January 20, 2015 By Paul Gackle

Sharks Face Adversity With Braun and Wingels’ Injuries

SAN JOSE — At the beginning of the season, head coach Todd McLellan said the San Jose Sharks will know whether their culture has changed in the aftermath of last spring’s collapse in the playoffs when it “rains”.

Well, it’s starting to fall.

After back-to-back home losses to the Calgary Flames and New Jersey Devils, the Sharks (24-17-6) are just two points ahead of the Los Angeles Kings for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and for the near future, they’ll be playing without defenseman Justin Braun and forward Tommy Wingels.

“It’s rained already this season a number of times and we’ve been able to get the umbrellas out, the leaders have had the umbrellas out and we’ve come through it okay,” McLellan said. “I do believe that the weather’s changing here a little bit and we need people to step up, so it’s another one of those moments.”

McLellan said Braun, who left Monday’s game against the Devils after blocking a shot with his left hand, and Wingels, who departed after taking a slash on his left hand, will be out for “weeks”.

When asked if they’d be able to suit up for the Sharks Stadium Series game against the Kings at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on Feb. 21, he said: “I don’t know. I sure hope so.”

The Sharks coach said rookie defenseman Mirco Mueller’s health is improving and he could be activated “shortly”. But with Braun on the shelf, the Sharks are expected to call up a defenseman from AHL Worcester prior to the team’s showdown with the Kings at SAP Center on Wednesday.

Like McLellan said, Braun and Wingels’ injuries won’t be the first time the Sharks have faced stormy weather this season.

Back in early December, the Sharks lost Matt Nieto, Tyler Kennedy and Mike Brown within a four-game span (between Dec.4 and Dec.9) and they responded by picking up points in five straight games.

The team called up Melker Karlsson and he helped fill the void on the Sharks third line, along with Barclay Goodrow, who played some of his best hockey in Nieto and Kennedy’s absence.

In 18 games with the team, Karlsson’s collected 11 points (7g, 4a) and earned a spot on the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. At one point, Goodrow’s gritty play catapulted him into a top-six role, as well.

After Joe Thornton injured his left shoulder on Dec. 31 and the Sharks got shellacked by the St. Louis Blues 7-2 on Jan. 3 in his absence, the team responded with back-to-back road wins over the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild.

But Braun and Wingels are big pieces to replace and they’ll be out for longer than Thornton (four games) was earlier this month.

Wingels is typically a top-six forward, recently skating with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau again, and he brings physicality to the Sharks game, leading the team in hits (174), while ranking third in the NHL in that stat category.

Braun is third on the team in average ice time (20:50), holding down the fort on the team’s second defensive pairing while partner Brenden Dillon, who was acquired from the Dallas Stars in November via trade, learns the Sharks system.

McLellan referenced a quote from Kings head coach Darryl Sutter when explaining what the Sharks need to do to absorb Braun and Wingels’ losses.

“They lost [Tyler] Toffoli and [Tanner] Pearson, he says, okay, now everybody that wanted a little bit more and wants to play more and believes they should get more gets the chance — let’s see it,” he said, referring to Sutter’s quote. “It’s no different from our group here.”

Couture agrees with his coach’s assessment: “Others guys have to step up and take on added responsibilities, added opportunities. You look at a guy like Melker Karlsson this year, who comes up, no one’s heard of him, gets an opportunity and he thrives, goes out and helps the team. It’s going to be someone else that’s going to step into that role and do what he does.”

After the Sharks fell to the Devils on Monday, McLellan said his biggest concern in the loss was his team’s lack of internal drive. Could Braun and Wingels’ injuries trigger the extra urgency the coach is looking for?

“It’s happened in the past,” McLellan said. “It can sure do that. Everybody has to give a little bit more and guys get elevated and they get a chance to prove that they have the ability to play there.”

Likewise, Pavelski said the injuries could wind up being a catalyst at time when the Sharks are looking for spark.

“You have to take it upon yourself to play better,” he said. “We kind of went through it with Jumbo (Thornton) going down and guys just got to step up — just ride your game to a new level.”