Humboldt Beacon (http://www.humboldtbeacon.com)

Takeaways: Sharks aren't depending on Thornton's return this season


By Paul Gackle, Bay Area News Group

Friday, January 26, 2018

SAN JOSE — Just a few hours after Joe Thornton underwent surgery to repair the medial collateral ligament in his right knee, the Sharks found a way to put five goals on the board without their most offensively-creative player.
But the team’s foundation collapsed in its first game without No. 19 as the squad’s typically-stingy defense coughed up more than five goals for just the third time this season.
Here’s what we learned as the Sharks (26-15-7) dropped a 6-5 decision to the New York Rangers (25-20-5) at SAP Center Thursday in their final game before the All-Star break.
1. Sharks aren’t depending on Thornton’s return this season.
Thornton’s absence became glaringly obvious when Chris Tierney lined up on Joe Pavelski’s right wing for his first shift of the third period.
Without the glue that binds his top-six forward group together, head coach Pete DeBoer tossed Pavelski’s line in the blender with the Sharks trailing in the third period, giving his captain shifts with Tierney, Timo Meier, Joonas Donskoi, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Mikkel Boedker.
“Obviously, he makes a lot of plays, we have a lot of chemistry together,” Pavelski said, commenting on Thornton’s absence. “I’m still playing with a lot of good players. We’ll make our plays and keep competing.”
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As DeBoer searches for the right post-Thornton mix up top, the Sharks will need to compete and find a way because the alternate captain should be out for at least six weeks, the minimum time frame general required to recover from MCL surgery.
The Sharks entered All-Star weekend holding a one-point edge over the Calgary Flames for second place in the Pacific Division and a two-point lead over the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, who are both on the outside of the playoff picture right now.
With 16 games in 29 days before the calendar turns to March, the Sharks can’t afford to look ahead to Thornton’s potential return.
“I don’t know the long-term prognosis of this,” DeBoer said. “I know he’s not going to be available here in the near future, so that’s all I’m concerned about. I’m concerned about coming out of the break and going into Pittsburgh (on Jan. 30).”
Couture, who scored two goals Thursday, indicated that the team needs to come back from the All-Star break prepared for life without Thornton.
“You never know when a guy hurts himself like Jumbo did when he’s coming back,” he said.
“As much as it hurts to play a game without the big guy, we’ve got to step up. Other guys have got to run with the opportunity. If you’re in this organization, and you get an opportunity up here, you better come up and give it all you’ve got because it’s a good time to make an impression.”
2. Fatigue played a bigger role than Thornton’s absence in Thursday’s loss.
The Sharks got dealt the right hand for a Thornton-less win Thursday.
The Rangers entered Thursday’s bout with a three-game losing streak and the worst-road record (7-12-2) among teams in contention for a playoff spot. And without Thornton, the Sharks still matched up well against the Rangers uninspiring center alignment of Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, Peter Holland and David Desharnais.
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But the one variable that didn’t work in the Sharks favor was the schedule. The Sharks defensive game showed the leakiness typical of a team that has played eight games in 13 days.
“Tonight was a tough game,” DeBoer said. “Tough stretch, and with the break starting right after the game, these are always tough games to play.”
Even Marc-Edouard Vlasic got caught out of position, leading to Ryan McDonagh’s goal on a two-on-one at 11:04 of the second, allowing the Rangers to tie the game 3-3.
The Sharks defenseman refused to put the team’s defensive sloppiness on Thornton’s absence.
“If you lose (Couture) and you lose, it’s because we lost (Couture),” Vlasic said, drawing a parallel between Thornton’s absence and Couture’s injury last month. “Injuries happen. Would we love to have him? Yeah. Would he make a difference? Yeah. But with the guys we had in the lineup, we were good enough to win.”
3. Goaltender debate cools down, for now.
In lieu of Thornton’s surgery, it’s easy to forget that the Sharks are playing without another key player: goalie Martin Jones.
Backup Aaron Dell got a taste of what it’s like to be an everyday goalie this week, receiving little help from his defense as he surrendered more than two goals in consecutive games for the first time in his NHL career in back-to-back losses to the Rangers and the Winnipeg Jets.
After producing a .929 save percentage in his first 20 appearances, Dell has stopped just 41 of the 52 shots he’s faced over the last two games.
Over the course of an 82-game season, starting goalies will confront a plethora of different scenarios, and sometimes, they’ll get hung out to dry, which is what happened to Dell Thursday.
“It’s not on him. Look at their goals,” Couture said. “Backdoor tap-in, backdoor one-timer, two on one, screen after a failed clear. It goes on and on; just two many grade-A chances.”
Regardless, if Dell had stood on his head and earned his team a couple points Thursday, he may have been able to put some real heat on Jones, who DeBoer says will be “ready to go after the break.”