To say the San Jose Sharks were exploring uncharted waters Thursday night in Ottawa would be putting it lightly.
The primary story line was of course the fact that the game marked the first time Dany Heatley would return to ScotiaBank Place in Ottawa since requesting a trade out of town prior to the start of the 2009-2010 season. Oddly enough, this homecoming for Heatley came the same night that LeBron James made his first appearance in Cleveland since taking his NBA talents to South Beach this past winter.
Understandably, both players received rude welcomes from their disgruntled former hometown fans, and the ill will grew only stronger as each game drew on. Like the Miami Heat against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the San Jose Sharks laid a dominating performance on the slumping Ottawa Senators.
The Sharks won handily, 4-0, behind a solid performance from Antti Niemi and contributions across all four lines. Heatley rose to the occasion, though you would not necessarily recognize it from his stats. Heatley was limited to just one point—an assist—but drew two penalties on semi-breakaway chances, setting up two Sharks' power play goals.
Heatley's performance was largely overshadowed by a variety of other notable firsts on the season for the Sharks, in this their 24th game.
The Sharks' young players continued to impress. Some have been pressed into action due to injuries, and others have earned consistent playing time with their AHL careers, but to a man, they have consistently proven they can compete at the NHL level.
The most notable examples were rookies Justin Braun and Logan Couture. Braun has been logging significant ice time in the absence of Niclas Wallin, Kent Huskins and Jason Demers, who are all nursing injuries. While he has been a steady contributor in the defensive and offensive realm through his first three NHL games, Thursday marked a key moment for the youngster when he scored a second period goal, the first of his NHL career.
The goal staked the Sharks to a 2-0 lead and gave Braun four points through his first four NHL games. Not a bad start to a career, especially for a defenseman.
Logan Couture had been stifled of late on the score sheet after jumping out to a torrid start in the first two months of the season. Couture made up for it Thursday, however, logging his first ever two-goal game to improve to 10 goals on the year and reassume the rookie lead in goals as he continues to build his case for a Calder Memorial Trophy as the year's best rookie.
Few people realize that goaltender Antti Niemi is in just his second NHL season, having won a Stanley Cup in his rookie season with the Chicago Blackhawks. Niemi joined the trend of top-caliber performances from Sharks youngsters—and of firsts—stopping 28 saves in a shutout of the Senators.
It was the eighth shutout of Niemi's young career, but his first in teal and orange. It was also the Sharks' first shutout performance of the 2010-2011 season. This gives Niemi two out of three impressive outings, but sandwiched between them was a thoroughly disappointing six-goals-allowed drubbing at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks.
Two strong performances in such proximity could be an indication that Niemi is adjusting to the Sharks and their style of play and starting to regain some of the form that vexed the Sharks in the Western Conference Finals last year. However, the intermediate lull exhibits the inconsistency that has plagued Niemi so far this season, and relegated him to the thus far clearly established backup role in net.
Nonetheless, Antero Niittymaki has shown more and more vulnerability in recent contests, so Niemi's apparent upturn comes at a very opportune time, for both him and the team. Just do not expect any role reversal on the goaltending depth chart to last too long.
The game was also the first game the Sharks had played since suffering their first loss in a so-called "statement game" this year, losing 5-3 to the Western Conference-leading Detroit Red Wings at home Tuesday night.
The Sharks looked more susceptible than ever this season in the Red Wings game. Their injury-thinned defense was painfully apparent, as they nearly surrendered a hat trick to Henrik Zetterberg and Niittymaki suffered arguably his worst defeat this season.
The Sharks responded in a big way, however, dominating play against the Senators on the road in a particularly hostile venue, and constructing their first truly convincing road effort on their way to their first shutout. Top it off with the fact that Thursday's game marked the fifth anniversary of captain Joe Thornton's first ever game as a Shark (with this being Thornton's first year as captain) and it makes for a very peculiar alignment of the stars in a key 4-0 win for the Sharks.
The Sharks still have a long way to go to get themselves ready to contend for a Stanley Cup, especially having to fight their way through a Western Conference race that promises to be one of the tightest and most demanding in recent memory. Thursday's game was a terrific start though, especially after the deflating loss to the Red Wings.
Keep the Faith!
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