Are the San Jose Sharks Stanley Cup Contenders?

The San Jose Sharks currently hold a 2-0 series lead over the LA Kings heading back to the Shark Tank. This is a familiar situation for the northern Californian team though, after they blew a 3-0 series lead against the Kings in the 2014 NHL Play Offs.

However, this is a vastly different side, and could be a side that turn out to be a shock contender for the Stanley Cup.

Starting at the back in goal, the Sharks have two very capable starting netminders. Martin Jones arrived in San Jose from Boston, just days after the Bruins had received him in a trade that involved Milan Lucic going to LA. One of the reasons Jones ended up in Boston was that the Kings did not want him going to a fellow Pacific Division rival.

However the Sharks saw this as an opportunity to find their new starter after Antti Niemi departed for Dallas, and they quickly made the trade that saw a first round pick in 2016 and prospect Sean Kuraly heading the other way.

For most of the season, the Sharks had American goalie Alex Stalock as their backup. However just before the trade deadline closed they made a number of trades with the Toronto Maple Leafs that included Stalock heading to the Canadian side and James Reimer moving in the opposite direction.

This move gives the Sharks very good depth in the goaltending position, with the only problem being after this season Reimer is an unrestricted free agent and is likely to move on to become a starting goalie at another NHL side.

On the back end the Sharks also have a very capable defensive core. This starts with the reliable Marc-Édouard Vlasic. The 2005 draft pick has been with the Sharks organisation for over 10 years and has been one of the best defensive defensemen in the league in the past few years.

Alongside Vlasic is the Defenseman that holds the record for the number of goals in a single season on the back end for the Sharks, and that is Brent Burns.

A candidate for the Norris trophy this year, Burns ended the season with 27 goals and 48 assists in 82 games. He is a key part of the Sharks successful powerplay, providing a great shot from the point.

Other defensemen like Justin Braun, Roman Polak, Brendan Dillion and Paul Martin provide good coverage in front of goalie Jones that has led the Sharks to a return to the NHL Play Offs.

The forwards are led by the top line of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl. Captain Pavelski can play either on the right wing or centre depending on his linemates and had almost a point a game as he ended the regular season with 38 goals and 40 assists. The Big Pavelski has already shown he has the touch for scoring in the Play Offs with three goals in the opening two games in the series against the Kings.

Joe Thornton, also known as Jumbo, has been key in getting the Sharks back into the Play Off picture. After losing the captaincy last season, Jumbo has got back to his best with stats of a point a game after he posted 19 goals and 63 assists in the 82 game season.

The second line has also provided a lot of scoring with Assistant Captain Logan Couture coming back from a fractured right fibula at the start of the season and ending up with a respectable 36 points in 52 games.

He has worked well alongside summer signing Joel Ward and Joonas Donskoi providing the Sharks with a good second offensive line.

Down on the third line is Sharks Veteran Patrick Marleau. He has shown that he can play at either left wing or centre. Melker Karlsson and Matt Nieto are on either side of Marleau showing that they have a player that could be playing on the top line on the third line providing great depth to their forward unit.

Despite being down deep in the roster, Marleau has come up with 25 goals and 23 assists in the regular season, showing that he still knows how to find the back of the net when it matters.

The fourth line that Coach Peter Debour has put together has long time Shark, Tommy Wingles, former Maple Leaf Nick Spalling and 2012 Sharks draft pick Chris Tierney. This is a fourth line that has moved on from being a line full of fighters, but still has the grittiness of Wingles showing that they are a force to be reckoned with.

With these four lines with depth, alongside the solid defensive unit and strength in goal, I can see the Sharks making a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. However being in the very tough Western Conference it will be no pushover, as the first round is showing where they are facing former Stanley Cup Champions in the Los Angeles Kings.

If the Sharks can improve their disappointing home form from the regular season and stay out of the penalty box and get their powerplay going then they have as good a chance as any to make a run late into the post season.

Elite League Preview – Games 12/3/16 – 13/3/16

This weekend sees the penultimate series of games in the Elite Ice Hockey League, and with standings so close at the top and the bottom of the table it is sure to be a vital weekend for a number of sides.

Cardiff Devils v Belfast Giants – 12/3/16 and 13/2/16

The Cardiff Devils finally open their new rink following the move from their temporary home, the big blue tent, into the brand new Ice Arena Wales. It will be a vital game for both sides as they are in the title race with Cardiff sitting second and Belfast in fourth place.

The Devils come into the game with four league defeats on the bounce and also a loss in overtime in the Challenge Cup final. However, their last win did come against Belfast in the Challenge Cup semi-finals.

The Giants had been on a resurgence bringing themselves back into the title race after winning six out of seven league games since the Olympic break in February. However their one loss in that run of games came last weekend after the Braehead Clan defeated the Giants 2-1 in Belfast.

In the previous three visits that the Giants have made to Cardiff this season, the Devils have come out on top on all three occasions so they will be hoping this continues this weekend. The Giants will look to take advantage of the bigger ice pad in Cardiff as they try to overtake the Devils in the league standings.

Edinburgh Capitals v Dundee Stars 12/3/16 and Dundee Stars v Edinburgh Capitals 13/3/16

Both of these Gardiner Conference game sees two sides out of form meet at both the Murrayfield Ice Rink and the Dundee Ice Arena over the weekend. The Capitals come into this tie on a 16 game loss streak. The Dundee Stars will be looking to edge closer to securing their Play Off spot with a win in the Scottish Capital, but will need to put an end to their three game winless run if they are to do so.

In the four games that have taken place between the sides in Murrayfield this season the Capitals have won one with the Stars coming out on top in the other three.

In the Dundee Ice Arena the results were the same with the Stars winning three of the four games and the Capitals coming away with the one win.

Nottingham Panthers v Sheffield Steelers 12/3/16

This game sees two sides who are both still in the title race clash at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham. The Panthers will come into the game with a mixture of fortunes after winning the Challenge Cup on Sunday but then lost away to the Coventry Blaze in midweek.

The Steelers however are sitting at the top of the league after beating Fife convincingly last weekend and will be hoping to extend their lead at the top of the standings.

In the games at the National Ice Centre the Panthers have come out on top winning three out of five games, including the second leg of the Challenge Cup Semi-final.

Braehead Clan v Manchester Storm 12/3/16 and Manchester Storm v Braehad Clan 13/3/16

The Braehead Clan go into this weekend having revived their hopes of taking the Elite League title. On the other hand the Manchester Storm still have slim hopes of securing the last Play Off spot.

The Clan head into this game in fine form, winning their last three including an impressive victory over the Belfast Giants at the SSE Arena. On the other hand the Storm lost to fellow Gardiner Conference rivals the Fife Flyers putting a dent into their chances of making the Play Offs.

The Clan have the upper hand in the games played at the Braehead Arena with the Scottish side winning two of the three games.

It is exactly the same story in the Silver Blades Ice Rink Altringham as the Clan have skated away with two victories over the Storms single win.

Sheffield Steelers v Coventry Blaze 13/3/16

This game sees the Coventry Blaze head into Sheffield looking to continue with their impressive form of late as they are currently on a five game winning streak.

A win here would almost certainly secure the Blaze a Play Off spot as they look to retain the championship they won last year, by beating the Sheffield Steelers in the Play Off final.

In the four games that have taken place in Sheffield, the series is tied two apiece. Both sides will be hoping to come out on top in the last regular season game between the sides.

Fife Flyers v Nottingham Panthers 13/3/16

Fife head into their only game of the weekend with confidence after a convincing 8-2 win away to the Manchester Storm. With their Play Off place all but secured, the Flyers will be hoping to put a dent in any hopes the Panthers have of winning the league title.

The sides have only met once so far in the Fife Ice Arena with the home side winning the game 5-2.

 

This is going to be a huge weekend of Ice Hockey all around the Elite League with key games taking place over both nights. We could be one step closer to finding out who will be lifting the Monteith Bowl at the end of the season when this weekend is over.

Will the Elite League Import increase hurt Team GB in the long run?

The 2016/17 Elite League season sees the level of non-British talent allowed in the league rise to 14. Many people will think that this is a positive move for the league but what will this mean for young British players looking to gain appropriate ice time?

There is no denying that the 2015/16 Elite League season is going to have the most exciting end that has ever been seen. Currently the top five teams are separated by just six points with only two weeks remaining in the regular season campaign.

The interest isn’t only at the top of the standings, as the battle for the remaining Play Off place also has huge interest with five points separating the teams in eighth and ninth.

However how much support does the Elite League give to British players and Team GB?

In February of this year the GB men’s team travelled to Italy to take part in Olympics qualifiers for the 2018 games. Unfortunately they came up just short after losing out to the host nation 6-2.

The Italian team were given weeks to prepare for this tournament showing how important the Olympics is to them. However the Elite Leagues clubs were still playing less than a week before the Olympics Qualifiers began.

In fact, the League even had fixtures on the weekend that team GB were competing with teams forced to go without any players that were picked to participate.

The increase in Import numbers in the past has seen players move down to the English Premier League.

Players such as Matt Towe who played for the Belfast Giants in 2012/13 season and Kevin Phillips who has played for the Braehead Clan and the Belfast Giants over a six year span have been forced to move down to the English Premier League to get ice time.

With players of this calibre available and able to be signed is there a need for the import levels to be increased, especially when in the long run it is going to hurt Team GB?

The Elite League and British Ice Hockey should be helping each other out and be on the same page when it comes to Ice Hockey in the UK. At the moment it seem like both want to get the best for each other and not work together. I can’t see this being resolved anytime soon and expect the Team GB Ice Hockey team to be a casualty of this with players not getting enough ice time and being left behind in their World Championship Group.