Now that the Olympic break is over and Patrick Marleau and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have won their gold medals, we can get back to the hockey season which was so rudely interrupted by this tournament. Looking ahead, the San Jose Sharks look to be in great shape for the final 23 games of the season with key guys returning from injury as well as in the standings.
Most importantly are those guys which are returning from injuries, some of which were lengthier than others.
First there is Logan Couture, who has been out since he injured his hand. His 16-game absence has hurt the team’s scoring and his return to the lineup will bring back one of San Jose’s biggest strengths, their depth. He’ll slot right back in to his center position with Marleau on his left with the other winger to be determined. Look for this line to continue the two-way role of facing the opposite team’s top competition night in and night out as well as being asked to put points on the board.
Speaking of depth, Raffi Torres and Adam Burish are also set to come back from injuries that have kept them out all season, and it will be interesting to see how they fair. This is especially true for Torres who plays a very physical style of play. His ACL injury will be put to the test very quickly, maybe even on his first shift of the game, so we will know right away how he reacts.
Burish on the other hand will be a depth guy who will probably stick on the fourth line and be another penalty killer the San Jose Sharks can turn to. Both he and Torres also add some grit to a lineup that could always use a little bit more of it.
Unfortunately, with all these guys coming back from injury, GM Doug Wilson will have to be creative and move guys through waivers to keep the Sharks under the cap. This also means that a trade will be unlikely unless a big name (such as Martin Havlat) is moved to make room for any incoming guys. Don’t take my word for it though, as we all know Wilson is known for being very quiet about trades and could definitely make a trade for depth if the right opportunity presented itself.
Regarding the goaltending situation, Antti Niemi will be well rested after the Olympics since he was Finland’s third string goaltender and did not see the ice once. That could be good news or bad news depending on who you ask, however, because Niemi is definitely one of those guys who wants a heavy workload.
The question is whether or not he will get it, even with the rest, because his backup Alex Stalock has been great in net posting an 8-4 record as well as a .938 save percentage, a 1.67 goals against average, and two shutouts. Those are incredible numbers and on par with the best guys in the league, although Stalock does not have enough starts to quality for a statistical league leader.
As we look at the standings for the final playoff push the San Jose Sharks are comfortably in second in the Pacific Division whether you look up at the Anaheim Ducks or down at the Kings (who they have a 12 point lead over). While seven points is not that far behind the Ducks, it is quite a margin considering how unstoppable they have been all year.
They would be hard pressed to move up or down unless a major streak (of wins or losses) changes things drastically. Still, the Sharks would like to move up in the standings as they currently sit in fourth in the conference. San Jose does face a tough start with three games on the east coast before heading home for a four-game homestand, so they will get a chance to get back into the thick of things with a tough test early. Hopefully they’ll be ready.