Excitement trumps nerves on Sharks opening night
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SAN JOSE – It’s been 127 days since the Sharks played a meaningful hockey game, but the message from head coach Todd McLellan is simple.

He’d like his club to pick up right where it left off when the puck drops for tonight’s season opener against Vancouver at SAP Center - play fast, hard, and supportive.

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“We have an identity that we believe we have to play towards. It evolved last year, and we have to continue that process as we go along,” McLellan said.

Patrick Marleau said: “I like what I’ve seen so far. We want to build off of what we did last year in the postseason. We didn’t go as far as we wanted to, but there’s a lot good things we can build off of.”

The Sharks’ roster isn’t all that different from the club that lost in seven games in the second round last May to Los Angeles, as the core players like Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Marleau and Joe Pavelski return. The seven-man defense group, including Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, is exactly the same, as is starting goaltender Antti Niemi.

But there’s been an injection of youth into the top nine, as rookie wingers Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto will make their NHL debuts. There were no surprises as far as line rushes on Thursday morning, so Hertl will skate with Thornton and Brent Burns while Nieto is with Pavelski and Tommy Wingels.

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“We have some youth in the lineup that should provide us some real good energy, and we’ll try to take advantage of that,” McLellan said.

Thornton said: “We’re a deep team, a fast team, and an exciting team.”

The Sharks had a generally successful preseason, going 4-1-1, including a 5-0 drubbing of the Canucks on Sep. 24. McLellan hardly tinkered with his lines at all during the three weeks of training camp, another sign that he’s content with the way the team was playing before its heartbreaking playoff exit.

Of course, the regular season in an entirely different animal. Citing the depth of the organization and the familiarity the players have with one another, the head coach suggested that he expects his team to be prepared for the games that count.

“We’ve been together for three weeks, so it’s time to hold them accountable for effort and commitment level and that type of stuff, but also systematically,” he said.

“There aren’t many surprises. There are three or four new faces in there that have to really adjust, but the veterans should know how we want to play the game and how we need to play the game. If they start wandering off on their own, we’ll pull those weeds quickly if we have to.”

Despite that public warning from the coach, the excitement of opening night seemed to trump any nervousness among the players.

“It’s always exciting, and a time where anything is possible when you start the season,” Marleau said. “I’m looking forward to it.”