CALGARY – It’s been nearly nine months since the San Jose Sharks dropped a 3-1 decision to the St. Louis Blues, ending their uneven 2011-12 campaign with a thud on April 21, 2011.
On Sunday in Calgary, the Sharks will try and prove that they are still a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup, and more closely resemble the team that made two deeps runs in the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 and not a group that’s on the decline. A senseless lockout delayed the start of the NHL season by more than three months.
“I think everybody is focusing and has the game already on their minds,” said Marty Havlat, who will be among a number of Sharks players trying to personally rebound from a disappointing season.
Tommy Wingels said: “I think we’re all ready to play. It’s been a long time for us to play as a team, and some guys haven’t played a game in eight months. I think everyone’s real excited to get the season going.”
The Calgary Flames aren't expected to contend, after missing the playoffs for the third straight year and changing coaches in the offseason. In a shortened 48-game season, though, there are bound to be a few surprises. Perhaps the Flames, now led by Bob Hartley, can be one of those teams.
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After a quiet offseason, the Sharks are hoping that familiarity with one another leads to a quick start on their brief two-game road trip through Alberta. San Jose visits Edmonton on Tuesday night, another club that has some new faces and a new head coach.
“We do have some familiarity and we do have some systems in place,” Todd McLellan said. “The drills that we have run haven’t changed very much, so maybe we can be a little more efficient in practices, but both of those coaches are talented people. They’ll have their teams prepared, and they’ll be very hungry. Playing at home opening up in front of your own fans, you’ll be liking your chops and ready to get going.”
At the same time, the Sharks won’t have the opportunity to prepare as they normally would. There will be no video to review of exhibition or regular season games to get a glimpse of the kind of systems and strategies employed by the Flames.
“Calgary is a unique situation because they’ve got a brand new coaching staff. What’s their power play and penalty kill going to look like without having exhibition games or a regular season game to pre-scout on? We have to worry more about our team, and that could be a real good thing for us,” McLellan said.
Logan Couture, who had three goals in four games against Calgary last season, said: “We obviously know the names of their better players – Iginla, [Mike] Cammalleri, [Jay] Bouwmeester and [Miikka] Kiprusoff in net. You think about those guys and what they do. We know they missed the playoffs last year, so we’ll know that they’ll be hungry.”
Most NHL players will tell you they prefer starting the season on the road, away from the pressures of a raucous home crowd. It gives the players a chance to bond a bit, hanging out on a charter flight and going to dinner together the night before the game. Last season, the Sharks won two of three games at home (and dropped a decision in Anaheim) before going 5-0-1 on an East Coast road swing to close out October.
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“We’re gone for three or four days, but either way, it’s still a good time,” Ryane Clowe said. “Even last year we started on the road for a while and we liked that as a team. It gives you a chance to get together. That’s what the guys miss, they miss the camaraderie and being a team and being around each other. A lot of that comes on the road, so that will be good.”
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Scott Gomez accompanied the Sharks to Calgary, but has still not signed. A Sharks source said that the unrestricted free agent is still in an "evaluation period." Gomez met with Sharks general manager Doug Wilson on Saturday.
Jason Demers and Brent Burns also accompanied the team on its flight north, but neither is expected to play. In fact, it would be downright shocking to see either of them on the ice against the Flames or Oilers, but the Sharks refuse to put a timeline on either injured player.
Demers, in fact, isn’t even on the official roster yet. He failed his physical due to his fractured wrist, so his name does not appear in any capacity on the Sharks’ opening night roster or in today’s official game notes.
If the Sharks do sign Gomez, they would have to either put Burns on injured reserve or reassign a current player to Worcester. The guess here is that would be Frazer McLaren or James Sheppard, as the team would probably want to keep defenseman Nick Petrecki around as an emergency seventh defenseman.
McLaren is expected to be in the lineup tonight over Sheppard, while Antti Niemi will start.