Around the League
Go ahead. Use whatever animal-on-animal violence metaphor you want. It’s there… like a sitting duck.
The San Jose Sharks have scored 23 goals in their past five games, all of them wins, including back-to-back wins on the road. Head coach Todd McLellan is taking advantage of the faltering Anaheim Ducks, who recently went through a four-game skid. At the beginning of March, the Ducks were four wins and seven points ahead. As of Saturday, the two teams are tied for the Pacific Division lead with 95 points apiece.
When the first of six Stanley Cup contenders was revealed to the St. Louis Blues, the Sharks seemed like a mere afterthought, though there were legitimate concerns with the Ducks’ depth. But nope, the Sharks just never go away. Joe Thornton is second in the league in assists, Joe Pavelski is fourth in goals, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is third in plus-minus, and along with Brent Burns, all rank in the top 25 in the league in Corsi and Fenwick. McLellan’s best asset is his depth, and it’ll be interesting to see how he deploys his lines.
Offense: It doesn’t get any better with captain Joe Thornton playing some of the best hockey of his career, and if he weren’t so allergic to shooting the puck he might challenge Sidney Crosby for the league scoring title. Thornton averages less than 1.5 shots on goal per game and has gone 22 games this season without forcing a goalie to make a save… TWENTY-TWO GAMES! But Patrick Marleau will book his sixth 30-goal season by the end of the season and Pavelski is shooting the lights out with 34 goals. Tommy Wingels has developed into a two-way contributor, Raffi Torres and Marty Havlat are finally healthy, and Tomas Hertl may return if the Sharks can go on a lengthy playoff run. Give a little respect to one of the Western Conference’s best teams in the past decade, whose reputation for not being able to win the big games is chum. You don't reach the Conference Finals three times in ten years without being able to win big games.
Defense: Vlasic could lull just about anyone to sleep, and perhaps that’s how he gets away from opposing forecheckers with relative ease. He’s quietly become the league’s best 20-minute defenseman, and if he had the ability to play 25-27 minutes per night, would be spoken of in the same breath as Alex Pietrangelo. Dan Boyle’s ice time has dropped every single season since 2011 – 26:14, 25:34, 22:47, 21:15 – and even if McLellan is pulling a Gregg Popovich and resting his veteran for those high intensity playoff games, it’s hard not to see the 37-year-old break down at some point. Boyle is no longer an elite defenseman, but the Sharks have unearthed some gems, such as Jason Demers (seventh-round pick), Justin Braun (seventh-round) and Matt Irwin (undrafted). The depth is good, but the quality may not match the all-world quality of Los Angeles with Drew Doughty or St. Louis with the aforementioned Pietrangelo.
Goaltending: For his standards, this isn’t a good year for Antti Niemi. He’s piling up the wins because he plays on a good offensive team. His save percentage has been pedestrian, and though he’s fared much better of late, he has rarely looked dominant, save for a three-game stretch in mid-January when he allowed just three goals in three games. Niemi can’t steal any games, but that also means he can’t lose any either, and the pressure is arguably greater in the latter scenario. If he can keep the Sharks in the games, the team will have a good chance to win. Niemi’s been pulled four times this season though, more than either Jonas Hiller (three times) or Ryan Miller (twice), who played 40 games with the league’s worst defense.
Outlook: Regular season success doesn’t dictate playoff success, and the Sharks know this all too well. St. Louis is the consensus heavyweight, but the Sharks outscored them 16-7 in three games, all of which were wins. They seem to have more trouble with the Kings, who’ve beaten them twice in regulation, and the Blackhawks, who have outscored them 8-6 this season, though I imagine it has something to do with playing against Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews. Even if the Sharks emerge victorious in the Western Conference, which seems unlikely, they’ll be crossing their fingers for any team except Boston or Pittsburgh in the finals for a chance to win the Cup, which seems an even more unlikely scenario.
Projected Goalie Starters (all times Eastern)
For updates on the projected goalies later in the day, check our Projected Goalies Grid
Carolina Hurricanes (Cam Ward) at Boston Bruins (Tuukka Rask), 1:00 PM
Pittsburgh Penguins (Marc-Andre Fleury) at Philadelphia Flyers (Steve Mason), 1:00 PM
Ottawa Senators (Robin Lehner*) at Montreal Canadiens (Peter Budaj), 7:00 PM
New Jersey Devils (Martin Brodeur*) at Tampa Bay Lightning (Ben Bishop), 7:00 PM
Buffalo Sabres (Michal Neuvirth) at New York Islanders (Evgeni Nabokov), 7:00 PM
St. Louis Blues (Ryan Miller*) at Nashville Predators (Pekka Rinne), 8:00 PM
Columbus Blue Jackets (Sergei Bobrovsky*) at Minnesota Wild (Darcy Kuemper), 8:00 PM
Calgary Flames (Joni Ortio) at Phoenix Coyotes (Mike Smith), 10:00 PM
Anaheim Ducks (Jonas Hiller) at Los Angeles Kings (Jonathan Quick), 10:30 PM
Injury News For Teams Playing Saturday
Joni Pitkanen, D - (heel) out for the season.
John-Michael Liles, D – (concussion) out indefinitely.
Justin Faulk, D - Faulk (upper body) considered a game-time decision.
Adam McQuaid, D - (groin/hip) out two more weeks.
Daniel Paille, LW - (concussion) practiced Friday, questionable for Saturday.
Dennis Seidenberg, D – (torn ACL/MCL) out for the season.
Chris Kunitz, LW - (leg) game-time decision Saturday against Philadelphia.
Paul Martin, D - (hand) placed on IR on Wednesday.
James Neal, RW – (concussion) out indefinitely.
Kris Letang, D - (heart) no return date set.
Chris Conner, RW - (wrist/broken foot) out 4-6 weeks.
Tomas Vokoun, G - (pelvis) doubtful for Saturday.
Pascal Dupuis, RW – (knee) out for the season.
Beau Bennett, RW - (wrist) practicing, questionable for Saturday.
Ray Emery, G – (lower-body) expected to dress Saturday and play at least one of two weekend games.
Craig Anderson, G – (undisclosed) will not dress Saturday; Nathan Lawson re-called.
Cody Ceci, D – (laceration) considered game-time decision, but likely will play.
Carey Price, G - (lower-body) looked “really good” according to head coach Michel Therrien, considered game-time decision.
Josh Gorges, D – (fractured left hand) out four weeks.
Michael Bournival, C - (concussion) practiced in full-contact jersey, game-time decision Saturday.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Brian Lee, D - (knee) out indefinitely.
Alexander Sulzer, D – (head) out one week, at least.
Zemgus Girgensons, C - (lower body) out one week.
Chris Stewart, RW - (ankle) no return date set.
Patrick Kaleta, RW – (torn ACL) out for the season.
Torrey Mitchell, C - (foot) out one week.
New York Islanders
Eric Boulton, LW – (broken hand) out indefinitely.
John Tavares, C – (torn MCL) out for the season.
Michael Grabner, RW – (concussion) out indefinitely.
St. Louis Blues
Jordan Leopold, D - (ankle) unlikely to play this weekend.
Patrik Berglund, C - (lower-body) questionable for Saturday.
Magnus Paajarvi, LW – (upper-body) will not play Saturday.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Jared Boll, RW - (ankle) questionable for Saturday.
Ryan Murray, D – (knee surgery) out 4-6 weeks.
Blake Comeau, LW – (suspension) to serve first of two games Saturday.
Niklas Backstrom, G - (abdominal soreness) doubtful for Saturday.
Josh Harding, G - (illness) likely out for the season.
Jason Zucker, LW - (lower-body) behind schedule, doubtful for Saturday.
Brett Bulmer, LW – (sprained knee) no return date set.
Dennis Wideman, D – (upper body) no return date set.
David Jones, RW - (upper body) will miss 3-4 weeks.
Markus Granlund, C – (shoulder) placed on IR on Wednesday.
Jiri Hudler, RW - (upper body) doubtful for Saturday.
Matt Stajan, C – (personal) on leave until further notice.
Karri Ramo, G - (knee) targeting return next week.
Martin Hanzal, C - (lower body) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Martin Erat, RW - (upper body) doubtful for Saturday.
David Schlemko, D - (lower body) will not play Saturday.
Sheldon Souray, D – (wrist surgery) out for the season.
Stephane Robidas, D - (leg) doubtful for Saturday.
Cam Fowler, D – (lower-body) left Friday’s game and did not return, doubtful for Saturday.
Los Angeles Kings
Dustin Brown, RW – (illness) no return date set.
Jonathan Quick, G - (illness) questionable for Saturday.
Tyler Seguin, C, DAL – He’s still probably one of the worst players in the dot, but holy smokes do the Stars have a bright future. Seguin is having a breakout season, poised to finish to be just one of the few players who will average better than a point per game this season. The B’s don’t miss Seguin at all, even though Loui Eriksson could be a little better, but combined with Jamie Been, the Stars have an unstoppable duo for the next decade. Seguin had five points against Vancouver and four points in his past two games.
Marc-Andre Fleury, G, PIT – Once in a while, Fleury will play a stretch of games where you think with a few more Stanley Cup rings he could have a case to sneak into the Hall of Fame, but most times he merely looks above average. He’s going through one of his hot streaks right now, allowing just three goals in his past three games after allowing ten goals in two starts previous to that. Ride the hot hand.
Jason Spezza, C, OTT – He’s one of the most frustrating franchise players in the league – a world-class playmaker who delivers a virtuoso performance about once every three games. But he has six points in his past two games and shooting the puck with a little more frequency. This production is surely a consequence of playing alongside Ales Hemsky, and it doesn’t look like the pair will be broken up anytime soon.
Andrei Markov, D, MTL – The Habs were missing their MVP in Carey Price, but Markov looked dreadful in two losses against San Jose and Boston, where the team scored just once and Markov finished with a minus-4 rating. He’s still got a rocket of a shot, but at 35 years old, it’s risky to rely on him as your number one defensemen He has one goal in his past eight games.
Tyler Myers, D, BUF – Just a few weeks ago, Myers seemed to right the ship with six points in four games, but now he’s gone four games without a point, including an ugly minus-3 showing against Carolina. The streaky defenseman is still struggling to be considered a consistent top-four option, and with more uneven performances, general manager Tim Murray may opt to shop him around for his grand re-build.
Tomas Plekanec, C, MTL – Plekanec’s usefulness doesn’t show up on the stats sheet, but the Habs’ number one center has to produce more offensively. He’s in danger of posting the worst statistical season since 2009 when he scored 39 points in 80 games. If Plekanec doesn’t score 20 goals this year – he last scored more than a month ago – it’ll be the second straight season he’s failed to do so after five consecutive seasons of 20-plus goals.
Ales Hemsky, RW, OTT – With six points in three games with the Senators, this is what Hemsky really plays like when he’s not rotting in Edmonton. Long in need of a change in scenery, Hemsky’s reputation was steadily declining, but the Czech winger is still a very talented playmaker. He just needed someone better to play with, that’s all. He’s still available in most leagues.