In one of the San Jose Sharks most historic come from behind victories, television play-by-play man Randy Hahn’s call on the game winning goal went like this: “Sundstrom, in front! Shot! Save by Dafoe. Rebound! They score! They score! They score! Marco Sturm has put the Sharks in the lead! This is Un-Be-Lievable!”
Well right now, the San Jose Sharks are an Un-Be-Leivable roll.
After Friday’s win over the Calgary Flames, the Sharks have now won six in a row, are 11-2 in their last 13, and 15-2-1 in their last 18 games. In other words, the Sharks have picked up an astounding 31 points out of a possible 36 over that span, a success rate of .861 dating back to Jan. 15.
And most importantly their scoring is spread out amongst a large amount of consistent contributors. Joe Thornton has 12 points in the 18 game span, Patrick Marleau has 14, Dany Heatley has 11, Logan Couture has 16, Ryane Clowe has 10, Devin Setoguchi has 16, and leading the pack (extremely quietly at that) is Joe Pavelski with 17.
Say what? Pavelski has the most points over the last 18 games? With different players getting hot at various times, Pavelski has been steadily been picking up assists on a regular basis. Thirteen of his seventeen points have come from setting up his various linemates who are getting the bulk of the credit.
Think of it this way, Pavelski has set up seven different teammates amongst those 13 assists playing on lines one through three. Thornton on the other hand, widely considered one of the elite passers in the game has set up just five different teammates during that same time frame. This isn’t to say that Thornton has been a slouch in the offensive zone. What it means, however, is that opposing team’s have an even more difficult job deciding who to shut down.
“Opponents” have kept three usual point per game players in Thornton, Marleau and Heatley significantly under a point per game over this 18-game stretch but Pavelski, Setoguchi and Couture are all playing at nearly a point per game average, a full season rate of 73 points. Yet for their careers, Pavelski has averaged .65 points for game and Setoguchi has averaged .58, points for game. Right now they are at .94 and .88 respectively over the team’s hot streak.
And as for the Sharks’ best players being their best players and coming through in the clutch? Well Marleau and Heatley have combined for six game winning goals in the Sharks’ 13 non-shootout victories over that stretch. All of the game winners have come in the third period with two of Marleau’s being OT winners.
Each member of the “big three” are having “down years” statistically speaking when it comes to goals and points, but Thornton still leads the team in scoring and has been more aware defensively this season despite what his low plus/minus rating may indicate.
Marleau is having a down year compared to his last two, but could still finish with over 6o points which is actually right at his career average.
As for Heatley, the usual point per game star is on the same season track as Marleau which is low for him. But, last season the perennial all-star posted a point per game, but fell flat in the postseason in part due to a groin problem. Perhaps this season he’s more mentally preparing himself for the grueling playoff run to which he is familiar with, losing in the Cup finals in 2007 while with Ottawa.
Getting hot at the right moment is key and Heatley is always a threat to score in bunches once he get’s going. Considering he has yet to get real hot all season, perhaps that makes him just much more likely to catch fire during the playoffs. We just don’t know.
But what we do know is that the Sharks have seven legitimiate top-six caliber forwards with Couture added to the mix this year. While Couture was part of the Sharks’ playoff roster last season, he was by no means as potent an offensive player as he has developed into this season.
With him now as sure-fire top six winger, the Sharks’ third forward line is inherently more dangerous. In yet another come one-goal game Friday against Calgary–to which the Sharks won in a shootout–the third line started out with Pavelski centering Ben Eager and Torrey Mitchell.
In previous games the third line has featured Clowe, Kyle Wellwood and current minor leaguer Benn Ferriero. Either way, San Jose’s third line has much more offensive pop than it had late last season and into the playoffs when they had an extremely raw Couture skating with a defensive type centerman in Mitchell and Manny Malhotra.
Certainly the team’s goals per game average has dropped from 3.13 last season to 2.76 thus far this season but the playoffs are typically lower scoring affairs. And with San Jose’s goals against per game average currently a hundredth of a point lower than last season and dropping, it is clear they are playing much better overall in their own end.
The addition of Ian White on defense finally fills in for the gap left by the retired Rob Blake, and with second year defenseman Jason Demers having a much better year in his own end, along with a healthier Niclas Wallin, the Sharks are younger, deeper, faster and more talented on the blue-line than the corps they had last season. Combine that with a younger goaltender who knows how to handle the work load of a four round playoff run, and the Sharks are better positioned to win the Cup this season than any in their history.
Over the past 18 games the Sharks have beaten the Red Wings, Capitals twice, Bruins, Penguins and the Canucks. They won both their games in Joe Louis Arena in Detroit this year (where they almost never win) and they beat the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia Flyers earlier in this season on the road after being down 4-1 in the third period. They also pounded the Tampa Bay Lightning early in the season.
No team on paper has a clear cut edge over the Sharks and there is no elite level team that the Shark’s haven’t found away to beat this season. San Jose has beat all their fellow cup contenders at some point or another this season.
And with the new additions, the Sharks have only gotten better since mid-season.
Ben Eager, who played a huge, yet unheralded role in the Blackhawks Cup run last season, brings added tenacity and with White added to the defense, the Sharks now have distinct roles filled by appropriately skilled players.
Scoring depth? Check, three quality lines that can score.
What about a physical fourth line that won’t put the team at a disadvantage by taking too many penalties? Check. Eager, Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers combine for an extremely savvy veteran group who all know a thing or two about what it takes to win in the postseason.
Speed? Setoguchi, Marleau, Mitchell all have plus wheels at the forward spots. And Boyle, White, Vlasic, Demers are all above average on the back-end.
Size? Thornton, Marleau, Heatley, Clowe, Murray, Eager, Mayers, Wallin, and Kent Huskins combine for an average height and weight of about 6-foot-3 and 224-pounds. In other words, the average skater of these nine is essentially a 6-foot-3 and 225-pound physical specimen.
Goaltending? Antti Niemi has proved last season was no fluke, as he is currently putting together a season where (barring injury) he will almost assuredly finish with a save percentage right around .920 or higher.
This year’s Sharks may not have been as dominant at year’s past but with GM Doug Wilson’s shrewd mid-season moves, they now have depth at both forward and defense, are big, fast and have elite level goaltending. Maybe, just maybe this is the year they actually get it done.