Andrew Bensch The Hockey Writers
Sharks Save Best for Last On Historic Road Trip
The San Jose Sharks went into Sunday afternoon’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets having won the first five games of a six-game road trip. Less than 24 hours earlier they had played in Pittsburgh. They should have been tired. They could have gotten complacent. But they were neither.
San Jose came out strong in the first period and after falling behind 3-1 early in the third period against the Blue Jackets, the Sharks stormed back to win 5-3. The victory completes the franchise’s first ever 6-0 road trip and gives them sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division with a 13-8 record.
How About That?
When a team wins the first five games of a road trip and the sixth is on the second of back-to-backs, you don’t expect the final game to be their best performance. That was the case for the Sharks against the Blue Jackets. Sure, the second period was rather ugly but San Jose killed off a crucial five-on-three penalty kill in the middle frame and they were by far the better team in the first and third periods.
San Jose out-shot the Jackets 10-5 in the first and 12-7 in the third despite losing the overall shot battle 31-29 with an awful second period in terms of possession. Once again the Sharks got contributions from all of their top three lines. Things were mixed up a bit in terms of combinations but Joe Pavelski scored for the top line, Patrick Marleau scored for the second line, and Brenden Dillon’s game-winning goal was scored with new look third line of Joel Ward, Chris Tierney and Tommy Wingels.
The list of impressive performances is once again deep with Ward, Pavelski, Marleau, Dillon, Brent Burns, Paul Martin, Joonas Donskoi, and Justin Braun all having tremendous games. While the Sharks still have work to do on finding a fourth line and could use maybe a depth defenseman come trade deadline, the contributions are coming from a number of different suspects and that is how you win in today’s NHL. A strong top-six forwards without any depth is not good enough in this league and the Sharks are getting strong play up and down the lineup even without star center Logan Couture.
Paul Martin, Joel Ward and Martin Jones
A lot of people were down on the Sharks going into this season after Team Teal missed the playoffs last year. However, it was the first time they failed to qualify in 11 seasons and the team has retained every key player from their 2013-14 campaign that saw them finish with 111 points. San Jose has since added to it a number of key players, most notably three in particular this offseason. Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Martin Jones were all acquired one way or another this offseason. All three of them are playing at an elite level.
Ward is on pace to shatter his career-highs in goals and assists. His current highs are 24 goals and 25 assists for 49 points. This season though he is on pace for 32 goals and 35 assists for 67 points. Martin has provided San Jose’s second-pair with the much needed shut-down defender to complement the offensive prowess of Brent Burns. Those two have been paired together for all but three games this season when Martin was injured and despite a few defensive mistakes by Burns, the two have been extremely solid at both ends of the ice. Between the pipes, Jones started five of the six games on this road trip, posting a gaudy .950 save percentage to up his season mark to .929, sixth best in the league amongst goalies with 10 or more starts.
Donskoi & Karlsson
To go along with the three big acquisitions this offseason, the Sharks picked up two other quality players in recent years. As noted earlier on this road trip, Joonas Donskoi and Melker Karlsson were sparking the Sharks’ winning ways. Karlsson was a completely unknown pickup out of Sweden last year. He started the year in the AHL before having a really impressive rookie season with 24 points in 53 NHL games. Donskoi, a fourth-round pick of the Florida Panthers back in 2010 came over as a question mark but with significantly more buzz after being the MVP of the Finnish Elite League playoffs. Thus far this season he has seven points in his first 16 games and has showed an ability to play strong two-way hockey regardless of playing on the first, second or third line.
Fans Should Expect Big Things of These Sharks
When you have a core group of players still playing well in Marleau, Pavelski, Burns, Braun, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture (when healthy), Marc-Edouard Vlasic and have added five impressive new additions (four of the unrestricted free agent variety), you have the makings of a really good hockey team. Not to mention the Sharks are getting decent contributions from other players like Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto. The depth issues that have hurt this team in playoff flops past, are much less of a concern this year.
They are proving they can play excellent hockey even without one of the top two-way centers in the game the past five weeks. This squad is a definite playoff team if they can remain decently healthy (everyone goes through some injuries). They shouldn’t be taken lightly by anyone. They are leading their division even while both their special teams remain works in progress. Their five-on-five play has been phenomenal and the majority of games are played at even strength. Plus the power play is bound to come around eventually. Too much talent on that top unit, particularly when Couture returns. I predicted this team to win the division during the offseason, and I’m sticking by that prediction.
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