Couture, who underwent hand surgery Wednesday, is expected to return in three to four weeks, but the schedule starting Saturday with the Boston Bruins suddenly becomes a little more daunting without the Sharks' on-ice playmaker.
Replacing Couture is not likely to be matched by just one player over the next three to four weeks, although the Sharks would love to see the up-tempo style of play continue sans Couture. However, judging by Thursday night against the Red Wings, Couture’s absence means one thing for Joe Pavelski: opportunity.
Pavelski led the Sharks with two goals on four shots on net Thursday night, as San Jose continued its strong play at home with a 4-1 win over Detroit. The 29-year-old with the new long-term contract has never had the opportunity to be the focal point of the team, with Couture, Thornton, Marleau and even Hertl on the same squad. But injuries have forced Pavelski from a secondary scoring role to a legitimate go-to threat over the next few weeks.
Pavelski has five goals in the last five games after scoring his 20th of the season Thursday night. He now shares the team lead with Patrick Marleau.
Tyler Kennedy is also in a position to thrive with Couture sidelined. Kennedy and Tommy Wingels returned to the lineup against the Red Wings. Via David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News, Kennedy said, "Whenever guys are out of the lineup you get an opportunity to get better and get a little more ice time...Obviously, I've got to embrace it and take the challenge."
Kennedy taking the challenge of replacing Couture may turn out to be an answer for the Sharks during a time where gaining ground in the Western Conference is a challenge, and losing ground comes in bunches. If San Jose fails to make up for the loss of Couture during his time away, the team could easily be on the outside looking in to the Western Conference playoff picture at the Olympic break.
The Sharks are in the midst of the toughest stretch of the season with Hertl, Raffi Torres, Martin Havlat, Adam Burish and now Couture all lost to injury. A team built on speed, youth and playmakers now becomes a team without consistent speed from line to line and with makeshift playmakers hoping to get by as consistent producers for the next three to four weeks.
The Sharks’ front office did all it could over the last year to transform a team built on experience and declining talent into a faster and more versatile squad built on its youth. For the next month, the limelight will be back on Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski where it all started.
However, if the team can survive what is set to be the toughest stretch it will come across in 2013-14, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. After the Olympic break, which starts on February 8, the Sharks will see a slew of productive players return—Couture, Burish, Torres and Havlat. Torres, Burish and Havlat are likely to return even sooner.
In the long run, Couture opting for surgery at this point in the season will likely save the team headaches as the season progresses. Aside from Couture's health arguably costing him a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, the Sharks are entering a stretch where just five of their next 15 games are on the road. Entering Saturday against the Boston Bruins, San Jose is 16-1-3 at home this season.
The Sharks will learn a lot about their team without rising star Hertl and the consistent production of Couture. But keeping their heads above water during the next three to four weeks could pay dividends for the Sharks as soon as the end of February.
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