Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Bright Beginning
Sharks 4, Ducks 1

Despite some comforting constants -- an in-arena electrical malfunction, decrepit ice conditions -- Thursday's home opener was evidence enough that the San Jose Sharks are an entirely different team under Todd McLellan compared to the club's previous incarnation during the Ron Wilson regime. Implementing an aggressive shot-blocking defensive strategy instead of encouraging players to make like flamingos on the penalty kill, having the power play take more shots than Sarah Palin on a caribou-hunting expedition rather than hoping for a miracle pass from a stagnant Joe Thornton dwelling on the right-wing half wall, imploring the team to respond to a late Anaheim goal with a tally of their own as opposed to sitting on their hands watching the clock run out -- it's crystal clear from just a 60-minute sample of McLellan hockey that the former Detroit assistant has already left an indelible mark on this hockey club. This isn't necessarily to criticize Wilson (who's currently being treated as the Messiah in Toronto after leading the Leafs to a 3-2 opening night victory over the Wings), but no one can deny change needed to occur and, so far, that change looks to be for the better. Some quick observations from Thursday's contest:

--The groin "strain" that kept Joe Thornton out of the third period of the Sharks' 3-2 loss during an exhibition game in Vancouver on Oct. 2 as well as the exhibition finale against the Kings in Salt Lake City Oct. 5 appeared to still be nagging the Sharks center in the opener. Despite racking up an assist on Cheechoo's second goal, Big Joe was not his usual dominant presence, leaving Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi to pick up much of the slack for the top line (although they did so admirably).

--Speaking of Setoguchi, his allegedly extensive off-season workout regime seems to have exponentially improved his game. Criticized during his draft year for the lack of an NHL-caliber first step, Gooch appears to have exorcised any lingering skating demons, demonstrated during several junctures of the game, including a 2nd-period breakaway from the red line in and an impressive 1st-period streak down the right wing.

--The expectation was that Rob Blake would find a happy medium this season between his past two forgettable campaigns in Los Angeles and the elite resume he compiled during his days with Colorado, but if Thursday night's performance was any indication, the second Norris Trophy winner to ever don a teal sweater should enjoy a year much more in line with the latter. Seven shots by a Sharks defenseman is unheard of and while it's very much a product of the aforementioned McLellan Doctrine, it takes considerable skill to get those shots through and that skill was on full display by No. 4 against the Ducks and he was rewarded with two assists.

--The Sharks' other prize off-season blueline acquisition Dan Boyle was expectedly still getting his feet under him after an injury-plagued season last year in Tampa. Boyle enjoyed a similar debut to that of Brian Campbell when he came over from Buffalo last season -- picking up an assist, showing good offensive awareness, but not really doing anything that elicited a "wow." It did seem as though Boyle paid somehting of a sarcastic homage to Soupy when he attempted a spin-o-rama in the neutral zone early in the game. It failed miserably, but I'll give him full marks for effort.

With Dallas, Detroit and Anaheim all falling in their season openers, the Sharks have a chance to jump ahead to a stranglehold on the Western Conference lead with a relatively light schedule for the next week featuring back-to-back games against Los Angeles, the first of which takes place tonight at the Tank, and a tilt with the Blue Jackets Tuesday night. Despite the apparent easiness of these games, I agree with McLellan that they present a formidable test of whether or not the team will be complacent to rest on their laurels or the club's leadership will take charge and convince the players to put the same effort into the upcoming three contests as they did for Thursday's opener against the Ducks. So far, so good for the Sharks in the Todd McLellan era.

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