Sharks at Pens: Pretty much an All-Star Game
There is no All-Star Game this season because of the Olympics but a close substitute might just be Thursday night's tilt in Pittsburgh between the Penguins and visiting San Jose Sharks.
Mercy, take the over in this one.
"It's just exciting to play a team with so much skill, I know guys in our locker room really enjoy that when we play against some of the best players in the world, we want to play our best as well," star Sharks center Logan Couture told ESPN.com this week.
The 19-3-5 Sharks have the top points percentage in the overall standings (.796), while the Penguins, at 19-9-1, are running away with the (OK, mediocre) Metropolitan Division. The Sharks are the second-highest scoring team in the league, the Penguins are sixth; and the game pits arguably the two deepest teams at center in the entire NHL: Couture, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski going up against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (out for this game with an injury) and Brandon Sutter.
"It's going to be a challenge when you look at all the skill they have," Couture said. "I hope my line plays against Sidney. That would be pretty cool, I've never played against him before in my career -- he was hurt the other times we played them. It's going to be cool to see him play."
The respect factor in the Sharks' room for No. 87 is clear. Veteran defenseman Dan Boyle was asked about Thursday's game in general but he quickly focused in on what mattered to him most.
"It's exciting," Boyle said. "Sid in my opinion is the best player in the game today. It's a challenge. Out West we didn't get to see him enough the last five years. Not only is he the best, but he elevates the play of others around him. It's exciting for us to have a game with them."
Boyle and Crosby were Olympic teammates in Vancouver in 2010 when Canada brought home the gold.
Couture now figures to be a lock to make Team Canada this time around and there's no shortage of Olympic tie-ins on both sides. It would take too long to name them all but I count about 20 names between both teams that at least are in the conversation for a trip to Sochi, even though all won't make it.
That's a ton of talent on one sheet of ice Thursday night.
For the Sharks, who recently beat fellow Western Conference contenders Los Angeles, St. Louis and Anaheim during a San Jose homestand, the game in Pittsburgh isn't about proving anything to anyone. The wins over Western teams matter more.
"We don't look at it as a measuring stick or anything like that," said Boyle of the Penguins game. "A lot of the teams out West are built a certain way. And those guys are built a little differently. It's going to be a different type of game to be involved in against one of the top teams in the East."
The game also features two franchises that have been contending for a long time, both run by top-notch GMs. The difference, of course, is that the Penguins have a Stanley Cup during that span and the Sharks are still searching for that breakthrough, despite knocking at the door year in and year out, last season sweeping Vancouver in the opening round and then pushing the Kings to seven grueling games in the second round before bowing out.
What's been so interesting about the Sharks is that just when you feel like their window to win was closing after a meek first-round loss to St. Louis in the spring of 2012, GM Doug Wilson makes a bunch of moves over the next year and a half to keep the team near the league's elite. It's also a team that has transitioned its core on the fly without ever bottoming out, younger stars such as Couture, Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic taking bigger ownership in the team even though Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Boyle remain huge parts.
"The balance our team has is probably the best we've had," Boyle said, quite matter-of-factly.
Just don't ask him if he's surprised the window to win has remained open so long.
"We don't like that question," Boyle said. "Good teams keep the window open, they get new, young players. The veteran guys that are here, people ask us if it's our last chance, we kind of get annoyed by that question. Good teams find a way to keep the window open."
W2W4: Sharks at Penguins
Sharks (43 points) at Penguins (39 points) - 7 p.m. ET
• Teams last met in Nov. 2011, SJ SOW at home
• Last met in PIT in Feb. 2011, SJ OTW
• SJ has gone 6-0-1 vs. PIT in the shootout era
• Last game: Road W - 41 shots for - 1/3 on PK • Won 6 straight, outscoring opponent 22-12, 3/24 on PP
• Thornton (3G, 5A) during a 6 game PT streak
• Last game: Road OTW - 34 shots for - 2/5 on PP
• Won 4 straight, 7/14 on PP, 3GA past 3 games
• Career game 500 for Crosby, 3G, 5A past 5 games