September 30, 2012

After long summer, Sharks thrilled to get back to work

By Jesse Connolly

As the calendar turned to 2012, the Worcester Sharks were a team that had every reason to believe they’d be back in the playoffs when the spring rolled around. 

Worcester's Matt Irwin was one of the highest-scoring defensemen in the AHL last season. (Getty Images)

The Sharks stormed out of the gate to the tune of a 4-0-1 start, and by New Year’s Eve had am impressive 16-9-6 record. But Worcester leveled out in January and February, struggling to play .500 hockey. Still, the postseason was well within reach.

That, of course, was until a disastrous slump in March officially kissed any hopes of the team returning to the playoffs goodbye. The Sharks finished the year with just three wins in their final 13 tilts, sinking them down to 13th in the Eastern Conference and nine points shy of the eight-seeded Manchester Monarchs.

More than five months removed from their final game of the 2011-12 regular season, the Sharks kicked off this year’s training camp on Friday at the New England Sports Center in Marlboro, Mass. Safe to say, they’re all happy to get back to work.

“I’m thrilled,” Matt Irwin, a former UMass standout and one of seven Hockey East alums taking part in camp, said in an interview with the team’s website. “I’m really excited to get back. It’s been a long summer – too long. It’s nice to be back, see the boys and all the familiar faces.”

Irwin will be one of the key players the Sharks will be leaning on in 2012-13. The 24-year-old defenseman ranked second among all players on the squad with 42 points in 71 games last season.

Now taking part in his third camp with the club, Irwin said his past experiences should help him during this go-round.

“Yeah, of course. You’ve got to be prepared,” he said. “It is nice knowing what’s going to happen, all the protocol leading up to skates and stuff. It’s my job now to help the guys that haven’t been here, just help them if they have any questions and stuff like that.”

James Sheppard isn’t technically a newcomer that Irwin has to take under his wing, but the 28-year-old forward is certainly looking for a fresh start in Worcester and to get his career back on track.

Selected ninth overall by the Minnesota Wild in the 2006 draft, Sheppard had 49 points in 224 NHL in his first three pro seasons but an accident on an ATV in the summer of 2010 left him with knee injuries that cost him most of the past two seasons.

Sheppard, a Nova Scotia native, played in four games for the Sharks last season and signed an AHL contract with the club on Friday.

“I’m reenergized,” Sheppard said. “I had two years off, so it was a good stretch where I really had to battle but also had some good ups and some good progress. I’m happy to be out here again. I feel in shape and I feel strong, but these are long and hard skates. The guys are in great shape out here and we’re really battling, so it’s a good test.”

The 6-foot-1 center’s thrilled to be back on the ice and hopes to be a key cog for Worcester in the upcoming campaign.

“It’s going to be great,” said Sheppard. “We’ve got a great team here and hopefully I can contribute here to the lineup. I haven’t really had a whole lot of time in the AHL, so I’m excited to see what it’s all about and get my foot in the door.”

In terms of the big picture, both Sheppard and Irwin hope to accomplish something the Sharks have failed to do in each of the past two springs.

“I think the main goal is to get back into the playoffs,” Irwin said. “The city hasn’t seen playoff hockey in two years and I haven’t been to the playoffs as a professional. I think that’s the main goal for myself and for the team.”  

Jesse Connolly can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @JesseNEHJ.