SAN JOSE -- The Sharks practiced at home on Monday for the final time before leaving on a seven-game, 14-day road trip that will determine whether they are a playoff or a lottery team.
The first four stops will be in Canadian cities, including Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Considering the recent off-ice events surrounding the club, and some of the media hotbeds they’ll be visiting, it’s safe to say that former captain Joe Thornton will get at least one question or 20 about the rift that has surfaced between him and general manager Doug Wilson.
Put another way, there will be many more reporters and cameras in the dressing room than there were on Monday at Sharks Ice, when a grand total of two – the San Jose Mercury News, and yours truly – were there chatting with players in the dressing room.
“It’s a little bit more attention, but nothing big,” Thornton said. “It’s just a couple more cameras. That’s all I can say. A couple more cameras, a couple more people in the locker room. We’re there to play hockey, and that’s the bottom line.”
Marc-Edouard Vlasic said: “The guys are focused on winning. I don’t think they’re focused on anything else but winning.”
The evidence somewhat supports Vlasic’s claim, considering that the tension between Wilson and Thornton, and perhaps others in the dressing room, has been palpable since training camp. Despite the 6-2 loss to Chicago on Saturday in which the Sharks were outplaying the Blackhawks through two periods, San Jose has been playing much better since the calendar turned to March.
They’ve won four of six games since the March 2 trade deadline, when they met as a group outside of the rink to deal with whatever issues that contributed to their miserable stretch in February.
“We’ve met as a group multiple times this year. After the trade deadline, we know that this is our group here,” Matt Nieto said. “This is the group that’s going to finish it out. No matter what happens, we’re going to go through it together. I think the way we’ve been playing lately, everyone has just kind of rallied together and everyone is holding each other accountable.”
Joe Pavelski said: “We have a lot of trust in a lot of guys right now making the simple play and the harder play.”
The road trip won’t be easy. Tuesday’s game in Winnipeg could probably be classified as a must-win in regulation, as the Sharks will have to pass the Jets at some point if they want to get into the top eight. The Jets have a four-point lead on San Jose, 69 games into the season for each.
Tilts against the Maple Leafs and Flyers are winnable, while those against the Canadiens, Senators, Red Wings and Penguins should be more challenging.
The biggest test of all, though, will be maintaining the energy banks throughout the hectic travel schedule.
“It’s just a matter of making sure you’re doing what you’re doing to feel good each game, because it is a grind,” Nieto said. “It gets hard, especially towards the end of the trip. This is a two-week trip, so we’ve just got to take care of ourselves.”
Still, the schedule could be worse. The Sharks will have days off between all but the final two games of the trip, and even then they’ll have Saturday night to relax after playing the Flyers on Saturday afternoon and Penguins on Sunday night.
If they deal with the media storm the correct way while getting some points early in the trip, their currently slim playoff chances will improve.
”We’ll get asked questions up there, but all that matters is the games,” Todd McLellan said. “The rest of the crap we can’t control, so play hockey.”
Pavelski said: “We have to find ways to win, bottom line.”