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.
How quickly the San Jose Sharks are able to get back in rhythm will determine if they can win it late. This is true with so many players that did not get action in the Sochi Olympics and so many players returning to the lineup after missing considerable time.
If the returning Sharks can acclimate to new line-mates quickly, the personnel matchup is theirs.
Play along the goal line
In the first contest, the Philadelphia Flyers won the battles in front of the net on both sides of the ice. The San Jose Sharks have the size and depth to win that battle this time.
If the Sharks win two of the three battles along the goal line Thursday—from the corners to the end-boards to the front of the net—they win the game.
The San Jose Sharks should not be aggressive in the way that results in penalties, but rather to make the plays that need to be made. If they are hesitant or feeling their way into the game, they could get in trouble early.
The Sharks must make the simple play decisively and read the play well to know when to step in or rotate back. If they come out knowing what they want to do, that bodes well for them in this game.