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Swimming With Sharks

San Jose's stunning start and the rest of the week in the NHL

You try not to dissect it too much,” Patrick Marleau said on a media conference call Monday morning on a rare day off for the San Jose Sharks. He had used the same phrase, twice, on Saturday, after being asked about his and his team’s hot start. “I try not to dissect it,” he said, and “we try not to dissect it,” and then he scored two power-play goals 78 seconds apart before the first intermission.1 He became only the second player in league history to kick off a year with four straight two-goal games; the other was Cy Denneny back in 1917-18.

“To get off to a start like this at the start of the season is something special,” Marleau allowed on Monday. “Obviously, I’m not doing it alone, I’m playing with the two Joes.” Of Marleau’s nine goals this season, only one wasn’t assisted by Joes Thornton or Pavelski. The three are the Sharks’ leading scorers, with 15 goals and 24 assists between them; as a unit, they have combined for five even-strength goals, tied for tops in the league according to data at Left Wing Lock. As for the Sharks, they’ve had the best start they could have asked for, with a perfect 6-0-0 record and the highest goal differential of any NHL team.

As Marleau and the Joes go, needless to say, so goes the team. If you doubt it, you need only look back to the first few weeks of last season, when the scene was markedly different: San Jose had gotten off to a 1-3 start, and head coach Todd McLellan began messing around with line combinations. “Quite frankly, we’re still missing some key people, and I don’t mean with injuries,” he said then. To whom might he have been referring? “They know who they are.”

But he provided some hints. “They’re dressed, and they’re people that we count on. Some of them were very important players for us last year, so they need to find it quick,” he said. At that point, Marleau, Thornton, and Pavelski, VIPs all, had only two goals and three assists between them.

The Sharks made the playoffs last year, but for the first time since 2007 they didn’t win their division. After two years of Western Conference finals appearances, they were bounced in the first round in five games by the Blues. While 23-year-old Logan Couture continued to emerge as one of the league’s top young players, the Sharks’ longtime core wasn’t getting any younger. Everyone talked about the franchise’s “window closing,” referring to that slim opportunity, born of decent management and rare cosmic alignment, that a team has to win a Cup. Some of the talk sounded not unlike worrywart elders nagging their unmarried grandchildren about biological clocks.

“I’ve been here five years, and even when I was first hired I was asked the question ‘Do you think the window is closing,'” McLellan said on Tuesday a few hours before the Sharks took on the Anaheim Ducks. “We’ve got the two leading point-getters in the league right now, playing tremendous, they’re fresh and healthy, and we’re all prepared to write them off that they’re too old. I don’t buy that at all.”

On the Monday conference call, Joe Thornton channeled the doubters. “‘You guys are getting old, you’re 33, Joe and Patty … ‘” he said, describing what he and Marleau hear. “I think we’ve still got a lot left in the tank. We still feel like we’re among the elite in the West, we just have to prove it every night now.”

That’s been one of the Sharks’ biggest problems: having to prove it. They sometimes seem like the victims of their own success, expected to crest over their own already high-water marks year after year. What’s funny about Marleau’s current run2 is that it can and probably will ultimately be pointed to as just one more example of his oft-cited streakiness (despite the fact that one deep dive into his numbers shows that he’s not significantly streakier than anyone else).

Even Jeremy Roenick, who wrapped up his career with a stop in San Jose and has been one of Marleau’s more vocal and determined detractors — during the 2011 playoffs he called him “gutless” for his lack of offensive production — holds his former teammate up to some sort of Peak Marleau standard. In his book J.R.: My Life as the Most Outspoken, Fearless, and Hard-Hitting Man in Hockey, Roenick recalled a night his frustration boiled over:

It was around Thanksgiving. I was with my family at home. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the team and how dominant the Sharks could be if Marleau would realize his potential. After thinking about it all day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I left my family, climbed into my car and drove to Marleau’s home. My intention wasn’t to yell at him. I wanted to inspire him, to let him know that his teammates were behind him. I went there to tell him that I believed he could be one of the league’s very best players if he just altered his game slightly. He needed to play with more of an edge. He needed to show some bigger balls when the game was on the line. 3

On Tuesday night, the Sharks finally began to succumb. First was the news that 36-year-old defenseman Dan Boyle was out of the lineup, despite what McLellan had said earlier. (“Like everybody around here he’s coughing and sneezing and all that kind of stuff,” McLellan said. But he’ll play? “Oh, I expect him to play, absolutely.”) Without Boyle (as well as hirsute blueliner Brent Burns, who hasn’t played yet this season due to a shadowy lower-body injury) the Sharks’ transitions weren’t quite right, throwing everything out of whack. The Ducks scored twice in 59 seconds for a 2-1 lead that they held for much of the game and definitely deserved. When the Sharks tied the game with 2:45 remaining, it was on a bizarre bounce. But led by Michal Handzus, they pulled out the win in a shootout, improving to 6-0-0.

For the first time this season, Marleau didn’t score. All of a sudden the minor matter of the team’s bottom six forwards having zero goals — something that earlier in the day was talked about almost as if it were a luxury — was regarded with worry. McLellan didn’t want to use the thin defensive corps as an excuse. Everyone was glad to have a full day to practice on Wednesday. McLellan wanted to nip this — whatever this was — in the bud.

“Jacques Lemaire — who I admire, obviously, as a coach — he used to say ‘Your game starts to get sick before you lose,'” McLellan said. “And we’d like to stop the sniffles right now.” His own voice sounded hoarse. But healthy or not, the Sharks had managed to win their sixth straight. And they’ve come to know better than anyone: Sometimes it’s better not to try to dissect it.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

Alexander Burmistrov’s game-tying tally in the Jets’ comeback win over the New York Islanders was (mildly) reminiscent of Jamie Benn’s cat’s cradle of a play against the Columbus Blue Jackets last year. (Evander Kane, the Anthony Mason of the NHL, scored to win in overtime.)

That sort of slow-developing skate-around is the best genre of goal. Here’s another one, courtesy of the Boston Bruins’ Nathan Horton:

There were other good scores this week, ranging from Mikhail Grigorenko’s celebration of the news that he’d be staying up in the big leagues to Jeff Skinner’s soft mitts to Pierre-Marc Bouchard ripping his 100th career goal. And then there was Toronto Maple Leaf Matt Frattin’s literal last-second shot to beat Buffalo in overtime and avoid the dreaded “skills competition.” It was lovely, yes. But nothing was as beautiful as the look of pure and unbridled joy on Phil Kessel’s face. Have you ever seen him so gleeful? I now want the Leafs to win the Stanley Cup just so I can look at the pictures. (Millions of weary fans led by Sean McIndoe are like, get in line, pal.)

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

It’s been a bleak start to the season for Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. Ovechkin, who scored 40 points in 31 games in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League during the lockout, has a goal and an assist in six games. The Capitals are 1-4-1. An experiment by new head coach Adam Oates to move him across the ice to right wing was abandoned nearly as soon as it began; as of the last game, Ovechkin was on a line with grinders Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb.

There has been discussion over his bulky physique. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has begun to weigh in, telling a radio station that he’s “concerned” and that Ovi “needs to play better.” Some of it is just luck: Ovechkin is shooting just 5 percent right now, a rate that will rise. Some of it is, as with the Sharks, the weight of expectations. Last season, widely regarded as a disappointment, still saw Ovechkin finish with 38 goals, fifth in the league.

But it all comes down to this: At around the 15-second mark of this video of Ovechkin scoring his lone goal this season, there’s brief footage of a fan so overtaken by the moment that he can’t help but awkwardly hug/pick up his lady friend in celebration. It’s one of the more quietly devastating things I’ve seen: equal parts joy and desperation, like a Trip McNeely figure doing funnels at a high school party. That’s not how this was supposed to go; that’s not how Alex Ovechkin goals were meant to be reacted to. Say what you will about the obnoxiously cocky Caps fans of old: It was better than seeming so wantonly grateful.

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

• After holding out for two weeks, restricted free agent P.K. Subban re-signed with the Montreal Canadiens, coming to an agreement on a two-year deal worth $5.75 million. The terms raised many eyebrows: They were only slightly more than a two-year deal put on the table by Montreal back in August. But the deal’s particulars tell a deeper story: Subban will make $2 million this season (prorated for the lockout and his time away since) but that will jump to $3.75 million in year two — meaning that when negotiations for Subban’s next contract begin (in as soon as a few months) they’ll be working off that higher base. The biggest question the Subban (er, sorry, the self-proclaimed “Subbanator”) situation left many fans with, though, is why teams didn’t attempt to give offer sheets to the talented 23-year-old defenseman. Montreal’s got cash, but its cap restraints were such that a team could have had a shot at tying their hands with the right structure. Whether no one did because of a secret NHL owners boys’ club conspiracy or simply because they didn’t want to start inflating the market of their own players’ comparables, I remain disappointed. Offer sheets are such fun!

• A pair of pretty passes: Pavel Datsyuk served up a saucer of sorcery, while Alexander Semin recorded a disappointingly unenigmatic takeaway and assist.

• At, like, three in the morning between Tuesday and Wednesday, the City Council of Markham, Ontario, voted 7-6 to keep alive a plan to build a 20,000-seat arena about 20 miles north of Toronto, fueling renewed speculation about possible NHL expansion.4 Under the proposed deal, Markham would use public funding for half of the estimated $325 million cost, while the rest would be made up by private investors. One big advocate of the development is former NHLPA chief Paul Kelly, who told the council that during his time dealing with the NHL there had been discussion of new teams in Greater Toronto and Quebec. Bill Daly dismissed Kelly’s comments, but — and maybe it’s just that the NHL lockout got me a little too deep into the Kremlinology of deciphering league statements — I found the denials suspiciously docile. “I’m sure we suggested we could”? This is the least convincing Bill Daly — a guy who has been happy to call things outright “fabrications” — has ever been. Now I’m intrigued.

• John Tavares and the Islanders show that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. (This plan hasn’t worked out quite as well for the Islanders on the franchise level.)

• A few thoughts on Nail Yakupov’s controversial celebrations after he drew the ire of the Phoenix Coyotes last night with a relatively low-key (for him) reaction to scoring an overtime winner: (1) I love them; (2) I completely understand why they rub people the wrong way; (3) there are basically two directions this can go: His celebrations will ultimately anger opponents (and, who knows, teammates) enough that it will get his ass kicked (Derek Morris was just the first of what will likely be many to take umbrage) and he’ll stop, OR he’ll just continue to score overtime game-winners and respond to them however he damn well pleases. Craig Custance of ESPN The Magazine remarked that in November, he asked Yakupov about his critics. “Go score goals and do something too,” Yakupov replied. No matter how this all plays out, it will be fun to watch.

• Props to 22-year-old Zack Kassian, who came to the Vancouver Canucks last season in a trade for Cody Hodgson and has found himself a nice spot on a line with the Sedin twins, scoring five goals in seven games this season. I’m pretty sure that getting invited to train with the Sedins over the summer goes down like some kind of redheaded Skull and Bones tap night.

• Any hockey fan who has ever found him or herself trying to explain the role of fighting in the NHL to a non-fan or casual fan knows how difficult it can be to capture the nuances of what makes for a satisfying bout. Which is why Saturday’s fight between Shane Doan and Mike Richards was compelling to me. It was pretty much the opposite of a lame staged fight between two goons off an opening faceoff. This featured two legitimately well-rounded stars, both of whom have engaged in some satisfying fisticuffs over the years. It was in response to something specific: Doan’s leveling of Dustin Brown seconds before. And it also had the baggage of history: Last year’s Western Conference finals between the two teams was a physical series with no love lost. Yes, I would have liked a more even fight, and of course, the ultimate would have been Brown and Doan reliving their captain-on-captain violence from last season. But still [bangs gavel] APPROVE.

• My apologies to two Sunshine State players for omitting them from my incomplete list of first NHL goal celebrations last week. Jonathan Huberdeau scored in his debut for the Florida Panthers but has been held off the board since, while the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Cory Conacher, who had a two-point opening day, has recorded points in all but one of the six games he’s played in. An undrafted graduate of Canisius College, the 5-foot-8 Conacher played his way into a contract with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, then the minor league affiliate to the Tampa Bay Lightning; his emergence this year has been one of the early season’s most unexpected and most excellent rookie campaigns.

And a Beauty! The Nicest in the Net

Neither of Dallas Stars net minder Kari Lehtonen’s “swervy” saves this week was exactly a goalie coach’s dream, but for the layperson they made for some compelling viewing. On Monday night against the Blue Jackets, Lehtonen tipped a shot by Jack Johnson and then, in one seamless, hacky-sack-happy move, reached backward to snag the puck before it crossed the line.

Lehtonen had a similar (if sloppier) sequence against the Red Wings the next night, robbing Valtteri Filppula and stopping Detroit on an odd-man rush. (He was pulled late in the third period with the Stars trailing 4-1.)

The Stars haven’t been able to leverage Lehtonen’s solid play the same way that Ottawa has taken advantage of Craig Anderson’s hot start. The Senators are 5-1-1 thanks in large part to the play of their journeyman goalie, now in his third season in Ottawa after stints in Colorado, Florida, and Chicago.

He currently sits atop the league’s leaderboard with a .967 save percentage and also boasts a 0.99 goals-against average — yet he flies mostly under the radar. (Before a pair of big saves on Montreal’s Brandon Prust Wednesday night, you had to go back to last year’s playoffs to find highlight clips of him on NHL.com, although I do appreciate that the headline ninjas titled one “Aggro Craig.”)

The Senators have a glut of talented backups in Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner, but Anderson has staved off any goalie controversies just yet. While he surely won’t be able to sustain his current pace — he’s currently got an even-strength save percentage of .979, and no one with more than 10 games played in the NHL last season finished better than .945 — the Senators have reaped the benefits while he’s been at the top of his game.

Other excellence in net included Corey Crawford’s diving lunge and some heads-up play from Roberto Luongo’s knob. Also, this split save by Steve Mason on Zach Parise makes my whole body ache.

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

This section might have to be rebranded as the Marchand Cup. On a Boston radio show on Tuesday Brad Marchand called out the Carolina Hurricanes’ Jeff Skinner for slew-footing Patrice Bergeron, referring to the move as “a greasy play” and accusing Skinner of slew-footing “all the time and we even spoke about it before the game in the room.” Let he who is without a strategically placed leg cast the first stone!5

Marchand’s conflict bender continued well into that night. Against the Devils, he got under David Clarkson’s skin successfully enough that Clarkson was reduced to taunting him about the beaklike characteristics of his nose, an old and obvious trope. Marchand retaliated in the most irritating and successful way possible: He scored the winning shootout goal and skated by the Devils bench with a few choice words. “I blacked out. I’m serious, I blacked out,” Marchand happily explained.6 Don’t you just want to strangle him? What a legend.

Hockey Haiku

Hipster NHL
loved Taro Tsujimoto
before it was cool.

Filed Under: NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes