With a brutal road trip behind them and a sputtering offense before them, the San Jose Sharks may need just one thing to get back on top of their division — health.
"If we’re playing well and we’re healthy, we’ll play anybody," general manager Doug Wilson told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. Wilson went on to say his team was as talented as any club in the West and deeper than ever. The same day, Mar. 3, the Sharks sunk to the eighth and final playoff spot after holding the No. 3 seed as recently as Feb. 26.
At one point last week, the Sharks were missing two top-six forwards in Martin Havlat and All-Star Logan Couture; a top-four defenseman in Douglas Murray; and one of their three new forward acquisitions, Dominic Moore. Even coach Todd McLellan has been out for three games with concussion symptoms after an accident on the bench against Minnesota on Feb. 26.
The brief absences of the remarkably consistent Couture and recently acquired Moore were just the latest in a series of costly injuries for San Jose. Murray had been sidelined with a fractured Adam’s apple he sustained on Feb. 16. Both he and Couture returned in a 3-1 loss to St. Louis on Saturday. Moore had come back a game earlier in a 1-0 loss to Buffalo after missing four games.
Havlat has been increasing his activity incrementally during a delayed recovery from a torn hamstring that has kept him on the shelf since Dec. 17. Before the injury, he had an underwhelming start to his campaign with just two goals in 26 games after coming to San Jose in an offseason trade with the Minnesota Wild.
As a winger with two point-per-game seasons under his belt, a healthy Havlat with a hot hand could provide a major lift for San Jose. He has also performed well in the playoffs, notching 28 points in 26 games since the lockout. Unfortunately, Havlat has also had a generous share of injuries. He has averaged about 58 games played per season in his career, and some of his injuries have taken longer to heal than initially expected.
"For sure, rehab is the most frustrating thing in hockey," Havlat told the Mercury News’ David Pollak. "I can write a book about it, but it is what it is. I have to try and work hard and get back as soon as possible and as strong as possible."
The more recent injuries have come at a particularly frustrating time, as some players who had disappointing stretches have recently come around.
Like Havlat, defenseman Brent Burns was a big-ticket trade acquisition from the Wild this past summer. After some early-season wobbling, he had 14 of his 31 points in 14 February games, including six power-play points.
Ryane Clowe had his best month in February as well, posting season highs of nine points and 21 hits.
No Shark has been hotter than captain Joe Thornton. In fact, no player in the Western Conference was more productive in February. He had 18 points in 14 games after capping off January with a three-point outing. The streak affirms beliefs in Thornton, who has had dips in scoring from season to season of 11, 18, 10 and 19 points in his last five complete campaigns. He increased his total just once and by only three points.
"Joe now is at the age when Steve Yzerman won his first Stanley Cup," Wilson told Kawakami. "I’m not sure I see a decline as much as I see an evolution."
As flummoxing as their individual performances can be, the Sharks’ team offense has flailed just as their collectively struggling defense began to show signs of improvement.
After a squalid 2-6-1 road trip, they have won just one of three games on their home stand thus far. San Jose managed to score a meager two goals in the three contests.
Conversely, they surrendered just five goals, including a 1-0 shutout of the high-powered Philadelphia Flyers. Still, the Sharks gave up two power-play tallies to St. Louis. Improving their ineffective penalty kill has continued to be a focal point of both the Sharks’ coaching staff and management, who dealt for defensive forwards at the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
Whether the impact comes from a new addition or a career Shark like Patrick Marleau, San Jose could stand to get its full roster back from injury. They have fallen from a comfortable division lead into a pit of four teams vying for one playoff spot that are separated by just three points.
"We’re in a funk and we need to get out of it and get it going," Murray told reporters after the loss to St. Louis. "It’s easy to talk. We have to get it done on the ice, get some wins, get the confidence level up as a team. We’re too good a team to let this go on any longer."