The first of back-to-back games against the Pacific Division teams furthest from the coast begins for the San Jose Sharks with the Calgary Flames Tuesday, Dec. 8. The trip through Alberta, Canada concludes Wednesday with a game against former head coach Todd McLellan and the Edmonton Oilers.
The Sharks continue their up-and-down 2015-16 NHL season, earning just two points over their last five games following their sweep of a six-game Eastern Conference road trip. That had come on the heels of a 3-8-0 record that had followed four wins to start the season.
Whew, you must be this tall to ride this ride. Even the injuries that have plagued San Jose have gotten in the act: Logan Couture was activated Monday but CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz reported that Marc-Edouard Vlasic will not even make the trip.
The Sharks won all three games Couture played in regulation but have only two points in six 2015-16 NHL season games when also without a top-four defenseman: 0-3-0 without Paul Martin, 0-1-0 without Vlasic and 1-1-0 without Justin Braun.
San Jose’s win without Braun came over Tuesday’s opponent and each of these trips typically bring more than two points over the seasons. Both opponents are at the bottom of the weak Pacific Division to this point in the 2015-16 NHL season.
However, Calgary has won both games since then and is 4-2-1 in its last seven. Edmonton has won three in a row and is 4-1-1 in its last six. These are both young Pacific Division teams with some new pieces that will keep getting better as the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs approach.
The current Flames are a better team on paper than the one that reached the Pacific Division finals in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Oilers are much better than they have been for almost a decade.
The Sharks are 10-4-0 away from home so far this 2015-16 NHL season. With the Anaheim Ducks charging hard (10-5-3 after October) and the Central Division practically locking up both wild cards, getting some consistency or at least hitting more and longer hot streaks is going to be essential to make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Vlasic’s injury is reportedly not serious, so a return for the only home game in a period of over four weeks Saturday would be great. Maybe with him and Couture in the lineup, San Jose can turn around its home-ice struggles that date back to the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs (23 wins in the last 55 games).
Feeding off the weak Pacific Division teams is a must to ensure reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs and winning at home will be important once the Sharks get there. The time to take care of these issues is in the first half the 2015-16 NHL season, and their ability to clear up three key problems in this two-game set will say more about how far they have to go than the scores…
Logan Couture’s return has to mean almost as much as losing Marc-Edouard Vlasic. If he can play most of both games at full energy and rhythm, the San Jose Sharks could earn more than two points in the back-to-back set and be in a good position when they get their blue-line ace back.
Avoid giving up early scores
The Sharks have trailed before the first television timeout in nine of 26 games this 2015-16 NHL season and within the first 12 minutes in half their games. Teams that win in the Stanley Cup playoffs do not do that, and avoiding it in both ends of this back-to-back set would be an indication the focus on that problem has improved.
San Jose has failed to score more than two goals against seven different against career backup goalies and Joe Thornton has just one point in his last eight games. This team has failed to score more than one goal in regulation nine times in 26 games so far.
It is essential those trends end and the Sharks find a way to get three goals, especially since their own backup will have to play one game: Alex Stalock has allowed three or more goals in four of six starts on the 2015-16 NHL season.