It’s been a heckuva run this year for sports in northern California. In about two hours we’ll watch the 49ers play in the Super Bowl. The San Francisco Giants have already won the World Series. Stanford football won the Rose Bowl. Even the Golden State Warriors are in on the act, enjoying a good year in the NBA. I suppose in that light, it’s no surprise that the NHL has seen the San Jose Sharks come flying out of the gate with a 7-0-1 record as they chase the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
San Jose had become a consistent contender and reached the conference finals in both 2010 and 2011, but last year, the Sharks slid a little bit off the radar. They were near the bottom of the playoff race most of the year, finally scraped in at #7 and they said a quick goodbye as they were rolled by St. Louis in the first round. With two key players—center Joe Thornton and left winger Patrick Marleau turning 33, it wasn’t unreasonable to think the decline would continue.
Eight games don’t tell a whole story, but San Jose has joined Chicago and Boston as the teams who have made big statements to start this lockout-shortened season. The biggest difference early on is that San Jose’s penalty kill unit has been excellent. The Sharks were one of the worst in hockey a year ago, whereas the early part of this season has seen them rank sixth at killing penalties. On a directly related point, San Jose goalie Antti Niemi is off to a hot start, with a 93.6% save rate that ranks in the top five of NHL goalies.
If the solid play in killing penalties hold, there’s really no reason to think San Jose can’t continue to enjoy a high level of success. Even last year, they were good in every other area of play. They play pretty good defense, Niemi is a pretty good goalie, and they’re pretty good at scoring, including in standard 5-on-5 play when they don’t have a man advantage. The Sharks are, in short…pretty good.
One area that San Jose is more than pretty good though, is generating shots on goal. Thornton might be 33, but the former MVP is still a superlative passer at the center position and his 11 assists lead the league. Right-winger Joe Pavlevski is another excellent passer. When your best offensive players are this good at passing the puck, it stands to reason you’re going to get shots. And there aren’t that many players better at finishing those shots than Marleau, whose nine goals are also atop the league. San Jose also gets quality work from Logan Couture, with five goals and five assists. This is a well-balanced and talented offense that is also one of the best on the league when they’re on the power play.
The lockout may work to San Jose’s advantage as well, since Thornton and Marleu won’t put the same kind of mileage on their bodies prior to the playoff run. The fast start ensures the Sharks will have some cushion in the playoff race and since seed position is usually irrelevant in the NHL, the team can pace the workload their veterans undertake.
When cities and regions win championships, things tend to come in bunches. That’s just one reason to like San Jose’s chances in this still-young NHL season.