Sharks stars set to shine in Sochi
It’s no secret the San Jose Sharks need these few weeks during the Olympics to relax, recharge and refocus before the second segment of the 2014 campaign.
Of course, four Sharks standouts won’t get to benefit from that time off while they represent their respective countries in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Here are the Sharks who are trading their teal sweaters for their native country’s colors before the puck drops for Men’s Hockey on February 12:
Antti Niemi: The focus as of late, at least in Sharks Territory, has been that Niemi has been a tired sort who has to fend off backup goalie Alex Stalock from snagging his job.
The battle for honors between the pipes continues in Sochi, with Team Finland having a stacked arsenal of goaltenders.
Dallas Stars netminder Kari Lehtonen has represented Finland internationally seven times, though never in the Olympics, which could give him an edge to start over Niemi who is repping his home country for the first time.
Lehtonen did give up the game-winning goal to Tommy Wingels in overtime at the Tank this past Wednesday, but that probably won’t factor into head coach Erkka Westerlund’s decision for a starter.
More than likely the Finns will start Boston’s Tuukka Rask in goal. The Bruin is, like Niemi, making his first Olympic appearance and, also like Niemi, has a Stanley Cup win on his resume. But Rask also currently leads the NHL in shutouts, one of them in San Jose back in January.
Come game time, though, any one of the three netminders are good choices, particularly when facing teams with much more depth both up front as well as on the blue line.
Like, for example, on February 16 when Finland faces defending gold medalist Team Canada, a team whose roster includes players that Niemi is more familiar with playing with as opposed to blocking shots from.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic: Never mind the early January Olympic roster announcements: 26-year-old Vlasic was racking up Olympic buzz right from the start of the 2013-2014 NHL season.
Rightfully so: Heading into the Games, he ranks third among Sharks defensemen in points (18) and second in blocked shots with 108, just one behind Justin Braun.
The scoring defenseman will be in good company on the blue line with many big bodies in the mix for Team Canada, many of whom Vlasic is used to checking against the boards as opposed to playing alongside.
It would certainly be interesting to see Vlasic on the same line as LA Kings’ Drew Doughty, even just for a shift.
Don’t plan, however, on seeing the Montreal native in a starring role on this roster. Vlasic is, after all, on a very stacked team that boasts 11 medalists on its roster, one of whom is a Sharks alternate captain that Vlasic plays with on a very regular basis.
Patrick Marleau: The 34-year-old forward enters his second Olympics tied for 17 in the NHL in goals scored, after notching his 23rd goal of the season against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
He also enters the only Shark with a gold medal to commemorate his participation in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
So what if he isn’t grabbing the media spotlight like Sidney Crosby or Corey Perry?
Keeping a low profile off the ice is something Marleau does quite well, and that time to himself has a tendency of leading to him going on an offensive tear. It’s typically when No. 12 peels down the middle and goes five-hole before the opposing goalie knows what hit him.
That is, of course, why he remains one of the most popular players on San Jose’s roster.
Though after a game when the cube above center-ice featured the Sharks headed to Sochi, Marleau admitted: He certainly wasn’t getting as much applause as Joe Pavelski, who would be trading in the Pacific Teal for a Team USA jersey:
“It’s just normal. (Smiles) It might be a little different if it was up in Canada. But it’s okay though.”
Joe Pavelski: Those U-S-A chants rang loud and clear through the Tank for the better part of January.
Not just because Pavelski is San Jose’s lone States’ representative over in Russia, but because he played a pivotal role in keeping the Sharks a threat in the Pacific Division standings.
The wear and tear of having so many forwards on injured reserve — at one point, the Sharks had a record seven players off the ice — didn’t truly show until a little over a week before the league broke for the Sochi games.
But Pavelski got hot at the right time, keeping the team on a winning course and snatching a third place rank in the NHL in goals (29) to boot.
Sharks teammate Joe Thornton said of No. 8 after one particular win over the Calgary Flames:
“The puck just seems to find him right now. He’s going at a great pace and it’s definitely (great) to watch him play and (for the team) to be a part of it.”
If Pavelski carries said streak into Russia it could be also be pivotal in boosting a USA team that is still a little sore from the overtime loss in the 2010 games that sent them home with silver medals.
Word out of practice was that he could be on a line with Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. It’s anyone’s guess what his goalscoring capabilities will add to the chemistry between the Toronto teammates — particularly since van Riemsdyk has 24 goals on the season himself.
But if it’s anything like the affect Pavelski has on the Sharks, he’ll be one of Team USA’s key assets. Sharks Head coach Todd McLellan said of Pavelski:
“When the team really needs him, he elevates his game. That’s the sign of a real good player.”