Programming note: Oilers-Sharks coverage starts Thursday at 7 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet California with Sharks Pregame Live
SAN JOSE – There weren’t going to be any excuses made during the Sharks’ early season struggles while the team was bouncing all over North America. Such is the nature of proud professional athletes and coaches.
Recent results, though, strongly suggest that playing 16 of their first 21 games on the road – the most road-heavy schedule to start a season in NHL history – took its toll on the Sharks, and their ability to perform at the highest level.
A couple of long homestands at SAP Center, combined with some rest and practice time, have seemingly turned their season around. The Sharks have won seven of their last eight games, and every facet of their game has been sharp. They're playing with a confidence and swagger that hasn’t been seen since perhaps early last season.
“When you’re in the middle of it and you’re talking about it, you’re giving your players permission to use it as an excuse, but it was tough,” Todd McLellan said of the early road schedule. “It hadn’t happened in the NHL before, first time ever. So, it’s not something we want to go through again, but we’ve put it behind us.”
There was also a bit of a snowball effect, according to Andrew Desjardins.
“That’s a long stretch for any team to be on the road,” he said. “I think we weren’t playing right either, so it didn’t help. That just made it even more difficult.”
The Sharks’ record wasn’t horrible when the stretch ended in Buffalo with a lackluster 4-1 defeat on Nov. 18, as they sat in fifth place in the Pacific Division with a 10-9-2 mark.
The concern level went up, though – including speculation about McLellan’s job status – when the team went 0-1-2 in its next three games at home against so-so competition in Florida, Arizona and Calgary.
There were some lingering effects from the travel even when they got back to the Bay Area.
McLellan said: “The energy stores, mentally and physically, just aren’t there. We’ve been able to rest now. We still know we have over half our road schedule to play, so we’ll go through it again at some point. Fought through it, and hopefully we’re a better team for it now.”
Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic didn’t put much weight in the schedule being a factor to the team’s middling start. Rather, the nine-year veteran said it takes time for any team to find its identity and install its systems before really settling in.
To Vlasic, that’s what happened with the Sharks.
“Normally, at the beginning of the season I think it takes 15-20 games for all the teams to get all their players and all their systems down, and now you’re starting to see that from us,” Vlasic said. “Now, we’ve settled in. Maybe it took 25 games, but now you’ll see more of what we’re all about.”
McLellan understood Vlasic’s hypothesis, but cautioned that there are still plenty of challenges ahead no matter how well the team is currently playing.
“Over the last two or three weeks we’re starting to look more like we want to look as a team, and I think that’s what he’s is referring to,” McLellan said. “Where do we go from here? What happens next? Do we maintain the standards that we’ve set over the last two weeks individually, and collectively?”
Despite the rough start, and everything that happened during the offseason, Logan Couture said there was never any doubt that crept into the dressing room when the wins weren’t coming less than three weeks ago.
“Playing on the road in this league is difficult to begin with,” Couture said. “When you’re playing long road trips it isn’t easy. You get tired, you travel through different time zones, you’re flying all over the country. It was difficult for us.
“I thought we did a good job. I know the outside world didn’t think we did, but I thought we did a great job on that road trip and knew that when we got home that we’d be fine. People are starting to realize that now.”