In hindsight, going 2-2-0 on the first road trip of the season isn’t too shabby … except when you consider that the Sharks were 4-0-0 on the season and those two losses ended the trip, as the team’s fatigue level increased with each game.
The long stint away from home tested their stamina, and key injuries tested their depth. A stretch that started with a masterful 5-0 shutout of the Washington Capitals ended with being shutout 4-0 by the New York Rangers.
Now Team Teal returns to the South Bay for their first homestand of the season, and will look to bounce back after two games where they didn’t look their sharpest.
Can they overcome the issues they faced on the East Coast? Lets look at what factors will play into the next three games.
1. The third period factor
The Sharks’ level of play got better as the game went on in each of their wins. It’s one of Joe Pavelski’s “keys to the game,” that the third period has to be the best.
However, in the losses against the Islanders and the Rangers, the Sharks became less disciplined as the tilts progressed.
The top priority for the Sharks heading into the next three games at SAP is to get back to whatever drove them in those first four games of the season.
The only priority parallel to that is probably to stay as healthy as possible.
2. The injury factor
No, one player does not a team make. But there’s no getting around the fact that injuries have had a negative impact on the Sharks’ game.
Not that Tomas Hertl hasn’t done well on the second line with Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward, but this collective offense misses Logan Couture. Add the injury that took Joonas Donskoi off the top line and Ben Smith’s upper body ailment, and San Jose had early challenges to their offensive depth.
It isn’t like they are completely out of player options. It’s possible that we will see Peter DeBoer shuffling up the lines a bit in order to find chemistry and create more scoring chances while these forwards are unavailable. If that helps the Sharks get the puck out of their defensive zone more readily, then so be it.
Then, there’s defenseman Paul Martin, who has been sidelined with a lower body injury. His absence was seen in that first game he missed, a 6-3 loss to the Islanders. Take the veteran out of the mix and suddenly the Sharks defense started to look eerily similar to how it looked for the better part of last season. Which brings us to …
3. The defense factor
With as spectacular as Martin Jones has been so far this season, he still needs a good defense in front of him. The lack thereof was a glaringly obvious in the final two games of the Sharks’ visit to the East Coast.
I go back to the Sharks preseason win over the Vancouver Canucks. Brent Burns was asked about the importance of the chemistry he has found playing with Paul Martin. The massive d-man was candid in his answer: “Last season, going back to (defense) was hard, and then I didn’t really have a steady partner for a lot of time. It takes time to develop (chemistry) with every single guy.”
We can make all the “Chewie misses Han” jokes we want, but it’s true — Martin rapidly became an important part of the Sharks blue line, and Burns and the rest of the defense have missed him.
Having a healthy Martin back with Burns allows Brenden Dillon to continue playing with Matt Tennyson — or get paired with Mirco Mueller after he was recalled on Wednesday morning — and takes pressure off the Vlasic-Braun combo.
With a couple games to heal and the roadie now in the rear view mirror, hopefully Martin is ready to return to helping the team at some point during this homestand.
4. The home ice factor
It seems like such an easy fix, but the comfort of home ice should do the Sharks some good.
Plus, the schedule isn’t too terrible. They host a subpar Kings team to start, and then the Carolina Hurricanes, who are occupying a lower rung of the Metropolitan Division. San Jose then has a travel-free stretch before the Nashville Predators come to town on Oct. 28.
Honestly, hosting LA on San Jose ice for the first time this season should already be an excellent motivator. It should up the Sharks’ “grit factor”, and we all know how productive that can be.