Nine games in tank by Canucks has Sharks cautiously circling for more
Now a division rival of Vancouver, San Jose wants to take advantage of team in transition
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Plenty has happened since the Vancouver Canucks last beat the San Jose Sharks. Nine games have happened.
Sharks’ centre Joe Pavelski can hardly believe it.
“I didn’t realize it was nine straight,” Pavelski said before practising for the teams’ National Hockey League season opener here Thursday. “We go into games knowing they’re a dangerous team. They have some skilled forwards and play well with the puck. We show them respect because they’re a good team and we play them hard. That goes a long way. But I would never guess it has been nine straight wins.”
The Canucks beat the Sharks 4-1 in games in the 2011 Western Conference final, advancing to the Stanley Cup final on a Kevin Bieksa overtime goal set up by a crazy bounce off a stanchion.
But since Jan. 21 the following season, when someone named Cody Hodgson scored a late winner in a 4-3 Canuck victory at home, Vancouver has not beaten San Jose.
The Canucks lost all three regular season games to the Sharks in the lockout-shortened season, then were swept in four first-round playoff games against San Jose. The Sharks also beat the Canucks twice in September during preseason, hammering them 5-0 in California nine days ago. Only three times during its losing streak has Vancouver managed to make it to overtime.
Considering the Canucks and Sharks lead the conference in wins over the last five years, the one-sidedness of their rivalry in 2013 would be just an interesting anomaly except NHL realignment has them in the same division for the first time in 1998.
The Sharks, Canucks and Los Angeles Kings are supposed to be the teams to beat in the seven-member Pacific Division, from which only the top three finishers are guaranteed a playoff spot. It’s difficult to envision the Canucks winning this tough division when they have failed so frequently lately to beat the Sharks.
Compounding the challenge for Vancouver is that the team is clearly under transition to new coach John Tortorella and all four of its games this season against San Jose are during the first six weeks of the campaign when the Canucks will still be learning their new system.
“That’s the thing; you want to come out of the gate fast and get some confidence going,” Pavelski said. “Those games against Vancouver are going to be important in the first six weeks. If you can catch teams off their game a little bit, you can make a little hay early. Teams usually find their stride at some point in the season, so if you can steal a few points early, it’s definitely a good thing.
“Any time those games are in your division, they’re big points, four-point games. If you can sweep a team in your division during the regular season, it’s really going to help you.”
Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis has long admired aspects of the Sharks’ organization, which is a pretty good template for the evolution the Canucks need to undertake.
The Sharks became a deeper, more dangerous team when they drafted and developed front-line players Pavelski and Logan Couture to lighten the checking and scoring burden faced by veteran stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. San Jose has also become a faster team.
The Canucks are still trying to find some relief for Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and have good candidates in 2013 first-round draft picks Bo Horvat and Hunter Shinkaruk. But those 18-year-olds aren’t yet ready for the NHL, and the Sedins again will be facing every team’s top defensive pairing this season.
Pavelski knows Tortorella wants to make the Canucks more difficult to play against, but said he needs to see Vancouver more than twice in pre-season to make any judgment on the rival’s transformation.
He won’t need to wait long for further evidence. The Sharks visit the Canucks next Thursday, and the teams meet again Nov. 7 and 14.
“It’s hard to say in pre-season because you don’t have all your players in (the lineups) and you don’t know if they’re showing you all their cards,” Pavelski said. “They’re going to be a little different team, but we’ll wait to see them a little bit more.
“Having the Canucks in the division is solid. We’re getting a good team that we’ll see more. It will be fun. We have a good, competitive battle against those guys. Any time you see teams in the playoffs and go through a series, seeing them continually and playing meaningful games, (the rivalry) grows.”
The 29-year-old had a monster series against the Canucks last spring, amassing four goals and eight points in the four games.
Despite the series sweep that cost Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault his job, Pavelski insists he he never thought the Canucks were an easy team to play against.
“We had some timely scoring in Game 2 and kind of snuck out of Vancouver with the overtime victory,” he said. “We just had a couple of key moments where we capitalized. Guys did a good job on our side of stepping up and seizing those moments.
“It can go both ways. I remember a conference final against the Chicago Blackhawks (in 2010) when they swept us, and you wonder how you could have lost four straight.”
Nine in a row is almost beyond comprehension.
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