The San Jose Sharks completed their first extended road trip of the season on Thursday night: five games with stops in Ottawa, Montreal, Detroit, Philadelphia and Buffalo. In the end the Sharks went 3-2-0, gaining six points in the Western Conference standings.
Given the Sharks roller-coaster start to 2010-2011 and their disappointing 4-4-2 road record leading into the trip, one might see the 3-2-0 outcome as a major sign of progress. Look a little deeper and you may find even more reason for encouragement.
The Sharks started the trip with a 4-0 drubbing of the Ottawa Senators in a hostile ScotiaBank Place, where Dany Heatley was afforded a rude welcome in his return to Canada's capital. The Sharks followed that effort with a less-than-stellar loss to Montreal, in a game where they were not good enough to win, but on most nights probably would not have been bad enough to lose.
That set the stage for their rematch with the Detroit Red Wings, after the Wings had handed them a 5-2 loss at HP Pavilion the week before. Despite being outplayed for most of the first period, an early timeout by Todd McLellan rallied the Sharks and captain Joe Thornton soon tied the game at one with a late short-handed goal.
The Sharks would not look back, scoring the next three goals in a row and ultimately winning in impressive fashion, by the same 5-2 score the Red Wings had recently beaten them by. The importance of the win was obvious. Not only was it a resurgent and convincing performance against the Western Conference leaders, and payback for a disappointing recent defeat, but it was the most impressive win in recent years in a hostile venue where the Sharks franchise has had very little historical success.
The Sharks went on to recover from a three-goal third-period deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers and survived a painfully close overtime scare to win 5-4 in a shootout. Their comeback attempt failed to bring them all the way back from 3-0 down against the Buffalo Sabres a night later, as they fell 6-3 to end the trip.
Give the Sharks plenty of credit for what they did well on this trip. There are certainly many positives to take away.
The Sharks dominated an admittedly scuffling Ottawa team behind Antti Nimei's first shutout of the season and thoroughly outplayed the mighty Red Wings on Joe Louis ice through two-plus periods to enjoy a solid victory.
Early timeouts by McLellan sparked turnaround victories in back-to-back games, as the Sharks recovered from a three-goal third-period deficit for the first time in franchise history in the Philly game. Even despite the loss a night later, the Sharks showed no quit in Buffalo, nearly drawing even in that game late in the third period.
All these heroics may be serving to mask persistent major issues, however. The points are what really matter, but good habits are what consistently win games, and the Sharks were often quite deficient in that department throughout the trip.
The team remains painfully inconsistent, rarely able to string back-to-back solid periods together let alone back-to-back solid games. Defense and goaltending remain spotty at best. The return of Niclas Wallin and Jason Demers gave the blue line a boost, but lapses still resulted in prime opposing scoring chances. Despite a shutout, the Sharks still surrendered 15 goals in just five games on the trip—far too many to consistently compete.
Patrick Marleau is in a prolonged slump, with just three goals and four points in the last 10 games, going minus-12 in that span. He had a bad turnover to start the third period in Buffalo, allowing the scoring chance that netted the deciding goal. Across the board, details are being regularly overlooked, as passes consistently miss their target, forwards fail to reach the red line before dumping in, and the defense gets too focused on the puck in their own zone—leaving a plethora of easy rebound and setup opportunities.
In order to come back from a three-goal deficit, you must first dig a three-goal hole, and Wednesday's drama notwithstanding, such a practice will rarely result in such a favorable outcome.
Still, six points are six points and there is plenty to look toward that suggests brighter days may lie ahead. Logan Couture continues to pad an already impressive Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) resume. He now leads the team with 14 goals and leads all rookies in goals and points, having a five-goal lead on his next nearest competitor in the former category.
Other youngsters like Ben Ferriero, Justin Braun and Mike McCarthy have also been making contributions, suggesting the Sharks have strong organizational depth. This fact, combined with Logan Couture's torrid pace, could help the Sharks in their quest to shore up their blue line (clearly the biggest need moving forward).
Couture's play has made Devin Setoguchi largely expendable. Setoguchi signed a one-year contract prior to the season and should have reasonable trade value on the open market. Packaging him with prospects and/or draft picks—or another forward to be displaced by Ferriero or McCarthy—could yield the top defenseman the Sharks definitely need, bolstering the team for a playoff run.
Couture's improved play, along with solid contributions from his former AHL teammates, gives Doug Wilson more bargaining chips in improving the team. The big move could be imminent.
Keep the Faith!