San Jose Sharks (36-7-6) at Columbus Blue Jackets (24-23-5)
4 PM PST
Man, I hope this is one of those coming-of-age road trip movies where Jonathan Cheechoo finds himself and starts crying in the arms of Joe Thornton in some roadside truck stop. "I can score goals. I can!" "I know, Cheech. It'll be ok."
But before any Meryl Streep-induced melodrama comes out, let's look at the upcoming road trip:
2/10 Boston (say hi to Marco Sturm in the press box...I always liked that guy)
2/15 New Jersey
No team is a gimme; in fact, I think they'll all be tough affairs. Even though Columbus has slipped out of the playoffs, that only means that they're a win or two out of eighth and a little hot streak could propel them up to fifth or sixth. It's that tight.
Of course, the Jackets have had to deal with injury problems, including Steve Mason's bout of the kissing disease. I told a friend earlier that if the Jackets made the playoffs, I'd actually be kind of scared of playing them because Mason looks like one of those guys that could just get freakishly hot. The dude is huge, like Kevin Nash in goalie gear (see Rudy, NWO reference just for you) and has one of the quickest glove hands in the league.
I find myself tuning my Center Ice package into the proverbial four-point games between the teams scrambling for a Western Conference playoff position (which means every team except for the top four), so I've seen the Jackets enough to know that Ken Hitchcock's got a tough team there. They'd be much different if rookie Derrick Brassard didn't go down; as it stands, they're similar to the Phoenix Coyotes in that they try hard and have good goaltending but scoring comes and goes like a sine wave.
From the Sharks perspective, the first period in Carolina was a bit of a reminder of the way the team played from October to January. After that, it was hot and cold, and I'm guessing Todd McLellan will be using the road trip as the kick in the ass to refocus the guys in time for the playoffs. A loss and a shootout loss isn't exactly something to start jumping off a building about, especially considering how disjointed the San Jose schedule has been, but still, you want to get into a good rhythm and eliminate bad habits.
One thing that I did notice against Carolina, perhaps more so than other games, is that poor Jonathan Cheechoo was actually doing a good job of getting himself open in shooting lanes and slamming his stick on the ice to call for the puck. Of course, he's got Marcel Goc as his setup man. No offense, Marcel, but your passing is about as good as your blogging skills. I really do think it'd be a worthwhile experiment to break up Thornton and Marleau for an extended time to try and get a few different things going. It's best to have these options develop now rather than the playoffs.
Of course, the Pavelski/Michalek/Clowe line is working well right now too, so I wouldn't want to break those guys up. Instead, I'd wait until Jeremy Roenick gets back in the lineup and experiment with three scoring lines:
I like the Grier/Marleau combo; they complement each other well on the PK and seem to have a good sense for where the other guy is. Similarly, Marleau and Setoguchi can push each other with speed while JR offers a little bit of versatility. And the instant the Pavelski line slows down, you've got interchangeable parts. I'm not saying to permanently separate Marleau and Thornton; I'd just rather tinker with stuff now than in late March or April.
Anyways, there have been longer road trips and there are worse things to do on Valentine's Day than shuffling between beautiful upstate New York and beautiful New Jersey. Oh wait, there's not? My bad. Well, still, go get 'em boys.
This trip is a little walk down memory lane for the Joe-Thornton-As-A-Shark faithful. I'm guessing Jumbo will be warmly received in Boston, at least before Zdeno Chara (who's like Kevin Nash in a Bruins jersey) tries to run him over. And Buffalo, if you'll recall, is where the whole story began with a blistering slap shot off the post in Joe's first shift.