SAN JOSE – The Sharks could have panicked. The Sharks of seven months ago probably would have.
On Nov. 29, San Jose built up a 5-1 lead on the Ducks trying desperately to end a four-game losing streak, only to see it whittled down to 5-4 early in the third period. Patrick Marleau’s misplay in the defensive zone led to Ryan Getzlaf’s backhander past Antti Niemi with 15:40 to go in regulation, and the Ducks had all the momentum.
Todd McLellan called a timeout, and on the next shift Tommy Wingels hammered Sami Vatanen on an aggressive forecheck. Antti Niemi made a save and froze the puck moments later, and on the next shift Joe Thornton laid a heavy blow on Cam Fowler in a nearly identical check to the one his teammate threw less than a minute earlier.
The Sharks were back to playing the way they had for most of the first two periods, and held on to beat Anaheim, 6-4. Three more wins followed, during which there were signs – including that momentum-changing hit by Wingels – that management’s plan of turning the team over to the younger players and sending the message that everyone has an equal stake in the club is proceeding as planned.
Three days after that Ducks win in a game against Philadelphia, it was Mike Brown who provided a “shot in the arm,” according to Joe Pavelski, when he started laying a few big hits on the forecheck that seemed to awaken his teammates. Marc-Edouard Vlasic tied the game in the second period, and Matt Nieto eventually won it late in regulation, 2-1.
Against the Bruins on Thursday, it was Pavelski who played maybe his best game of the season. He finished with two goals and one assist, nine shots on goal, and won seven of his nine faceoffs in pacing the Sharks in a 7-4 win. Couture’s line helped get the team going, generating a Wingels goal just 27 seconds into the second period to cut a 2-0 Bruins lead in half.
Against Calgary on Saturday, Wingels' forechecking led to a Flames turnover to Justin Braun, who tied the game at 1-1 early in the second period. Couture's impressive backhander gave the Sharks a 2-1 lead they would eventually surrender, but in the third period Wingels again did the heavy lifting on the forecheck and along the boards, resulting in linemate Couture feeding Marleau in front of the net for the game-winner.
Thornton and Marleau have remained productive, and the latter currently leads the team in scoring with 25 points. But the Sharks' overall success seems to depend more on the younger group that was mentioned over and over by Doug Wilson this past summer, as evidenced by the recent winning streak.
A high-ranking NHL manager not affiliated with the Sharks recently suggested to me the same thing – when the Sharks are going well, it’s guys like Couture and Pavelski, he mentioned, who are seemingly leading the way.
“Jumbo and Patty are very, very important players for our team. Very important. But, Pavelski, Wingels, Couture, Vlasic – they’re the group that’s coming, and they’ve got to accept the team and take it,” Todd McLellan said. “Jumbo and Patty are in great supporting positions and they’ve given us really good games this year, but the catalysts and the part that really makes the engine go are these guys, and they have to come through with it.”
Couture said: “I feel like that’s been my job along with some other guys here for a little while now. Usually when we’re going pretty good, the team goes pretty good. When we’re struggling, the team struggles. Personally, I hopefully continue to play well moving forward.”
While Couture and Pavelski have been important pieces for some time now, Wingels is the guy who has taken the next step in his development and become one of the most important players on the roster.
The 26-year-old scored three goals and six assists during a four-game point streak that ended on Sunday in Edmonton, and his presence on the Couture-Marleau line seems to have especially sparked Marleau, who was scoreless in seven of his previous eight games before Wingels was bumped up for the Anaheim game.
“With all the talk of leadership change and going younger, I think I’m a guy who can help with that, help some of the older guys and help with the transition,” Wingels said.
“A lot of that is creating energy for the team. Joe and Patty have done it for years and continue to do it. But, they need help. That’s kind of always been a thing, you can’t rely on those two to do everything. … Like we’ve said, it’s going to take a group of leaders to drive this team.”
Thornton recently bristled when it was suggested that the team is going younger, perhaps evidence that he’s still unhappy with some of management's comments over the summer. “I just think Todd is going to put the best lineup out there to try and win games,” Thornton said. “I don’t think he cares about age, none of us care about age. You just want to win games.”
Regardless, McLellan was complimentary of his two aging stars in what has clearly been labeled as a year of transition for San Jose.
“Jumbo and Patty have been great because they’re willing to let these guys take more on and accept it,” McLellan said. “The players are starting to learn that they can. It’s still going to take some time. They understand it. They get it.”
There are still going to be growing pains, of course – Sunday’s lackluster 2-1 loss in Edmonton being the most recent example. The hope is that that the so-called catalysts continue to drive the bus, Thornton and Marleau keep putting up the points they’re accustomed to putting up, and subsequently there are more good nights than bad.
Perhaps that makes the club more dangerous in the playoffs, should they qualify, after years of being a bit too comfortable in the standings thanks to hot starts - and maybe a bit too reliant on Thornton and Marleau to lead the way.
“We’ve had cushions in the past and lost in the playoffs,” Vlasic said. “Maybe this year we fight our way in and do better in the playoffs.”
“That’s certainly what the hope is,” McLellan said. “There is a transition. It happens everywhere. Great players stay great players, but there’s others that have to step up and take over as they hit their mid-20’s. It becomes their prime time.”