Coming out of the break for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the San Jose Sharks are in their second-last trip to the Eastern Conference in the 2013-14 NHL season. A promising stretch run for a Stanley Cup championship commences against the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday, Feb. 27.
San Jose's last loss came to this team when they gave up too many opportunities leading to five goals. Expect them to come out focusing on the three pictured keys en route to a 3-1 win.
Simply put, the Sharks are not the same team that lost that game just over three weeks ago. Ace center Logan Couture is back. Raffi Torres will play for the first time this season. Scott Hannan, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Nieto are healthy.
For one thing, the Sharks have choices in net: Antti Niemi is a Stanley Cup champion with more wins on the 2013-14 NHL season than anyone but Marc-Andre Fleury. Alex Stalock is a promising prospect with a 9-4-1 record, .936 save percentage and 1.67 goals-against average for his career. Either should be an upgrade over Steve Mason or Ray Emery between the pipes.
San Jose's blue line is deep enough to absorb the loss of Brad Stuart (upper-body injury per CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz) for this game. While it lacks an elite two-way player, there is a glut of talent throughout—players that excel on one end of the ice or the other and at worst are still not significant liabilities on the other.
The Flyers will be without Kimmo Timonen, their second-best offensive defenseman. Without him, their blue line offers a little less on both sides of the ice than the Sharks.
Both teams are deep at forward, but the return of Couture and Torres in particular gives San Jose equal top-end talent and more depth. Home-ice advantage is just not enough to compensate for Philadelphia's disadvantage (however slight) on all three units, and they cannot rely on out-coaching a tremendous staff.