Missing the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons prompted the San Jose Sharks to make changes behind the bench and in net while keeping together an aging core group that sparked the postseason streak.
The pieces seem to fit so far, but strong starts haven’t always led to long-term success.
San Jose looks to open with three consecutive wins for the fourth straight year as it begins a four-game trip against the Washington Capitals, who might not have Alex Ovechkin in the lineup, on Tuesday night.
The Sharks finished fifth in the Pacific Division in 2014-15, snapping a 10-season playoff run that cost coach Todd McLellan his job and led to goaltender Antti Niemi being shipped to Dallas in the offseason.
New coach Peter DeBoer believes a 5-1 win at Los Angeles on Wednesday and Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Anaheim are signs of a rejuvenated club. Martin Jones, acquired in a trade with the Kings at the end of June, stopped 46 shots while starting both games.
The Sharks began the previous three seasons by winning at least their first three, but they failed to get past the second round of the playoffs the two times they qualified.
"I think a statement was made that the Sharks are back and we’re for real this year," DeBoer said. "We’re only two games in, but we played two tough teams. I think our game is getting better every day. I think the guys are feeling good about what we’re doing. We just have to keep moving forward with that."
San Jose didn’t make the sweeping roster changes some expected, but the veterans have stepped up. Joe Thornton and Brent Burns have a goal and an assist apiece, new captain Joe Pavelski has three points and 35-year-old Patrick Marleau scored twice against the Ducks.
"This guy is one of the best players in the last 10 or 15 years," DeBoer said of Marleau, whose 19 goals last season were his fewest in a non-lockout year since scoring that many in 2007-08. "I think last year was a bit of an aberration. He’s come out with a lot of other guys to prove that."
Ovechkin also has heard from critics because his individual success hasn’t led to any deep playoff runs. His 53 goals last season were his most since 2008-09, but Washington squandered a 3-1 series lead and lost to the New York Rangers in the second round.
The Capitals haven’t advanced to the conference finals since losing to Detroit in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final seven years before Ovechkin’s debut. They got 2015-16 off to a good start as Ovechkin scored a highlight-reel, go-ahead goal in the third period of Washington’s 5-3 win over New Jersey on Saturday.
Ovechkin then assisted on Marcus Johansson’s power-play goal later in the period after a lackluster first 40 minutes.
"We’re very fortunate to have a guy like Ovi, who really didn’t do anything I thought early in the game. He was a non-factor," coach Barry Trotz said. "And then when the game was on the line, in a 2-2 game, he became a big factor and he was a big factor in the next two goals."
Ovechkin, however, missed Washington’s morning skate Tuesday for personal reasons and Trotz said he will be a game-time decision.
Braden Holtby made 21 saves and is expected to be in net again. He stopped 26 shots and Jay Beagle scored twice before assisting on new Sharks forward Joel Ward’s overtime goal that gave the Capitals a 5-4 win over San Jose in the last meeting Feb. 11.