The San Jose Sharks were the favorite of many to top the Pacific Division this season, but they struggled early out of the gate to a 3-5-1 record. Injuries to their top two goaltenders, Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala forced the Sharks to play their third goaltender and fifth round draft pick (2000) Nolan Schaefer.
And then the most unlikely of things happened for the Sharks. Schaefer not only won the first game, but he’s gone on to lead the Sharks to a 5-1 record over the past six games. During that stretch, the Sharks have posted four come from behind victories and won their fifth game in a row in overtime before they were handed their first loss in six games by the Minnesota Wild.
“It’s just an unfortunate situation where one of the goalies got hurt,” said Schaefer. “You don’t wish that on anyone. I was already up and I got the chance to play and I didn’t want to let the guys down. I wanted to try to give them a chance to win in that game and every game I’ve been playing. They’ve been playing great.”
“He’s been great coming here in a pretty tough situation but has stood on his head since he got here and he’s a big reason we’re getting the wins we are,” said Sharks captain Patrick Marleau.
Schaefer’s prime time debut may have been a tough situation for a goaltender to walk into, but he has certainly made the most of it as he has become the first goaltender in Sharks history to begin his NHL career with five consecutive wins. His resume just keeps growing as he’s already shut down the Calgary Flames in his first shootout and posted his first shutout victory earning a 1.91 GAA and a .916 save percentage along the way, but Schaefer’s top-notch play hasn’t surprised those in the Sharks organization.
“I don’t think anybody’s surprised that he’s played so good. He’s showed us what he can do. It’s great for him and for us too,” said fellow prospect Marcel Goc who spent the past two seasons with the Sharks AHL affiliate in Cleveland as Schaefer’s teammate.
Indeed, if Schaefer’s previous season in the AHL where he compiled a record of 17-23-1 with a 2.73 GAA left doubts, then his play in the preseason proved that he would soon be fighting for a spot on the Sharks roster.
“He had a very good training camp for us,” said Sharks GM Doug Wilson. “He played in an exhibition game in Vancouver where he played really well. We got the victory and he stopped Todd Bertuzzi, Markus Naslund and Richard Park in a shootout so we have confidence in him, and of course his teammates have confidence in him.”
“He’s giving us a chance to win and that’s all we ask,” said Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren. “We don’t ask him to do much just stop the puck and we should handle the rest, but from the shootout (vs. Calgary) to all these games he’s been more than we all expected.”
While Schaefer has impressed, he believes the Sharks recent hot streak has been a team effort.
“It’s been the whole team. I’d like to think I’m a part of it, but I think I’m really fortunate to have stepped into a situation where you got a team that’s really hot and really starting to come together and do their job,” said Schaefer.
Schaefer’s lack of NHL experience may have been the biggest factor that forced the then struggling Sharks to focus on their defensive game and the results have been wins.
“[Schaefer] came in at the right time because we were just starting to play well,” said Sharks Head Coach Ron Wilson. “I think the fact that he had never played a game in the league forced our team to focus on our play without the puck. We’ve done a good job of helping him and he’s responded with his best.”
Led by Schaefer, the rest of the Sharks have begun to get hot too. The team has seen timely goals from a variety of veterans like Alyn McCauley, Nils Ekman and Jonathon Cheechoo and they have also seen contributions from their younger players. Their penalty kill, led by center and 2001 first round draft pick Goc is quickly becoming one of the best in the league. They have allowed a power play tally in just two of Goc’s 43 shorthanded shifts and boast the best penalty kill in the league when playing at home.
Right wing Milan Michalek has also been contributing on a regular basis. He is fourth on the team in scoring and fifth among all NHL rookies with two goals and nine points. More importantly, he seems to have recovered from the injuries that plagued him the previous season.
“He’s 100 percent. He’s one of the few good things about the work stoppage. He had a whole lot of time to get healthy and he’s come back and been one of our best players,” said Sharks GM Doug Wilson.
Perhaps most impressive about the Sharks and their hot streak is that 17 among the Sharks 23-man roster, about 71 percent of their team, features players who began their career with or in the Sharks development system. This percentage is the highest in the NHL.
“Our organization has done a great job drafting. Close to 70 percent of our players were drafted and it’s pretty remarkable development that our team focuses on,” said coach Ron Wilson.
With such a deep team and development system, it’s no wonder that the Sharks are once again headed to the top of the Pacific Division.
“We’re a team where a majority of our players are just coming into their prime. We just feel that every player on our team is trending up and their best hockey is ahead of them,” said GM Doug Wilson.
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