SAN JOSE -- Thursday was the rehearsal. Saturday is the real thing.
The Sharks welcomed back a former player in their win over the Blue Jackets on Thursday night, but no offense to Gus Nyquist -- it was just another game for San Jose.
The same cannot be said for Saturday night's bout against Joe Pavelski and the visiting Dallas Stars.
After playing 963 games in a Sharks uniform, Pavelski returns to SAP Center on Saturday night as a visiting player for the very first time. Arguably the most beloved captain in franchise history, Pavelski was signed by Dallas in free agency after he and the Sharks failed to reach a contract agreement. No ill will is harbored on either side -- quite the opposite, actually -- and his absence has been felt throughout what has been an atypically down season in San Jose.
Throughout Pavelski's 13 seasons with the Sharks, the team failed to qualify for the postseason only once and never posted a points percentage lower than 54.3 percent. Currently, San Jose is well off the pace to qualify for the playoffs and has totaled only 47.8 percent of its maximum possible points thus far. Part of the problem has been the offense, as the Sharks are scoring nearly one fewer goal per game this season (2.65) than they did last year (3.52). That might be the area where Pavelski's absence has been most evident, but the Sharks certainly have missed their former captain's presence off the ice, as well.
"A guy like that is very, very tough to replace," Sharks interim head coach Bob Boughner said of Pavelski following San Jose's morning skate Saturday. "I think more than anything, it's the friendships and the bonds he had in the dressing room. And listening to some of the player's comments the last couple days about how hard he worked and how he prepared and how he kept guys accountable, you can never have enough guys like that.
"The guys that are doing it now have done a good job, but Pavs was a guy that everybody looked up to and had a lot of respect for."
It's not as if there's a leadership vacuum in San Jose's locker room this season. There's an ample number of veterans ready and willing to carry the torch, but with the Sharks in somewhat of a transitional phase, Pavelski remains a model for which some of the next wave of team leaders can still learn from.
"Being around [Joe Thornton] and [Patrick] Marleau, the guys have a couple great examples there," Boughner added. "More than anything, it's [Pavelski's] leadership. It's how he handles himself in the dressing room, in the community and things like that. I think guys like [Logan Couture] and [Tomas] Hertl and Timo Meier and [Kevin Labanc] -- those are the guys that could really try to emulate what kind of guy he was off the ice."
Right now, "off the ice" describes all that Couture is able to do. A fractured ankle suffered in Tuesday's loss to the St. Louis Blues will keep him out for several weeks, further exacerbating the Sharks' lack of offense, as he ranks fourth on the team in goals (14) and is tied for second in assists (22). Similar to Pavelski, the impact of Couture's absence is likely to be readily apparent before long, but as Boughner explained, it's no coincidence that San Jose's current captain took over the 'C' from the previous one.
"They're their own individuals when it comes to their games," Boughner said, "but [Couture] is probably the guy that you could say is responsible in all three zones and plays the right way and plays a lot like Pavs."
Neither Couture nor Pavelski will be wearing a Sharks sweater when San Jose takes the ice Saturday night. For everyone involved, that's going to take some getting used to.