SAN JOSE- Over the course of the four previous NHL seasons prior to 2011-12, the San Jose Sharks not only won their division each year, but they were always a top two-seed. Not to mention they were a No. 1 seed twice in that span, including a President’s Trophy for being the top team in the league during 2008-09.
And when the Sharks remained just as good (if not better) on paper coming into the current campaign, nobody expected anything different but continued regular season dominance.
So naturally when a 3-9-3 skid (including a miserable road trip from hell that ended with a record of 2-6-1) dropped the usual powerhouse Sharks outside the playoff picture in the month of March, a large portion of hockey followers were left perplexed.
It was the million dollar question: “What’s wrong with the Sharks?”
As it turns out, perhaps it was just an anomaly, a deviation from the common rule.
Because since that 15-game stretch in which the Sharks picked up a meager nine points out a possible 30, the Sharks have gone 3-0-1 in their past four games, picking up seven out of a possible eight points.
Captain Joe Thornton has six points in those four games, Logan Couture has four in four, Patrick Marleau has four in four, Joe Pavelski has a couple of points, and Dan Boyle has been the All-Star we’ve all come to know.
The big boys are getting it done.
Now it also helps that in the most recent two games (wins over Nashville and Detroit) All-Star winger Martin Havlat has returned to San Jose’s top-six and been phenomenal despite being out since December. While he was kept off the score-sheet against the Predators, Havlat was all over the ice as he dipsy doodled around opponents with his trade-mark head fakes and tremendous puck control. That level of play continued against Detroit but this time Havlat found the back of the net twice, including the game-winner in overtime.
Certainly that level of return helps a team like San Jose not only boost their top-six but it allows other players to file back into appropriate roles. Head coach Todd McLellan talked about that fact after the Red Wings contest in his post-game presser.
“Everything falls into the right order when you place players where they should be and with Marty going where he is now, it bumps one down and solidifies the third line” explained the coach. “The fourth line gave us eight and a half good minutes [had] a number of scoring chances, weren’t in [our] end very much. They knew they had a good game as well.”
Clearly the forward group for San Jose has been executing their different roles as of late and doing so with a couple of interesting forwards out of the lineup. Michal Handzus was supposed to solidify San Jose’s third line this year as a free agent center but he has been struggling the second half of the season. Lately Handzus has been a healthy scratch. Furthermore, the young Tommy Wingels is out with an upper body ailment but he has showed when healthy he more than deserves a lineup spot.
In short, San Jose has plenty of reliable forwards in case one or two goes down, which often happens come the postseason.
However, while the forwards and goaltender Antti Niemi (.924 save percentage in last four games) have been turning up the juices, the biggest reason for the improved play from the Sharks has been overall team speed.
And that starts nowhere else but on the back end, the blue-line.
The one common denominator in this recent Sharks hot streak (other than Niemi in nets) has been that the Sharks have finally put their best six defensemen in the lineup at the same time.
That means that Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Burns, Douglas Murray, Jason Demers and Justin Braun are in the lineup.
Until recently, we simply haven’t seen these six play together as a unit. At the beginning of the year Braun was in the AHL, Demers was struggling and both Colin White and Jim Vandermeer were filling in on the third pair. Then Demers was hurt for awhile, then when he came back Murray went down with an injury.
And finally when all came back healthy, the Sharks coaching staff elected to keep White in the lineup with either Demers/Braun sitting out.
The game that started this little 3-0-1 run, was the first in we’ve seen the best six defenders in the organization all in the lineup at the same time.
If this top six can stay healthy and the Sharks make the playoffs, they will once again be a scary, scary squad for teams to face come the postseason.
The biggest reason they will be a frightening matchup is something that the average fan doesn’t think about:
One of the most important aspects of hockey that all hockey players know but many spectators don’t is the ability to break out of your own zone.
That ability sets everything up and by golly, five of the Sharks’ top six defenders can skate and move the puck with the best in the league.
When you have Boyle, Burns, Vlasic, Demers and Braun, you have five defenders who can simply out skate any fore-check and jump up to the outside for the outlet pass that creates a breakout out of the defensive zone.
And the only non-speedy defenseman of the top six (Murray) can often be seen taking outlet passes and skating up the ice better than most defenders of his size.
The saying in most sports goes “best defense is a good offense.” But in hockey, the equivalent should really be “the best defense is good puck possession.”
McLellan also discussed after win over the Red Wings how Braun and Demers can make that puck possession happen from one end to the other.
“Both of them have skated well lately. They have good legs, they have been able to jump into the rush and give us a little more tempo back there.”
Tempo is the key word. These Sharks lost to the Chicago Blackhawks two years ago because their defense couldn’t skate with Chicago’s forwards. Last season they lost to the Vancouver Canucks because Demers (who was playing great the previous series) was hurt and their highest paid player (Dany Heatley) couldn’t score.
Those problems have certainly been addressed. This year’s Sharks team is better than that of the last two years and despite that recent scuffle, they can beat any team in the league and should be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
They have all the physical ability they need to get the job done at every position on the ice.
Now do they have the mental wherewithal to grind out 16 playoff wins after their captain called the locker room fragile?
It’s hard to say…but there is only one place you’ll be able to find the answer to that question…
The Stanley Cup Playoffs.