There is no doubt whatsoever that the Worcester Sharks are a good team. After an 0-4-0-1 start, they have battled their way to the top of the Atlantic Division, and that’s a pretty tough neighborhood. Nobody has to tell the Whale how dangerous the Manchester Monarchs are, Portland and St. John’s have both beaten Connecticut in their only meetings, and the Whale have been outshot significantly in both games of a split with Providence.
For whatever reason, though, the Sharks can’t seem to beat the Whale.
All three times the teams have played, Worcester has come into the games having won at least two in a row, and all three times the Whale have knocked the Sharks off. The last two times, the Sharks have even carried 1-0 leads into the third period, and in both of those games, including last night’s at the XL Center, Connecticut has scored a pair of early third-period goals to win 2-1.
After that 0-4-0-1 slate in their first four games, Roy Sommer’s Worcester club is 11-5-1-1 in 18 games, and three of those regulation losses have been to the Whale.
And it’s not like it’s only been this year. Over the Sharks’ seven-year history, the Whale’s record against Worcester is 33-13-1-2 in 49 games, nearly a .700 points percentage. The rivalry has been even more lopsided in Worcester, where the Whale are 17-6-0-2 all-time against the Sharks, an incredible .720 points percentage. The Sharks certainly haven’t been a doormat over that time either—they’ve been a playoff team in three of their six seasons—and under Sommer they have never been an easy team to play against. San Jose doesn’t stack Worcester with a ton of expensive high-end skill players, but the AHL Sharks always play an in-your-face kind of puck pressure game and perennially seem to be one of the more physical teams that the Whale play.
So there’s no easy explanation for it, but the Whale will certainly take it. The one negative is that the season series with the Sharks has only been four games the last couple of years, and there is only one left this season.
After Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Albany Sunday, which came on the heels of that 9-2 pasting by the Monarchs in Manchester on Saturday, Ken Gernander significantly shuffled his lines for last night’s game.
The biggest change was moving Kris Newbury all the way down from the first line to the fourth line, and Tommy Grant, whose seven goals were tied with Newbury for second-most on the team, was a healthy scratch.
Newbury had hit a dry spell, pointless in four straight games and without a goal in seven, and to his credit, he played well last night with Christian Thomas and Shayne Wiebe, who took Grant’s spot after sitting out the previous nine contests. That threesome seemed to earn more ice time than a fourth line would normally get, and generated some quality chances.
Still, the Whale were without a goal for nearly six complete periods after being shut out by Harri Sateri and the Sharks in the first 40 minutes last night, before a new line of J.T. Miller centering Marek Hrivik and Chad Kolarik clicked twice in a span of less than five minutes in the third.
Miller had the primary assist on a Kolarik power-play goal before scoring the game-winner, and the rookie and former Ranger first-round pick now has three goals and two assists for five points in the last four games, after putting up only eight points in his first 20 games. The turnaround corresponds pretty closely with Miller being moved from wing to center, and comes just as the 19-year-old is about to head off to join Team USA for the World Junior Championship in Russia. That’s going to involve a long, tiring trip, but the World Junior is such an intense, exciting deal that I wouldn’t be surprised if the experience speeds Miller’s development even more, especially if the USA does well. Let’s cross fingers…