The San Jose Sharks will host the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night in the first of three home games before a two game road trip starting January 17th.
While this Maple Leaf team seems on paper to lack the razzle dazzle stars of the Sharks, make no mistake that these two teams are heading in very different directions.
The Maple Leafs so far this season have had their fair share of struggles, considering the lack of a true No. 1 centre and struggling offense. Coming into the Christmas break, this team was ice cold and last in the division standings leading many fans to lose patience.
All waffles jokes aside, this is a tough team to play for, given some lean years of late with the overwhelming media and fan expectations.
With the Leafs struggling again despite an offseason of change, it's clear that roster changes are looming on the horizon.
GM Brian Burke did not mince his words in an interview earlier in January.
"Are a lot of players on this team in play?" asked Burke in regards to the trade deadline. "Of course. We're in last place in our division...why wouldn't they be?"
So it's fair to say it's a bit of a shock to see the Leafs as one of the hottest teams in the league at the moment, having just dispatched the Los Angeles Kings in LA behind a Nikolai Kulemin game winner in the third gave the Leafs the win 3-2.
The Leafs have won their first two games of their west coast road swing and are four of their last five overall for a record of 17-20-4.
This line has been lights out recently, including a 9-3 dismantling of the Atlanta Thrashers where the Mikhail Grabovski, Nik Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur line put up a disgusting 10 points.
This line is playing with a fierce competitiveness and fire and is especially effective at five on five play right now.
Make no mistake, this Maple Leaf team is playing hard and will prove to be a good test for the slumping Sharks, who have lost four consecutive games. After a loss against the western conference leading Vancouver Canucks, the Sharks have struggled to find their scoring touch.
This team is looking like it's struggling in the playoffs; it looks too familiar to many Sharks fans, where the team can pepper the opponent goaltender and not squeak a single puck past him; where the puck rains down on opponent goalies and yet somehow manages to make them the second coming of Ken Dryden.
With the recent shutout loss in Anahiem, the Sharks drop to 11th place in the West and out of the playoff picture at 21-17-5.
If it's not Shark nemesis Jonas Hiller backstopping the Ducks with 37 saves in the shutout, it was Pekka Rinne with 42 saves the night before or Ryan Miller blanking the Sharks with 39 saves before that.
It hasn't been for lack of effort, as evident in the Vancouver Canuck game, in which the score made the game much closer than it truly was. Assistant captain Ryane Clowe would call out teammates in the postgame locker room interviews, calling the effort "terrible."
Since then, it has seemed that the Sharks have rallied to put forth a stronger effort, but the results just haven't been coming.
The Ducks loss tagged the Sharks with their seventh shutout loss this season and the Sharks have just five goals in the last five games.
"In the 12 or 13 years I've been playing, I don't know if I've ever seen a scoring slump like this -- especially with the talent in this locker room," Boyle said.
Coach Todd McLellan has gone back to shuffling the lines to help motivate and perhaps find a spark to get the team back into gear. Devin Setoguchi, who has largely struggled this season, showed some promise on the top line with Marleau and Thornton.
Where will the Sharks place in the Western Conference?
With a lot of the rumor mill centered around Gooch, it would seem the proverbial guillotine of the trade deadline is obvious to him.
Jamal Mayers has moved up to the second line from the fourth to throw his weight around on the forecheck. He contributed five shots among team leaders against the Ducks, and doled out punishment as he usually does.
To say Dany Heatley is struggling to find his game would be a colossal understatement; Heater is just not playing well right now. He should burn all of his sticks, buy a rabbit's foot, whatever it takes because he has gone bone dry, scoring just two goals in the last 17 games.
Meanwhile, Shark fans continue to wring their hands about the move that hasn't yet happened.
You know, the move that was supposed to bolster the blueline and provide the boost to team defense that would allow the Sharks to go further than they had in the Nabokov era. They say that young and cheap is the way to goaltend in today's NHL, after all last year's Finals provided the perfect blueprint, did it not?
With Michael Leighton recently waived by the Flyers, you are supposed to get by with mediocre goaltending with defense, right?
But the offseason came and went, with no moves and nothing on the horizon save for some grumblings for depth defencemen something the Sharks have plenty of.
The offseason transformation is missing the ying of the yang, half of the puzzle, the impact defenceman that was supposed to validate the decision to let Nabokov walk.
Without bolstering the blueline, this "blueprint" isn't complete.
Can Doug Wilson deliver the big trade and big name that we've all grown accustomed to during his tenure? I would temper your expectations given the circumstances in which the three big names (Boyle, Thornton, Heatley) have come to don the Teal sweater.
To expect the big trade may not be realistic, but a Mitchell, Wisnewski or Leopold type wouldn't have been too risky either given the price tag.
Even in the midst of the Maple Leafs poor season so far, even a guy like Clarke MacArthur for $1.1 million is an absolute steal. He leads the team in goals and plays very hard for a team that has struggled most of the season.
Wilson is playing the patience game, so time will tell what move is forthcoming. It's almost a foregone conclusion at this point that we've seen what the Sharks are with this current roster and while they are still talented, the inconsistency is staggering.
With questions about performance, effort and a struggling offense on shaky looking team the Sharks need a win to snap out of their funk in a very bad way.
The Leafs have been served notice and are responding for the time being, playing with confidence and winning with effort.
The Sharks have have been served no such notice, on the other hand, and for the large part are playing with effort, but lacking in both confidence and results.
If this team wants to make any noise, it better get into gear in short order given the tough nature of the Western Conference.
"What we're dealing with right now is doubt," McLellan said. "And we don't want doubt to creep into their minds. We have to keep reminding them that they have a lot of offensive talent and they are creating chances."
As a Sharks fan, I can only wait for the moment this season when reminding is not needed for a team so loaded in talent and so lacking in results.
Players to Watch:
A Longtime Sharks fan "favorite" Dion Phaneuf comes calling Tuesday as captain of the Maple Leafs.
And although he has struggled to regain his form in his new home, he never fails to put forth a great effort against the Sharks.
Jason Demers: The youngster has played poorly for most of the season and the coaching staff has curtailed the youngster from important minutes of late.
After the bad break against Nashville that had the youngster put the puck into his own net, he will make an impact. Hopefully, it will be for the Sharks and not against.
Logan Couture: Even with the Sharks recent struggles, what else can you say about the leading Calder candidate? His goal against Pekka Rinne in the 2-1 loss on Sunday was just wicked, and he's no slouch backchecking and getting into lanes.
Gotta love this kid's hustle and heart.