Shark-Infested Blogger

March 27, 2010 4:40 AM

Sharks Have Big Weekend Before Them

During the Sharks losing streak, Todd McLellan was saying all the right things. He talked about the process and did not project panic, but he also rejected the idea that the adversity would be good for them, thereby not letting it be acceptable on any level.

He decried the lack of consistent effort, and pushed his players in a hard practice when he didn't see it while giving them rest when they looked tired. He talked about the need to make sacrifices to make plays, and the fundamentals of getting pucks deep and making the simple, smart plays.

Against Minnesota, they played better fundamental hockey, having only eight giveaways the entire game to 12 for the Wild and holding the opposition to 20 shots on goal. Upon returning home, the Sharks did a better job in the ultimate statistic demonstrating players were willing to do whatever it takes to keep pucks from the net--blocking shots.

San Jose has not gotten more blocked shots than their opponents since March 2 against New Jersey. Part of this is a function of their puck possession. A team like the Sharks that is significantly ahead of any other in the league in face-offs--and indeed, has the NHL's top three centres in the circle--will generally not give up as many shots as it gets and therefore not have as many opportunities to block shots as their opponents.

However, in the last two losses of the road trip, they were out-performed in blocked shots 46-10. Against Minnesota, they were both out-shot and out-blocked. These kinds of results are, if you will pardon the pun, indefensible.

Against Dallas, San Jose managed 41 shots while yielding only 27, most of which offered a clear view for goalie Evgeni Nabokov. But they were close in blocked shots, losing that battle just nine to 11: In other words, they blocked one shot for every three given up, while Dallas managed just over one block per four shots yielded--not a stark difference, but a victory in the category.

In the process of making these improvements, the Sharks gave up just one goal. The return to solid defensive effort was contrasted with the road trip, during which the team had given up 24 goals in their five games, all lost in regulation (the first time that happened to San Jose in 13 years).

What does this come down to? Blue-line play, and it is no coincidence the improvements came after the return of Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

Vlasic may not be having the best statistical year (he has only three goals and 11 assists in 57 games), but points are a very misleading statistic for defencemen. Here are some better indicators of his importance:Thumbnail image for 3246448574_7dcbd5d532.jpg
  1. Vlasic has a plus-15 rating to lead the team. Even though this can sometimes be a misleading statistic--offensive players are often put out with opportunities to score and defensive players put out in their own end when the risk to be scored on is high--Pickles is out there often against other teams' top lines.
  2. He missed 17 games, during which the Sharks went 8-8-1; they are 37-11-9 with him in the lineup--a boost of over 45 percent.
  3. In the last seven games he missed, captain Rob Blake went without a point because without a defensive pair mate who could cover for his lack of speed, he could not pinch up and make plays. With Pickles back in the lineup for just three games, Blake has a goal and three assists.
There was another factor that may have contributed to the team's success: McLellan not only split up the Big Three--which he has done before by moving Patrick Marleau to the second line--he had each of them anchoring a different line. All three lines scored against Minnesota.

This is a good idea, since no team has won a Cup relying as much as the Sharks have on their top forward line for goals in any year statistics are still readily available--i.e. at least since the early 90s. It works because it makes for more difficult defensive match-ups--against which line do you send out your best defensive pair or checking line?

Yet Todd McLellan has been reluctant to assign great significance to the wins, either, challenging the Sharks to continue to play with this recipe for success rather than patting them on the back.

Another reason for remaining guarded is that the Sharks achieved their wins over teams whose chances of making the playoffs were remote before the pucks dropped. The real test comes from hosting two games in less than 24 hours against the top two teams in the Northwest Division, the Vancouver Canucks Saturday at 7pm PDT, and the Colorado Avalanche Sunday at 5pm PDT.

The Canucks are 8-3-2 since the Olympic break. They are 1-1 against the Sharks, with both games being in Vancouver and ending in regulation. They have six players with over 20 goals scored and will test a San Jose defence that lacks marquee players. The Sedin twin-Burrows line is better than plus-30, and former Shark Christian Ehrhoff leads a defence that features three players with over 20 points.

Of course, the key to beating the Canucks is getting the puck past Roberto Luongo, and this may be a reason Ehrhoff is playing so well: Luongo can cover for his propensity for turnovers better than Nabokov could (and does for Sharks turnovers now). At the same time, Luongo's save percentage is down this year (.915) and his goals-against average is up (2.48).

The Sharks will need to do a better job of screening the Olympic goal medal-winning netminder than they have been in the past two months. The one thing San Jose has a clear advantage with is size, and getting a body on the Canuck forwards will be instrumental to wear them down.

On the other hand, that may leave the team with little in the tank against Colorado, a team that will also be coming off a game Saturday, in Phoenix against the Sharks Pacific Division challenger. I would expect to see a player or two rotate in for the second game, including backup netminder Thomas Greiss.

Colorado is a team that has a great work ethic and gotten great goaltending from Craig Anderson. They spread the wealth pretty well, with six forwards averaging about a point every one to two games and with four defencemen averaging about a point every two to three games.

The Avs are 6-5-1 since the All Star break and 1-1 against the Sharks this season, with each team winning its home game. However, the teams have not squared off since October, and have one match-up left after Easter.

If the Sharks can come away with three points in the two games, they will make it very hard for the Coyotes to catch them for the division and all but assure a top-two seed in the West. But more importantly, it should indicate they are back on track.

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