San Jose Sharks: 5 Reasons to Believe They'll Stay Hot in 2013-14
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Hard to believe any fanbase has enjoyed a more exciting start to the 2013-14 season than that of the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks roared into the start of the season with four straight wins, including two against the rival Canucks, and rookie phenom Tomas Hertl announced his arrival to the league with an exclamation point for the ages.
Yes, it’s a great time to be a Sharks fan.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. After all, the Sharks are notoriously fast starters and the team has completed exactly 4.5 percent of the regular season. There’s a reason why team-record projections and stat calculations aren’t made at this point. Spoiler Alert: Nobody is going 82-0 or challenging any of Gretzky's scoring records.
Then, there are the all-too-vivid memories of the early season magic and subsequent tailspin of just one season ago.
The Sharks rattled off seven straight wins to start the abbreviated 2012-13 season. The chatter that this could be “the year” for the San Jose Sharks has reignited. Last season's playoff man-handling by the St. Louis Blues? Old news. That wouldn't have happened to this year's team. That wasn't "our year," this is "our year."
Then, just like that, a 7-0 January gave way to a 2-10 February and suddenly it became "the year"—but for an entirely different reason.
Sorry to bring the dream-start to the current season to a screeching halt, but any Sharks fan will tell you it’s hard not to be at least a little skeptical. That’s just the reality the team has created for its fans.
But this team feels different. Could this finally be "the year" the Sharks etch their name into the Stanley Cup?
Here are five reasons why you can believe the Sharks will stay hot in 2013-14.
The Rookie: Tomas Hertl
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If anybody needed a reason to believe in the 2013-14 San Jose Sharks, look no further than the ear-to-ear smile of Tomas Hertl. What’s left to say that hasn’t already been said about the 19-year-old rookie dubbed Teenage Mutant Ninja Hertl? The nickname couldn’t be more fitting if it wasn’t so fleeting (Hertl turns 20 in November).
Just in case you've been living under a rock for the last week, let me bring you up to speed.
The Sharks rookie captivated the hockey world with his dazzling skills, scoring six goals in his first three games, including a four-goal exhibition against the New York Rangers.
As if four goals wasn’t impressive enough, Hertl accomplished the feat in just over 11 minutes of ice time and saved his best for last.
But, it was too late. The hockey world, sports world and social media world were all ablaze with talk of Hertl’s dynamic goal.
Heart-on-your-sleeve passion and youthful exuberance aren’t exactly something the Sharks are known for. Last season, Logan Couture was regularly seen “Kaepernicking” during his post-goal celebrations. The tribute to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s patented bicep kiss was about as risqué as the Sharks have gotten in recent years.
But, that appears to be changing as Hertl-mania grows in Silicon Valley. And if Sharks general manager Doug Wilson and company are smart, they will wrap every supportive arm they have around this kid’s passion and embrace everything it breeds. Because it might just be the missing piece this team’s been searching for.
They’re Getting Stronger Through Adversity
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It didn’t take long for the Sharks to face their first test of adversity, and one could argue that they passed with the most colorful of flying colors.
Accused of showboating. Criticized for disrespecting the league. The Vancouver media wasted no time barraging Sharks players with questions about Hertl’s controversial goal as the team ventured away from its cozy California confines for the first time this season.
But instead of the stale cliche sound bites professional athletes are known to offer the media, the Sharks opted for a less traditional route. They just didn't know it yet.
And just like that, the media had its second Shark-focused frenzy of the week.
Admittedly, Thornton intended for his comments to be off the record and would have chosen his language more carefully had he known the true scope of his audience. But the words were printed, and the damage was done.
But for Sharks fans, the result should be anything but damaging. If you're focusing on the word selection, you're missing the point.
The unified front displayed in Vancouver is something every championship team requires, and Thornton's audacious language leaves no doubt about this team's willingness to defend one another.
Applaud it or condemn it, you can believe it's only made this team stronger.
It’s Not Just the Offense
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Quietly amongst all the hoopla surrounding the Sharks league-leading offense is a defense that is among the leaders in nearly every defensive statistic.
Per NHL.com, the Sharks rank third in goals against, allowing a mere five goals in four games. They lead the league in shots per game (40.5), but even more impressively, rank second only to the Minnesota Wild in shots allowed per game (22.8). That shot disparity (+17.7) is nearly twice that of the next closest team.
If that’s not impressive enough by itself, the Sharks are putting up these numbers without help from top-four defenseman Brad Stuart. Stuart, who missed the first two games due to injury, received a three-game suspension for his hit on the Rangers’ Rick Nash in his only game played.
Last season, Stuart led all Sharks defensemen in hits and blocked shots, yet the Sharks haven't missed a beat in his absence.
Buried somewhere in all these statistics is goaltender Antti Niemi, who has been impressive when needed. Despite facing less-than-average action, Niemi made a season-high 25 saves in Vancouver and will undoubtedly play a huge role in the Sharks continued success.
The Third Line Is Producing
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Late last season, the Sharks seemed to stumble onto something offensively.
After a red-hot January, the Sharks slogged their way through February, scoring just 16 goals over the course of 12 games. As their place atop the standings turned into an uncontrollable free fall, coach Todd McLellan desperately attempted to right the ship. The result saw Brent Burns move to forward and Joe Pavelski drop down to anchor the then-non-productive third line. And suddenly, it began to click.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, the season ended with a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Kings before the team could realize the full potential of their new talent dispersion.
But with virtually all of last year’s pieces back, the Sharks are seeing massive dividends early in the form of widespread production. Every Sharks forward has at least one point, and the third line of Pavelski, Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto have amassed 11 points (2 G, 9 A) through 4 games and are a cumulative plus-8.
In my last article, I said that in order to be successful in the long run, the Sharks needed this group to hold their own until injured forwards Marty Havlat and Raffi Torres returned. But based on their early play, this group is doing more than just holding their own and appears poised to only get better.
The real test will be to see how McLellan manages the line combinations as players inevitably get banged up over the course of the long season.
The Kids Are Alright
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It’s no secret that Doug Wilson isn’t particularly patient. The Sharks general manager has never been shy about sacrificing the future for the present. But who can blame him? The Sharks’ fleeting window of opportunity has been well documented.
Wilson’s veteran-focused philosophy may have finally reached its breaking point last season. The Sharks often looked slow and tired in a Western Conference that had gotten younger and faster around them. There were rumors that the even-keeled Wilson was “in a panic,” feverishly shopping veterans in an attempt to turn things around.
And so, it began. Gone before the trade deadline were Douglas Murray (33), Ryan Clowe (31) and Michael Handzus (36). Rumors swirled around Dan Boyle (37), only subsiding as the Sharks pulled out of their midseason nose-dive.
Suddenly, there were roles to fill. And wouldn't you know it, a group of talented young players from within the Sharks' own ranks wasted no time securing their roster spots.
The Sharks snuck into the playoffs as the sixth seed. But more importantly, the seed had been planted for the 2013-14 season, and the Sharks are already reaping the benefits.
Jason Demers (25), Justin Braun (26) and Matt Irwin (25) now comprise one-half of a young, mobile defense that's as good offensively as it is defensively.
Up front, Matt Pelech (26), Matt Nieto (20) and Tomas Hertl (19) have all scored their first NHL goals for an offense that that is bursting with speed and energy.
Wouldn't it be just so-perfectly fitting if what the Sharks have been missing has been theirs all along? It sure does seem that way so far.