Despite how much coaches and players may try to downplay it, it is always important when you play a defending World Champion in any sport. Wednesday's game against the Chicago Blackhawks will certainly fit that bill for the San Jose Sharks.
However, beyond the novelty and excitement that comes with facing the defending champs, and the game's role as an important measuring stick for both teams, the game should take on special significance for the Sharks—for a variety of reasons.
Like the Blackhawks, the Sharks entered the season as strong favorites to again compete deep into the coming playoff tournament. Also like the Blackhawks, the Sharks have been lack luster and inconsistent out of the gate in 2010-2011, making this game an important barometer of progress for both organizations.
Even more than that, Wednesday's match with the Blackhawks serves as a rematch of sorts between last year's Western Conference Finals combatants. The stakes are paltry by comparison, but rest assured that the Sharks and their fans have not forgotten the sting of a Conference Finals sweep that ended their dreams of glory in 2010.
The core of both rosters has remained largely in tact, with the most notable exception being Evgeni Nabokov's departure from San Jose, but the Blackhawks in particular have experienced significant turnover among their role players. Nonetheless, a few fresh faces should not detract from the Sharks' desire to exact some small measure of revenge on Chicago.
The game will also mark the first time that Antti Niemi has faced the team with which he won the Stanley Cup last year. That is, it will be the first time if Niemi gets the start. After spending most of the year as a backup to Cristobal Huet last season, before emerging to post respectable numbers down the stretch and into the playoffs behind a stellar defensive core, Niemi has struggled mightily in limited action in teal this season. He currently ranks lower than 40th in goals against average and save percentage.
Starting Niemi over Antero Niittymaki could be a tremendous risk, but facing his old team could also be the spark he needs to get his season back on track. It is on Todd McLellan to weigh the options.
Finally, the game marks the one-year anniversary—to the day—of a game between the same two teams last season, also played at HP Pavilion.
In that game, the Sharks were abysmal surrendering three short-handed goals and losing soundly, 7-2. To say that game imbued the Blackhawks with the confidence they needed to be just slightly better than the Sharks by the time the Conference Finals rolled around may be a bit of a stretch. But it is no stretch at all to say the Sharks will be highly motivated to avoid helping the Blackhawks celebrate that sour anniversary with a repeat performance.
In the end, this will be just one game out of 82, and count no more toward the final record than any other. However, considering all extenuating circumstances, few games in recent memory have been infused with this much back story. It is doubtful that the final outcome will go very far in determining the ultimate fate of either team as the season progresses, but rest assured that the subplots should more than amply chum the waters for a very entertaining hockey game.
Keep the Faith!
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