thornton returned to the top line alongside Joe Pavelski and Evander Kane. Other than him and Gambrell, there were no other changes to the line combinations and defense pairs from the end of the road trip, and they shook out as follows:

Evander Kane - Joe Thornton - Joe Pavelski
Timo Meier - Logan Couture - Dylan Gambrell
Marcus Sorensen - Antti Suomela - Joonas Donskoi
Barclay Goodrow - Rourke Chartier - Melker Karlsson

Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Erik Karlsson
Joakim Ryan - Brent Burns
Brenden Dillon - Justin Braun
Radim Simek - Tim Heed

Second-line center Logan Couture collided with Rourke Chartier in a drill Tuesday, and appeared to be holding his wrist afterward. DeBoer did not have an update immediately after practice.

If Couture doesn’t skate Wednesday, the Sharks could ice much different lines in his absence.