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Life on the Road - San Jose Sharks

Paul Martin loves America and Joe Thornton loves tormenting backup goalies.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Celebrating America can even be fun for Canadians. Sharks defenseman Brent Burns has become a meme superstar recently through his impassioned in-game performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” and he doesn’t even get to participate in our most sacred institutions.

Depending on your perspective, last Tuesday was either the start of making America great again or the dawn of a dystopian, fascist hellscape from which there is no relief. Regardless of the outcome, however, many people get a great deal of enjoyment from the process. The act of voting in America can bring forth a surge of pride that I was excited to amplify by virtue of being in Washington DC. The San Jose Sharks were also in DC that day, and I was able to talk to native Minnesotan and Sharks defenseman Paul Martin about working his civic duty around his hockey duty.

“I did vote absentee from Minnesota a while ago, so I got that taken care of,” he said. “In general, our schedule is pretty set in stone. So for us…in the business, there are certain things…election day is a big deal and something you don’t see a lot, so you’re more aware of what’s going on.”

The Sharks seemed generally upbeat and energetic during their morning skate, with Joe Thornton in particular getting a great deal of enjoyment from the number of high shots that backup goalie Aaron Dell was forced to shrug off. This trip was one of the longest of the year for San Jose, traveling to Washington, Florida, Tampa, Carolina, St. Louis, and Arizona before returning to conclude a 16-day gap between home games. A trip of that length can be particularly strenuous, and according to Martin, a challenge from a luggage perspective.

“It’s a little different being on the east coast… A little different when you go from different climates, a little [colder] in DC than Florida, hit St. Louis and Arizona on the way back, so a lot of different varieties of that sort.”

I was particularly excited to talk to Paul, because happenstance had placed me next to his parents in the stands at Scottrade in December of 2008. He informed me that they’ve managed to hit most of the league, save for a couple places that many fans would consider exciting hockey destinations. “I think they have almost every barn taken care of besides eastern Canada with Montreal, Toronto,” he said. “Otherwise they usually make a stop somewhere different every year.” In defense of the Martins, if I lived in Minnesota, I would have a hard time working up the energy to travel somewhere even bleaker in the depths of winter.

Watching the Sharks at the morning skate was a fascinating window into the specifics of NHL game planning. Head coach Peter DeBoer and assistant Bob Boughner spent nearly ten full minutes walking the team through the challenges of defending specific Capitals power play combinations (Ovechkin/Backstrom and Oshie/Johansson). If you notice the Sharks cheating toward Vladimir Tarasenko on the power play, you can be sure that the game plan carried through the road trip.

San Jose was nearly as sharp at puck drop as they were in the morning. Martin Jones was the San Jose goaltender, which came as a shock to no one. While Aaron Dell may have had his tower buzzed at practice, he’s somewhat unlikely to repeat that experience in the evenings. In fact, at the time of the game on 8th, Dell was tied with four other goaltenders for the fewest amount of starts by a regular backup.

In watching Jones, I was reminded of the play of Jonathan Quick during his most dominant stretches. Quick, to me, seemed to resemble a spider. Always low and looking through the legs of players in front, he seemed preternaturally able to stretch from post to post and deny the lower half of the net. Jones displayed this skill throughout the game, thus overcoming the challenges that must be brought on by his terribly unfortunate nickname. Why would you call a guy named Jones “Joner?” It’s Jonesy. It’s always Jonesy. Get it together, San Jose.

Sharks rookie Kevin Labanc made his debut in this game, and he fit seamlessly onto a line with Joonas Donskooi and Logan Couture. Playing with those players made it clear that Labanc would be expected to contribute offensively, and he did not disappoint. A 2014 sixth round pick, Labanc jumped from 35 points in his draft year in the OHL to 107 and 127 the two following years. He has 10 points in 6 games for San Jose’s AHL affiliate so far this season, and while he’s yet to make it onto an NHL scoresheet, it was very clear that his jump and energy would make him difficult to deal with.

Though defensemen Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic made a couple of flat footed mistakes against some very dangerous Washington forwards, the Sharks generally played a textbook road hockey game. They limited the Capitals to four shots in the first period through a methodical puck control game, and eventually wore them down enough to secure a 3-0 victory.

After six vital playoff games against San Jose last spring, the Blues know all too well that the combination of speed, skill, tenacity, and stable goaltending can present a real challenge. Hopefully someone else steps up to tug on their metaphorical beards and presents the necessary resistance to break through against a rigid, stable, mature team.