At least the Sharks’ fate is staring them right in the face now. If they win their last two games in regulation, they will have home ice for the first playoff round. They face Edmonton on Thursday and Calgary on Saturday, both at SAP Center.
But does anyone out there in the studio audience honestly think that the weary Sharks will win both games against those hot young teams?
Anyone? Still waiting for a response. Hello?
The Sharks are not a beautiful hockey enterprise these days. Injuries to Logan Couture (mouth implosion after being hit by a deflected puck) and Joe Thornton (ugly knee train wreck) have thrown the team into uncharted territory. The beloved Los Tiburones are hard to watch even when winning, as was the case in Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over going-nowhere Vancouver.
Couture and Thornton, who missed Tuesday’s game, took brief and tender turns on the ice on Wednesday morning at the team’s practice rink. Thornton said afterward that he wants to be back for the playoffs, maybe sooner. That was good. But it was clear neither man will be performing full-speed, full-function hockey for a while. That was bad.
We could see that Tuesday night. Without their top two centermen in the lineup against Vancouver, the Sharks basically just survived. They pushed to the finish line but were outshot by the Canucks and out-energized for significant stretches. The loss of Couture and Thornton should not affect hustle. The money postgame quote from coach Pete DeBoer — in the sense that it was right on the cash barrel — came in his measured response to a question about the No-Cooch-And-Jumbo factor.
“There was opportunity for some other guys to come in here and really show they could help us fill that void,” DeBoer said. “I thought a lot of guys didn’t seize that opportunity tonight.”
DeBoer wasn’t specific. No coach wants to get too personal with the playoffs in sight. But there seemed no doubt that he was referring to certain younger Sharks.
A likely suspect was Tomas Hertl, who at age 23 must become more of a consistent force in the absence of Thornton and Couture. Instead, after scoring two goals in Vancouver on Sunday, Hertl finished Tuesday night at minus one on the scoresheet, recorded zero official hits and won just six of his 16 faceoffs. Rookies Tim Meier and Marcus Sorensen didn’t do much in their limited minutes. Kevin Labanc, playing on the top line, scored on his first shot but put just one more on net the rest of the night.
In fairness, many Shark veterans also had minimal impact in Tuesday’s game. They drew just one penalty and didn’t produce on their sole power play–with a new first unit of Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Mikkel Boedker, Brent Burns and Labanc.
Safe to say, then, that Couture and Thornton can’t come back soon enough. The Sharks can’t make another realistic run at the Stanley Cup unless both return. The best to hope for at this point, it would seem, is for one of them to return in time for Game One of the first round, with the other joining in somewhere along the way during the series. But which player is the most critical to return soonest?
Thornton has been the Sharks’ center of gravity for so long that it seems strange to say it wouldn’t be him. But the plain fact is, Couture plays more roles for the team. He’s on both the power play and penalty kill units. He’s produced two more points than Thornton this season in six fewer games. And lest we forget, Couture led all NHL playoff scorers last spring with 30 points.
If forced to pick between the two, therefore, you’d have to choose Couture. If the first round matchup is against Edmonton, which is the way odds are leaning, Couture would also provide the best matchup against electric talent Connor McDavid. He’s the league’s leading scorer and is fearlessly confident. Without Couture, it’s hard to fathom the Sharks having a chance to contain McDavid over seven games.
Shall we do some calculating? Couture was injured March 25. The damage was severe. As Couture explained the other day, doctors had to reconstruct and rearrange part of his mouth. Another jarring blow could ruin their work and create further complications. Normal recovery time for such an injury is three to four weeks. That would target Couture’s soonest return at April 15, which could mesh with Game One or Game Two of the first round. The Sharks can only hope that’s correct.
Thornton, meanwhile, has an even more daunting task as he tries to make his leg work again. He’s got a big body — 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds–to push around. But he’s a tough customer. It’s astounding that Thornton has missed just eight games due to injury in his nearly 12 seasons with the Sharks, considering how many minutes he plays. And most famously, in 2011 he endured an entire playoff game with a separated shoulder. Pain won’t be the issue for Thornton. It’ll be his effectiveness. But if he can get back in the lineup by Game Four or Game Five and the series is close, it could be a huge boost.
The Sharks, of course, aren’t the only NHL team that has suffered horribly timed injuries heading into the postseason. Cam Fowler, one of the Anaheim Ducks’ core players, couldn’t finish Tuesday’s game against Calgary after a knee-to-knee hit that looked very bad and leaves the defenseman’s status uncertain. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced Wednesday that their top defenseman Kris Letang, so effective against the Sharks in last year’s Stanley Cup Final, will be out of the playoffs following surgery for a herniated disc.
Last spring on their path to the Stanley Cup Final, the Sharks were relatively healthy out of the gate and primed to make a run. This spring, they are anything but. But if they can hang on long enough for Couture and Thornton to return in something that approximates their 2016 form, the Sharks could make some trouble. Otherwise, it’s hard to see them making anything except a quick exit.