Hottest Team in the NHL: The Sharks Are on a Feeding Frenzy
December 2009 was shaking out to be a month the San Jose Sharks would like to forget, that is, up until two weeks ago. The Sharks were in the midst of a five game win-less streak where they went 0-2-3, and only had one victory since the calendar flipped to the last month of the year.
Going into a home contest against the Anaheim Ducks back on the 17th, San Jose had just one victory in December. However, since that night the Sharks have rolled off six wins in a row, their latest of which being a 5-2 thumping of the Washington Capitals on Wednesday.
The game was touted as a potential finals-preview and many thought it would be a close game from beginning to end. But thanks to the sharp shooting of Joe Pavelski and penalty shot goals by Ryane Clowe and Joe Thornton, the Sharks were in control of this one from start to finish.
Now it is no question the Sharks have the top-six talent to put up a performance of this fashion but all season long there have been questions about whether or not the defense and the secondary scoring would be able to suffice.
While it was clear that San Jose had depth at the forward position, it wasn't always clear if the bottom two lines would be able to find chemistry and earn enough ice time to take pressure off the top two lines.
Considering that the makeup of the Sharks bottom six is completely different than last year's, chemistry had to be an issue. Mike Grier, Marcel Goc, Travis Moen, Jeremy Roenick, Tomas Phihal were all bottom-six forwards last year that didn't return this season.
When you add in the fact that both Jody Shelley and Brad Staubitz are currently shelved with injuries, that Torrey Mitchell missed all of last year's regular season with injury and Jamie McGinn was up and down from the minors last season, every single player currently on the bottom two lines wasn't a regular for the Sharks last season.
Manny Malhotra, Scott Nichol and Jed Ortmeyer are all in their first stints with the Sharks organization and Frazer McLaren was called up for his first NHL action this season. Those four combined with Mitchell and McGinn (who between them played very little for the Sharks last year) have made up the bottom-six forwards as of late.
And despite the fact that this group of secondary forwards hasn't been together for a long period of time, the chemistry has already started to develop. Each and every one of them has a very defined role and understands how to play with one and another and be very effective without necessarily putting the puck in the net.
But the great thing about these "bottom-six" forwards is that most of them have the ability to put the puck in the net when needed which allows them to be bumped up to the second line.
Malhotra has been bumped up to the second line a couple of times this season and has performed quite admirably, and currently Jed Ortmeyer is playing right wing on that second line alongside Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski.
Ortmeyer's bump to a scoring line has dropped Devin Setoguchi down onto the fourth line next to Mitchell and McLaren. Remember, Setoguchi scored 31 goals last year playing on the top line with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
A move like this would not have worked last season. Grier, Goc, Moen, and an aging Roenick did not provide enough all around play to be able to be bumped up to scoring line duty if a shake-up was needed.
Therefore when the top lines were struggling late last season and into the playoffs, there weren't many other line combinations that had any chemistry.
But this year head coach Todd McLellan has the roster that allows him to shift guys around when looking for a spark. Fortunately, unlike the Ron Wilson era for the Sharks, McLellan moves players around with a purpose and gives them time to build chemistry rather than change them up at every intermission.
This depth and chemistry at the forward position is what has many fans around the league as well as Sharks fans thinking this may finally be the year for San Jose.
However, chemistry and versatility at the forward position weren't the only questions coming into the season. With the trade of defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich in the offseason, the Sharks defense was an area of concern.
While first year captain Rob Blake seems to have aged quite a bit since last season and Kent Huskins hasn't performed to expectations, there is reason to be excited about the defense core.
Both Douglas Murray and rookie Jason Demers are playing their best hockey of the season.
Murray, the 6' 3", 240 pound Swedish defenseman who McLellan has said is the most improved player on the team, had his best game of the season against the Capitals on Wednesday.
Forget the fact that he was a minus-1 for the game (the defense could do nothing to stop either Washington goals) because Murray flat out got under the skin of Alexander Ovechkin and delivered hit after hit all game long on any Capitals player that dared to skate in his direction.
At this rate, during the playoffs nobody is going to want to skate within 10 feet of "Crankshaft" Murray.
As for Demers, the rookie has shown all season long he has a knack for jumping up in the play but his inconsistent performance on defense caused him a trip down to the minors in late November.
And while he has only two points in his return to the NHL, he is a plus-five in six games since returning and most importantly the Sharks have won all six of those games.
Coincidence? Maybe, but as I wrote last week, an improved all around game from Demers is going to pay major dividends for team teal.
Currently, every player in the lineup for the Sharks is contributing one way or another and that is a scary thought for the rest of the NHL.
Combine solid play from all 18 skaters and a hot goaltender like Evgeni Nabokov and this impressive stretch of hockey may continue for quite awhile.
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