Friday may have been just the first of 82 games, but the San Jose Sharks will gladly take the two points they earned in the opener, grinding out a 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
San Jose will face Columbus once more in Sweden before coming home but their opening contest already leaves plenty of story lines moving forward.
Head Coach Todd McLellan elected to drastically mix up the lines since fans last saw the Sharks in meaningful action. All-Star center and newly appointed captain Joe Thornton centered a “top-line” between the gritty but quick Jamie McGinn and Devin Setoguchi. Meanwhile, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley (Thornton’s linemates from last postseason) sandwiched second year center Logan Couture as the “second-line,” leaving last year’s playoff hero Joe Pavelski centering Ryane Clowe and Torrey Mitchell to make up the “third-line”.
I realize the “quotes” that keep appearing may appear redundant, but they are actually quite necessary.
When you consider that McGinn isn’t normally a top-six forward, and Pavelski is known to be a top offensive contributor, it is difficult to label San Jose’s lines in a numerical order. In fact, only the “fourth line” of Frazer McLaren, Scott Nichol and Tommy Wingels was a combination expected to be together prior to the season.
Fortunately for McLellan, one potentially special center is the key to being able to spread out their top guys.
Couture may be in just his first full season but the second year center has already made his presence known in a big way. Last season, six of Couture’s nine combined goals between the regular season and postseason either tied the game or gave the Sharks the lead.
Starting off this season, Couture got right back on the clutch tracks by notching a game-winning power-play goal just over half way through the third period. Mitchell and Thornton notched San Jose’s first two tallies in the opening frame, leading to all three lines being represented on the score sheet.
However, scoring was never going to be an issue heading into the season for the Sharks. Team teal will certainly score more than their fare share of goals. The defense, on the other hand, is the big area of concern; early on in the opener, the unit looked quite shaky.
Despite going up against a rather mediocre offensive team in Columbus, the Sharks saw their 2-0 first period lead evaporate before the first intermission.
Just 15 seconds after Kristian Huselius cut the Sharks lead in half with a power-play marker at 16:55, R.J. Umberger poked home a rebound to tie the game.
There was nothing Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray or goaltender Antti Niemi could do on the power play goal but the tying tally by Umberger was a complete break down defensively.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic tried using his speed to skate out of his own zone but inexcusably gave the puck away along the boards. While Vlasic’s speed allowed him to recover and force Columbus’ Ethan Moreau to a bad angle, Umberger was allowed to walk in and clean up the rebound. Meanwhile, Vlasic’s partner, Niclas Wallin, was nowhere to be found.
San Jose’s deadline acquisition from last season was caught watching the play and didn’t even feign an attempt to lift up Umberger’s stick. Plays like this are simply all too familiar to Sharks fans who watched Wallin struggle vehemently down the stretch last season and in the playoffs. In spite of those struggles, GM Doug Wilson saw fit to re-sign the 35-year-old for another season at a significant $1.75M contract.
Now to open the season Wallin finds himself on that second pairing with Vlasic but if this type of missed coverage continues being an issue, don’t be surprised if 22-year-old Jason Demers jumps up onto that second pairing. Getting the best possible defensive pairings together will be all too crucial moving forward as San Jose tries to improve their defensive play from last season.
As for goaltending, Niemi performed admirably in his Shark debut, turning away 30 of 32 shots but San Jose can’t afford to give up 30 plus shots on a consistent basis.
In order for the Sharks to meet their Stanley Cup expectations, the defense is going to have to play much better in their own end than they showed in the opener.
Clowe tallied two assists and dropped the gloves with Mike Commodore… Pavelski tallied two assists… McLaren dropped the gloves with Jared Boll… Nichol and Jason Demers delivered San Jose’s biggest hits of the game.