Programming note: Rangers-Sharks coverage starts Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet California with Sharks Pregame Live
SAN JOSE – The timing couldn’t be better for the San Jose Sharks to get top center Joe Thornton back in the lineup.
For one, the Sharks are coming off of a convincing loss in St. Louis, dropping their second 7-2 decision to the Blues on Thursday in a span of five days.
The power play has been miserable, going 1-for-19 in four games without Thornton, including an 0-for-4 performance in Minnesota on Tuesday in which it didn’t generate a single shot on goal.
Thirdly, the Sharks are hosting the hottest team in the NHL, as the defending Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers are 12-1-0 in their last 13 games, and 16-4-0 in their last 20. New York has already thumped San Jose once, 4-0 on Oct. 19 at Madison Square Garden.
Thankfully, from a San Jose perspective, Thornton’s left shoulder has apparently healed enough for him to dress, after he missed four games from a hit by Anaheim's Clayton Stoner on Dec. 31.
“I’ve been taking it easy just trying to get better, and it’s been getting better,” Thornton said after Saturday’s morning skate. “It’s a good sign. It feels good. I’m excited to play again tonight.”
Todd McLellan said: “I looked at him on the way off [the ice] and asked him how he felt this morning because that was the last step, and he felt pretty good. Unless something changes between now and game time, we expect him to play.”
Interestingly, Thornton, who has 33 points (9g, 24a) in 38 games, will not assume his regular place alongside Joe Pavelski, where he had been just about all season long before he got hurt. Rather, he will apparently center left wing Patrick Marleau and right wing Matt Nieto.
While Thornton’s game has been consistent all season, his new linemates can’t say the same. Marleau is mired in a one-goal-in-20-games slump, while Nieto has zero points since returning from an ankle injury on Dec. 30.
Conversely, Pavelski, Logan Couture and Melker Karlsson have formed San Jose’s only consistent line of late. Since Thornton got hurt, Pavelski has two goals and three assists, Couture has four points (1g, 3a), and the rookie Karlsson has scored a goal in each of the last four games.
McLellan explained his rationale for keeping those three together.
“Of any line that we’ve had since Christmas, they’ve been the most productive,” he said. “Melker has been very good finding the net and plays in straight lines. The other two have been arguably our two best defensive players. With Jumbo coming back and Patty struggling a little bit, maybe they can get each other going here.”
Pavelski said: "It doesn't really change anything. Just work. I think that's the biggest thing – win your battles, and get that energy in a game. If you can have the puck, and it ultimately comes down to winning a few one-on-one battles throughout the night. … You’re got to win those battles, you got to put yourself in good spots, and we're going to try and do that."
The Rangers will be trying to complete a California sweep, beating the Ducks and Kings on back-to-back nights earlier this week. They look very much to be a Stanley Cup contender again, led by players like Rick Nash (25 goals), Derick Brassard (33 points) and Martin St. Louis (31 points).
They can also boast a strong defense core in front of Henrik Lundqvist, who made 33 saves in a shutout of the Sharks in the previous game. Over their last 20 games, the Rangers are giving up just 1.80 goals-per game, and have allowed two or fewer in 10 of their last 12.
“They are going to fill us full of different challenges, but the biggest challenge right now is our group, getting back and playing some detailed hockey, getting our special teams going, being better around our crease and in the goal, and there’s a lot of work that we have to do internally before we completely start worrying about the opposition,” McLellan said. “That’s not being disrespectful to a team that’s on fire right now, but we’ve got our own work to do.”
Thornton said: “They’re playing real well. They beat two teams that are real good back-to-back nights. It’s a real good test for us tonight.”