The Vancouver Canucks' latest bête noire arrives in town for a Thursday night showdown, an early season test as the rivalry intensifies.
The Canucks at 3-1, led by new head coach John Tortorella, have put together their best start in five years, but the San Jose Sharks ( 3-0) show up riding a long series of wins against Vancouver, including last spring's first-round playoff sweep and a spanking last week in San Jose.
And the Sharks, this time, are the highest-scoring team in the league, led by a 19-year-old sensation, Tomas Hertl, who wasn't born when San Jose joined the NHL.
Even if it's the fifth game of the season, it will be a considerable acid test for the Canucks, to judge whether the team's aggressive play in recent games is for real or whether wins were only scored because of lower-tier opponents, the so-so Edmonton Oilers, and then two teams predicted to finish last in the Western and Eastern Conferences, respectively: the Calgary Flames and New Jersey Devils.
It required comebacks and overtimes, both times, to defeat the Flames and Devils. The Sharks, without doubt, will be a more formidable challenge.
"The last couple games boosted our confidence," defenceman Jason Garrison said Wednesday after practice. The Canucks in recent years have been strong in most situations, including playing when behind, but last year falling behind almost always meant losing. They won only one game when trailing after two periods, ranked 26th in the league.
Former coach Alain Vigneault was known for his hands-off approach, often not joining the team in the locker room in between periods. Tortorella is the opposite, a style made famous on HBO reality TV show 24/7. Tortorella is a preacher, a screamer – and it is resonating in Vancouver.
"You get pumped up," Garrison, who leads all NHL defenceman in scoring with five points, said of Tortorella's motivational techniques. . "It's been motivating – that's the best way I can explain it."
One name to not yet register on the scoresheet is Ryan Kesler, several years removed from his 41-goal season and the Frank J. Selke Trophy, with injuries and surgeries and convalescence in between. He has one point (a goal) in four games, and is minus-three. He was somewhat testy Wednesday when asked about it, offering the rejoinder that there are 78 games left in the season.
Still, Kesler – and linemate Chris Higgins – are driving play. Looking at numbers from the NHL compiled by extraskater.com, Kesler and Higgins are among the very best in the league at pushing an offensive attack, behind only Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings (measured at even strength, with at least 30 minutes played, when the game score is within a goal).
Tortorella, who coached Higgins in New York and Kesler at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, is happy with their play so far, fighting on the boards, and near the net.
"He wants more on paper," Tortorella said of Kesler's push for goals and points. "He's getting there. They need to stay with it and the goals will go in."