Regular season success has become commonplace in San Jose. The Sharks, a perennial powerhouse, have consistently been in the race for the Western Conference title and President’s Trophy since the lockout and have outscored, outpaced and out-muscled opponents impressively. Unfortunately for Sharks fans, the 2010/2011 season has been plagued by inconsistency and poor results. Perhaps more troubling, is that Sharks GM Doug Wilson just let it happen.
After losing Evgeni Nabokov to the KHL over the summer, Wilson signed Antti Niemi to a one year deal worth $2 million and Antero Niittymäki for two-years, at $2 million per season. Of course, the goalie tandem mentioned above saves the Sharks a few bucks, as Nabokov would have cost them over $5 million. But were these two really the only options? Niittymäki has struggled throughout most of his career, and judging by his 26th ranked save percentage, continues to do so. Antti Niemi has been even worse, as he doesn’t even rank among the top 30 in save percentage or GAA. Despite winning the Stanley Cup last year, you, me and everybody else in the room know that the Hawks won in spite of Niemi and not because of him. Although fans may be quick to blame the Sharks’ inconsistent play on the men between the pipes, other areas of the team have weakened as well.
After losing Rob Blake to retirement, Wilson made an attempt at signing RFA Niklas Hjalmarsson to an offer sheet. But after failing to steal him away from Chicago, Wilson didn’t bother to go after anyone else. If Wilson thought that a hole existed on his blueline, and made an effort to go after Hjalmarsson, why didn’t he pursue anyone else once he failed? Outside of Dan Boyle, none of San Jose’s defencemen really stand out. Currently, all but one of their blueliners has a positive Giveaway/Takeaway ratio, and only 1 has more than 5 points. The Habs need to use the speed of their forward group and take advantage of a blueline that, outside of Dan Boyle, seems to be running on deflated tires.
Although they have a number of problems, the Sharks will undoubtedly still pose as a significant challenge for the Canadiens on Saturday. Up front, San Jose is as dangerous as ever. “Jumbo” Joe Thornton is off to a strong start, Dany Heatley is on pace for nearly 40 goals, and Patrick Marleau is averaging nearly a point per game. Aside from the big 3, the Sharks have been the beneficiaries of some solid offensive output by Joe Pavelski and rookie goal scoring leader Logan Couture.
The Habs will likely once again have trouble containing the size, speed and strength of San Jose’s top six. The key for Montreal will likely be in getting the puck out of our zone as quickly as possible. It’ll be a long afternoon for Carey Price if the Canadiens let the Sharks’ top line start to cycle the puck in deep for extended stretches. Having P.K. Subban’s puck-carrying skills in a game like this would certainly help. The Canadiens should also concentrate on remaining disciplined, as Jumbo Joe and crew currently have the 4th ranked PP in the league. Finally, the Habs need to make sure they don’t freeze the puck in their own zone too often. San Jose currently has some remarkable faceoff men in their lineup, as none of their regular centermen are averaging less than 51.5%. Efficient puck movement, attacking the dmen and firing the puck as often as possible are the keys of the game for this. A little life from Mike Cammalleri wouldn’t hurt either.
Game Time is 14:00 on Saturday at the Bell Centre. The game is available on RDS and CBC.