SAN JOSE — With the heavy-road travel in the rearview mirror, the Sharks opened up a lengthy-home stretch on the right note, beating a playoff-desperate team without Erik Karlsson and Evander Kane.
Marcus Sorensen and Kevin Labanc stepped up to help fill the void, recording multi-point games in a win over the Colorado Avalanche, who entered Friday’s game with their noses pressed right up against the playoff glass holding down ninth place in the Western Conference.
Though it won’t be reflected in his save percentage, Martin Jones made several big stops en route to a 22-save performance, allowing the Sharks to preserve a one-goal win.
As a result, the Sharks moved to within five points of the Calgary Flames for first place in the Pacific Division. With 11 of their remaining 17 games at home, the Sharks will receive a shot at closing that gap in the month of March.
Here’s what we learned as the Sharks ended the Avalanche’s six-game point streak with a win at SAP Center:
1. Sorensen wants to keep his spot on Joe Thornton’s line.
Gus Nyquist is Swedish. Apparently, Thornton is half-a-Swede. With that in mind, it isn’t surprising that Sorensen found immediate success on the Sharks newly-reformulated third line.
Sorensen rejoined the Sharks lineup on Friday after missing a pair of games with an upper-body injury, his first taste of action skating alongside Nyquist, his Swedish country-mate who joined the Sharks on Sunday in a trade deadline deal with the Detroit Red Wings. He adjusted quickly, opening the scoring at 4:18 by firing in a seam pass from Brent Burns that got fed to him in the slot.
The Swedish forward scored his 13th of the season at 19:36 of the second, making it 3-1 by diving into the crease and tapping in a loose puck after a Tomas Hertl shot trickled off the goal post.
Sorensen found instant chemistry with the latest Swede to join the Sharks roster. Does it help that they share a language?
“Gus probably speaks more English than Swedish,” Sorensen joked, before adding: “Jumbo is half-Swedish, he says.”
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With a two-goal game, Sorensen will be tough to pull off Thornton’s line when Evander Kane returns to the Sharks lineup. With Kane sidelined by a “short-term” injury, Labanc slid up to Tomas Hertl’s line, allowing Sorensen to jump right back in with Thornton on Friday.
But when Kane returns, DeBoer will confront the type of problem that most coaches don’t mind dealing with. Does he skate Sorensen on Thornton’s line and bump Labanc down to the fourth line or vice versa? Will one of them get pulled out of the lineup all together?
With Labanc, Thornton receives more high-end skill to play with and a linemate who has the shot to finish his saucy passes. On the flip side, Thornton loves playing with Sorensen, a strong-possession player with a nose for the dirty areas. Head coach Pete DeBoer isn’t afraid to tinker with his lines, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he experiments with both looks. Either way, he’ll be sitting at the whiteboard with options.
“You can’t understate how important Joe Thornton’s been to his development,” DeBoer said with Sorensen in mind. “When you get a guy like that that wants to play with you, that’s the great ticket.”
It might also be the ticket that keeps Sorensen on the third line.
2. Labanc capitalizes on his opportunity.
Back to Labanc. The 23-year-old forward made a strong case for maintaining an important role down the stretch, as well, capitalizing on an opportunity to skate on Tomas Hertl’s line.
With Kane on the shelf, Labanc filled his spot on Hertl’s left wing. The line absorbed Kane’s loss by tilting the ice throughout the game.
Labanc collected an assist on Sorensen’s second goal. He also created space for Joe Pavelski to score his 36th on the power play at 12:39 of the third, drawing the Avalanche’s defense toward him before he fed the Sharks captain a one-time pass in the left circle.
The Sharks forward also made a hard-nosed play in the second, fighting through Derick Brassard to create a scoring chance at the net. He finished the game with a 68 percent possession rating.
“My confidence is pretty good. I’m feeling great,” Labanc said. “Just got to keep it rolling.”
Labanc must be feeling good. The performance stands in stark contrast to his previous opportunity to prove himself in a top-six role when DeBoer skated him on Logan Couture’s line in Tampa on Jan. 19. Labanc fumbled the opportunity that night, committing two-pivotal mistakes in a 6-3 loss.
After the break, the Sharks coaching staff challenged Labanc to prove that he belongs in the lineup and he’s delivered, amassing 13 points in 13 games.
“I proved myself,” Labanc said. “You’ve just got to be consistent with it, proving yourself every game.”
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Is he proving himself enough to lock down that spot on Thornton’s line?
3. Sharks flash their playoff identity.
After a pair of lackluster performances against playoff-caliber teams on their road trip, the Sharks rolled out the game they’re hoping to bring to the rink on a nightly basis on the spring.
They got a taste of playoff-like action on Friday, squaring off against a team that was riding a six-game point streak, outscoring opponents by a 24-10 margin during that stretch. The Sharks bottled up Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen for most of the night, holding the NHL’s fourth and sixth-ranked scorers to a late-power play goal and one assist.
The Avalanche produced just 13 shots over the game’s first 40 minutes, finishing with 25 as they struggled to find open ice against the Sharks defense. The Sharks also helped the defense out by maintaining possession in the offensive zone for large chunks of the game.
“Tonight was one of those games where you felt like there wasn’t a lot going on,” Pavelski said. “You had to lay pucks deep. You had to go try and get in on pucks first to earn your chances.
“Guys did a good job of being ready to commit themselves.”
DeBoer liked how his team played to its identity instead of getting sucked into a track meet against the high-flying Avalanche.
“That’s a speed team. They’re sending numbers on every attack,” the Sharks coach said. “I thought we did a good job of being above them, and making it tough for them, and not giving them a lot of room.”