Penguins-Sharks clash a good barometer
These are two elite teams still looking to fulfill high expectations born of highly talented rosters. Both teams have been beset by injuries and both teams are looking to the coming days as a barometer of where they are and more importantly where they might end.
The Penguins, of course, await the return of captain Sidney Crosby, who has been recovering from a concussion since last playing Jan. 5.
Crosby has been cleared for contact in practice, and there remains growing anticipation about when he might first test the NHL waters. He has been ruled out of the Pens' brief two-game road trip that starts in San Jose and finishes in Los Angeles two days later. The Pens' next game is at home on Nov. 11 and many are eyeing that date as his possible return to action.
In spite of injuries to key personnel like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek and Tyler Kennedy, the Pens have somehow managed to not just survive but thrive (Kennedy, Michalek and Crosby remain out of action indefinitely, while Staal and defenseman Kris Letang are game-time decisions Thursday). Pittsburgh's 8-3-2 record tops the Eastern Conference standings as of Thursday morning.
The Pens' penalty kill is second overall, having fallen ever so slightly from their natural perch atop the penalty-killing world after Saturday's 4-3 loss in Toronto. And the power play, a bugaboo in the 2011 playoffs when the Pens blew a 3-1 series lead and lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, is a more than respectable eighth overall.
So the question that follows the Pens into this game against San Jose, and that will continue to shadow them until they are fully healthy, is what they might become; in short, is a healthy Penguins team as good as it gets in the NHL?
The Sharks also aspire to such discussions and believe they began to answer such questions at least partially during a recent road trip that saw them go 5-1.
The problem for the 6-4 Sharks as they return home is that home has been both unfamiliar and unfriendly through the first month of the season. After opening at home with a 6-3 thrashing of Phoenix, the Sharks lost their next two home games to Anaheim and St. Louis and were outscored 7-4. They haven't been back since.
With a number of new players trying to get used to each other, an early road trip can be good for chemistry and isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Certainly the Sharks took advantage of the time together, scoring 17 times during a five-game win streak that was halted Monday with a 5-2 loss in New York to the Rangers.
"I think it was really good for us, especially with the start we had," winger Martin Havlat said of the road trip.
"Well, maybe 13 days was a little too much," Havlat joked in an interview this week.
The veteran forward can afford to joke a little after returning to the Sharks' lineup following offseason shoulder surgery that cost him all of training camp and the first four games of the season. He returned in time for their successful road trip, and it was no coincidence that the team's play picked up.
Havlat has five assists in six games and admitted it's been difficult getting back up to speed having missed the time he did.
"It's not easy," he said.
"I'm good to go," Havlat said.
Havlat is an important cog in what the Sharks hope will finally be their Stanley Cup machinery.
After reaching the Western Conference finals in 2010 and 2011, GM Doug Wilson rolled the dice this past offseason and traded top forwards Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, along with attractive prospect Charlie Coyle, to Minnesota for Havlat and defenseman Brent Burns.
Burns gives the Sharks even more pop from the back end but Havlat's production will be key to helping replace the production generated by Setoguchi and Heatley.
By filling a hole on the blue line with the acquisition of Burns the Sharks were cognizant of creating another hole up front, Wilson told ESPN.com Thursday. But the evolution of youngsters Joe Pavelski, now playing with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and Couture coupled with the addition of Havlat suggests the Sharks are a stronger club from top to bottom.
"Marty just fits really well," Wilson said.
"We're at a pretty good place but we know we can do better," the GM added. If he can stay healthy Havlat's size and skill should fit in nicely with a Sharks team that likes to play an up-tempo, puck possession style and he should be around a point a game producer.
At 30 Havlat suddenly registers in the veteran category even though he points out injuries have cost him enough time that he's really still in his late 20s in hockey terms.
"It's unbelievable," he said of being in his 11th NHL season.
"I don't feel like that," he said.
As for the shift to the west coast and away from grueling winters for the first time in his career after having toiled in Ottawa, Chicago and Minnesota, Havlat figures he's going to be able to adapt just fine.
The Sharks sure hope so.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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Stay On Your Skates
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang has one goal and 10 assists in 11 games. He is also seventh overall in average ice time (26:04). Check out where he ranks in our early look at the Norris race. Trophy Tracker »
Stats & Information
Points to watch for in Thursday's game:• Sharks: 5-0-1 in past six games versus Penguins
• Pavelski: 11 points in past six games
• Penguins: 5-1-0 over past six games
• Penguins: 2-2-1 over past 5 road games
• Neal: 4 goals, 1 assist over past 6 games