Thursday, July 17, 2008

Duck Season Begins Early

Who's going to pulverize unsuspecting Ducks rookies now, DW? WHO??

First things first, the Sharks traded some guys for some other guys. They also signed this other guy, got rid of these guys, re-signed some guys and have yet to re-sign this guy. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's discuss more pressing matters, such as a legitimate reason to whip out those "Puck Fronger" t-shirts and Selanne catcalls (assuming the Finnish Flash doesn't retire) a bit early this year. The NHL released its schedule for the 2008-09 season today and revealed, among other things, that the Dan Boyle-Todd McLellan era will begin in San Jose against a familiar foe: the Sharks' much-loathed rivals to the south, the Anaheim Ducks. Of course, that's just one of many games at the Tank this year that promise to be memorable. Here's my list of the top 10 games at the Tank this year, ordered backwards in order to inject some much-needed suspense into your mundane lives.

10) 10/25/08, 4:30 PM, v. Tampa Bay Lightning: Hockey's version of the circus rolls into town, bringing ex-Shark Matt Carle with it. Dead last in the NHL last season, the Bolts, under the undoubtedly sagacious tutelage of Hollywood producer and newfound owner Oren Koules, underwent extensive retooling this summer. The team signed approximately thirty billion forwards, forcing them to trade away their best defenseman to the Sharks due to cap implications. Oh, and they also filled their coaching vacancy with Barry Melrose, who hasn't been behind an NHL bench in 13 years and was almost as bad at that gig as he was at being ESPN's chief hockey analyst for the last decade. Should be entertaining to say the least.

9) 4/9/09, 7:30 PM, v. Phoenix Coyotes: Let's jump forward a few months to the Sharks' home finale. Usually, one could probably get away skipping a game this late in the season against the Desert Dogs, what with Phoenix's playoff hopes usually six feet under by this point. Not so this season. The Coyotes swindled Florida GM Jacques Martin for star center Olli Jokinen and have slowly assembled one of the best young offensive cores in the league, headlined by future stars like Peter Mueller, Kyle Turris and Martin Hanzal, all of whom are expected to play big roles this coming year.

8) 11/13/08, 7:30 PM, v. Calgary Flames: The Sharks-Calgary first-round playoff series last spring was, in a word, epic. Complete with an unbelievable Flames Game 3 comeback, a literally last-second victory by the Sharks in Game 4 and a Game 7 for the ages, the tilt will likely go down as one of the greatest series in Sharks history and was undoubtedly one of the finest of the 2008 playoffs. Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf and the Flames return to the Tank for the first time since the aforementioned Game 7 for what should be a great one. The Flames ditched skilled-but-soft left wings Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay over the summer, re-establishing themselves as a gritty, lunchpail-type outfit. Games between these clubs are always memorable, but with the Flames having something to prove, this matchup should be even more so.

7) 12/2/08, 7:30 PM, v. Toronto Maple Leafs: This list would simply not be complete without the much-anticipated return of Ron Wilson to an HP Pavilion bench. Of course, it will be the visitor's bench as the former Canadian-hater and ex-Sharks coach begins the first season of his tour of duty in the Center of the Hockey Universe™. He'll be bringing Vesa Toskala, Mark Bell (well, I suppose that depends on the parole board), and the rest of the greatest AHL team ever assembled with him for a game the Sharks shouldn't have as much trouble winning as they did the last time the Leafs were in town.

6) 3/3/08, 7:30 PM, v. Dallas Stars: Hmm, the Sharks will host the Stars on March 3rd, you know, 3/3...33...coincidence? I think not. But in all seriousness, as if Sharks fans didn't have enough reasons to hate the Stars, Dallas goes out and signs the biggest shit-disturber in the NHL (who apparently and inexplicably doubles as an effeminate aspiring fashion designer), Sean Avery. Facing the last team to eliminate you from the postseason always serves as something of a measuring stick and games against Dallas are always hotly contested, especially this close to the end of the season.

5) 11/22/08, 7:30 PM, v. Washington Capitals: Alexander the Great returns to the Tank for the first time since 2005 (thank goodness the old scheduling format has been trashed) and brings with him fellow young stars Mike Green, Alex Semin and Nick Backstrom along with old fogeys Michael Nylander and Sergei Fedorov in what promises to be an exciting exhibition of offensive talent. The Caps largely stood pat this offseason, downgrading a tad in goal from one ex-Hab in Cristobal Huet to another in Jose Theodore, but look to be a formidable force in the East, particularly with the pitiful state the rest of the Southeast is mired in and the continued blossoming of the Caps' boundless young talent.

4) 10/28/08, 7:30 PM, v. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Sharks are the only NHL team Sidney Crosby has never recorded a point against. Sid the Kid will have two chances to get that goose egg off the scoreboard, both this game and later in the year when the Sharks travel to Steeltown. Marian Hossa may have bolted, but make no mistake: the Pens are still one of the best in the East and are oozing with star power from Crosby to Evgeni Malkin to Jordan Staal to Marc-Andre Fleury. The Pens' last visit to the Tank proved to be one of the best games of the 2006-07 season and even a Crosby-less matchup in Pittsburgh last year was nothing short of entertaining (and was also Pittsburgh's last loss at home until the Stanley Cup Finals), so I'm expecting big things from this one.

3) 10/30/08, 7:30 PM, v. Detroit Red Wings: You thought the Penguins were a tough out? Well, venture back to West Santa Clara Street two nights later, and you can have a look at the team that made short work of Pittsburgh in the Finals, then proceeded to steal the Penguins' best winger, Marian Hossa, via free agency. An already jaw-dropping power play is now comprised of Hossa, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Brian Rafalski and, of course, the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom. I mentioned that the Stars would serve as a measuring stick of sorts, but let's not kid ourselves: the unequivocal bar against which the Sharks will be judged this season is Detroit. They look to be the class of the NHL and are surely favorites to repeat and the revamped Sharks, now led by ex-Wings assistant coach Todd McLellan, will look to make a late-October statement.

2) 10/9/08, 7:30 PM, v. Anaheim Ducks: Ah yes, the home opener. Not only will the Sharks be looking to roast some Duck on the first night of the season, they'll try and steer clear of the disasters that have plagued the last two home openers. Back in '06 against the Blues, Jonathan Cheechoo bore a gaping hole through the boards after sliding skate-first into them, causing a lengthy delay. Last season against the Bruins, the Sharks' man-advantage unit wasn't the only power outage, as the Tank was devoid of electricity before the festivities even began, delaying the start time significantly. The Sharks had better hope the power doesn't go out prior to the start of this game as the team plans to raise its 2007-08 Pacific Division Championship Banner. Yes, I'm sure the members of the Ducks will all weep softly into their Stanley Cup. This game is likely to serve as the second-half of Versus' annual season-opening double header, which is fair warning that you should do everything you can to find tickets unless you enjoy listening to Joe Beninati detailing the intricacies of the upcoming Hockey Central intermission report while Joe Pavelski finishes off a breakaway.

1) 11/16/08, 4:00 PM, v. Chicago Blackhawks: Ed Belfour. Teemu Selanne. And now Brian Campbell. A traitorous trifecta, if you will. All three are ex-Sharks who bolted town as soon as they were afforded a sniff of free agency, the man they call "Soupy" being the latest. Yes, Campbell only wore teal for 33 games, but the man loudly broadcasted his desire to play closer to his family's Ontario home...then signs in Chicago. Needless to say, he shouldn't be expecting a warm welcome. Of course, Campbell alone isn't enough to get a Sunday afternoon tilt against the Hawks to the top of this list. Loaded with young talent like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, the Hawks' offseason additions in Campbell and Cristobal Huet seem to signal that the disgraced Original Six team has recovered from their extended stay at the Irrelevant Inn and are looking to return to the postseason, a very achievable goal.

So there you have it. My estimation of the top ten most entertaining games at the Tank this season. Non-Sharks schedule highlights include the NHL Premiere with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers squaring off twice in Prague and the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators playing back-to-backs in Stockholm to kick off the year, the now-annual Winter Classic, this season at Wrigley Field in Chicago, pitting the Blackhawks against the Red Wings, and the All-Star Game in Montreal, celebrating the Habs' 100th year of existence.