SAN JOSE – Even before the opening faceoff between the Sharks and Ducks Saturday night, a physical tone for the game was set by Sharks head coach Todd McLellan.
Instead of rolling out the same exact lineup that cruised to a 5-2 victory over New Jersey on Wednesday, McLellan inserted his up and coming young enforcer Frazer McLaren back into the lineup.
With McLaren getting his first action for the first time in six games, a feeling around the arena was that the Sharks-Ducks rivalry would take little time getting back into full gear.
And wouldn’t you know it, just 1:47 after Dany Heatley gave the Sharks a 1-0 lead 36 seconds into the game, McLaren and Ducks enforcer George Parros dropped the gloves for a spirited bout.
San Jose’s rookie winger held his own against the veteran Anaheim enforcer and made the most of his 5:36 in ice time. It would be McLaren’s only fight on the evening but the physical play only increased from there as did San Jose’s prowess on the scoreboard.
Just under a minute later the Sharks went on the power-play and after nearly giving up another short-handed goal, second-year center Logan Couture pounced on a loose puck and fired it home from between the circles to give the Sharks an early 2-0 lead.
San Jose would once again find themselves on the power-play just a minute later when Ducks forward Jason Blake was whistled for delay of game. About a minute into the man advantage a scrum in front of the Anaheim net led to the second fight of the game (there ended up being six total before the night was over). This time Ryane Clowe and Sheldon Brookbank went toe-to-toe in a fight that saw Clowe attempting to continue the fight a couple of times after the linesmen came into break it up.
Seven minutes in at this point and the Sharks seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Even defenseman Douglass Murray, who didn’t find himself on the score-sheet, had fans chanting “Murr-ay! Murr-ay! Murr-ay!” by the time the third period rolled around. The 6’3″, 240 pound defenseman imposed his will all night long. Not only did he deliver bone-crushing hits on both Blake and Kyle Chipchura but his brute strength limited the ability of Anaheim’s top skaters to maneuver in the offensive zone.
The Sharks would take a 2-0 lead into the first intermission but wasted no time adding to their lead in the middle frame.
Just over two minutes into the second, Joe Pavelski threaded a beautiful cross-ice feed to Heatley who deposited his second of the game. Heatley’s tally, which came at the 2:08 mark, ended up making some Shark history for Thornton who was credited with the secondary assist. The goal was the eighth straight for San Jose in which Thornton was involved in, (either scoring or assisting) tying a franchise record with Kelly Kisio.
Just a couple minutes after the record tying goal that put the Sharks up by three, Antero Niittymaki came up with his biggest save of the night off Bobby Ryan who had squeaked through the Shark defense and was one-on-one with Niittymaki, who denied the backhanded attempt.
The big save allowed the Sharks to continue adding to the lead in the middle frame. Defenseman Niclas Wallin, who is starting to play better and better in his first full-season as Shark, chipped in his first goal in teal midway through the second to make it 4-0 and Patrick Marleau capped of San Jose’s scoring at the 15:17 mark.
By virtue of a comfortable 5-0 margin heading into the final period, the rough stuff was far from over. Less than a minute after the Ducks finally got on the board with a power-play tally at 4:20 of the third, Scott Nichol dropped the gloves for his second fight of the night, this time coming to blows with fellow center Ryan Carter.
During the next few shifts the physical play escalated to Murray’s monster hit on Chipchura at the Shark blue-line which was answered to by Duck winger Aaron Voros who enticed Murray to drop the gloves.
Midway through the third, the two Pacific division rivals had racked up 70 penalty minutes between them and barely a half minute later Wallin’s boarding penalty led to a major scrum in the Sharks zone which somehow led to just a single minor for Wallin.
Corey Perry would convert on the ensuing power-play to bring the Ducks within three but that would be the last puck to slip by Niittymaki on the night.
San Jose has now won four of their last five games and have looked just as impressive as they have in recent seasons. The early season struggles seem well behind them. Thornton, who had three assists on the night, said it best.
“It was only a matter of time before we got our offense going,” Jumbo Joe said. “You know we switched back to the lines that worked for us last year.”
Thornton has now been back on a line with Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley for the last few games. The trio spent most of last season together and have developed some major chemistry that allows them to flourish.
Along with the top line, the rest of the lineup appears to be getting better familiar with their roles. Nichol and Jamal Mayers on the fourth line have been working quite well together, as have Logan Couture and Jamie McGinn on the third line and most importantly the second defensive pairing of Wallin and Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been steadily improving.
And with another strong performance from Niitymaki in net, who stopped 22 of 24 Anaheim shots, the Sharks appear for now to have a true No. 1 netminder.
With defense and goaltending being the main concerns coming into this season, it is a good sign that there is a growing stability in net and on the blue-line. Barring significant injuries, the offense will be there all season long, but the real question lies in San Jose’s ability to defend their own net and play physical enough when needed.
While Anaheim isn’t the team they were a few years ago and were playing in the second of back to backs, San Jose should have a good vibe heading into November with the way played Saturday night.
Sound defense, goaltending and overall physical play will continue to be critical factors moving forward if the Sharks want to finish at the top of the standings once again this season.
At-least for now, all three of those phases are where the Sharks need them to be. Then throw in that dynamite offensive attack and not many teams are looking forward to playing the Sharks these days.