SAN JOSE, Calif. – The San Jose Sharks are hobbling into the playoffs instead of rolling into them.
With their top two centers nursing injuries that have placed their status in doubt and a late-season stumble having cost them home-ice advantage in the first round, the Sharks head into their series against Edmonton trying to find the form that helped them win the Western Conference last year.
The most pressing questions surround the health of Joe Thornton and Logan Couture. Thornton missed the final three games of the regular season with an injured left knee and Couture sat the final seven after taking a deflected puck to the face.
Both took part in practice Monday with Couture skating the entire time on a line with Joe Pavelski and Melker Karlsson and Thornton participating only for the beginning of practice, mostly with the extra forwards. Whether they can be ready for the opener Wednesday night remains unknown.
"They're day to day, they're on the ice, they're skating," coach Peter DeBoer said. "We'll see tomorrow and we'll keep taking those steps. There's no plan here. There nothing I can tell you guys that you don't see that's right in front of you."
Couture said it was good to get back on the ice as he tries to get back into condition after sitting for two weeks. He is still in pain from the injury that knocked out several teeth and has forced him to have wires on the bottom teeth to keep them in place. The top three were bonded in root canal surgery.
Couture is wearing a full cage to protect his face but does not know how he would handle the contact that would assuredly come if he gets back in for a playoff game.
"It's not completely healed," he said. "It's going to take a long time for my face to completely heal. So anything to the face, it could possibly hurt it again. Who knows? I'm wearing as much protective gear as you can possibly wear and trying to be careful."
Thornton looked good skating but didn't do many sudden stops or changes of direction that could put pressure on the knee. He will not talk to the media until Tuesday.
The availability of Thornton and Couture is crucial to San Jose's success. Thornton is the team's top-line center who had 50 points this season and is a key part of the power play.
Couture is the team's top two-way center, who would be counted on to match up with NHL scoring leader Connor McDavid in this series if healthy. Couture also provides considerable offense with 25 goals, including a team-high 11 on the power play.
But the Sharks have to prepare for the possibility that one, or both, could be unavailable.
"Nothing changes," defenseman Justin Braun said. "I think it puts a little more pressure on maybe some of the younger guys to get it done. It's a chance to really make your name in this league, set yourself up for a good career. If they're not in, some of these guys have a good chance to get their career going in the right direction. I think it's exciting for them to get that opportunity."
The Sharks spent much of the season at the top of the Pacific Division and had a nine-point lead after beating Buffalo on March 14. They lost six straight games in regulation after that and won only three of their final 13 games to fall into third place, sending them on the road to start the playoffs.
Two of those losses came against the Oilers, including on Thursday night when the Sharks blew a 2-1 lead after two periods to fall 4-2.
"Maybe it makes us a little bit more aware of what we need to do," Pavelski said. "We didn't win those games so we need to be better. We played well at times but they found ways to get the job done on the power play, on the penalty kill, on the 5 on 5. We have to be better. Hopefully, it's a wakeup call."
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