Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why Sharks Fans Should See 2009 as Different

With the 2-1 win in Calgary Monday, San Jose has bounced back from their struggles over the past eight weeks to open up a two-game lead over Detroit for the President’s Trophy. It was only their fifth win on the road against a team that has more wins than losses (regulation or overtime).

San Jose plays three at home and three on the road, but three of those games are against teams not even in the playoff hunt. Detroit plays tougher competition down the stretch, but four of their last six are at home. However, Detroit dropped a home game recently to the New York Islanders, who possess the worst record in the NHL.

Their struggles are not alone among the NHL’s elite. Calgary has fallen out of first in the Northwest, Chicago has been struggling for some time, and even New Jersey (my pick to win it all) has dropped five of six since Martin Brodeur became the winningest goalie in NHL history.

Meanwhile, the Sharks are beginning to show moxie. Against Calgary, they won despite being out-shot because of incredible goaltending and disciplined, fundamental hockey. They also have battled through without a healthy roster, with their injury report reaching ten players and including key members like Patrick Marleau, Ryane Clowe, and Rob Blake.

They are supposed to be at full strength by the playoffs, and perhaps the adversity will have them better prepared for it. In years’ past, the knock on them is that they choke under pressure, and that has led to premature playoff exits.

In reality, the problem with the Sharks in previous playoffs has had little to do with traditional examples we often ascribe to choking. The reality is the Sharks have been a team lacking experience in a key position: the blue line.

The last three seasons, the Sharks had no more than one defenceman dressed who was at least 30 years of age. Meanwhile, coach Ron Wilson was relying on players who could not grow a playoff beard. Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Matt Carle were all under 25.

When a defenceman who has little big game experience is put in a pressure-packed situation—i.e. an elimination game on the road in overtime with a forward pressuring you as you dig the puck out of the corner—the chance of a mistake is exponentially higher than with an established veteran. That is what makes this year's team different: the Sharks have Dan Boyle, Brad Lukowich, and Rob Blake in that position, all of whom are over 30.

More importantly, between them they have four Stanley Cup rings. They have been there, and are not going to get flustered in those high-pressure situations. Beyond that, the system new coach Todd McLellan has implemented does not put as much burden on the blue line. Wilson relied on the unit to always be in position, and any mistakes were thus magnified. McLellan encourages his defence to jump up into the play and create scoring opportunities.

This works on two levels. First, it helps the team score more, making each opposition goal allowed less devastating. Second, it mandates that forwards pay attention to players jumping in and cover for them, spreading the responsibility of defence among five players instead of two.

The Sharks blue line now is at or near the top of the league in shots, goals, and points. This has taken some pressure off the forwards for scoring, and the team has been in the top three in the league in scoring pretty much all season because of it. While defence does indeed win championships, the top ten teams in the league in point percentage all average three or more goals per game.

This is not Ron Wilson’s Sharks, so we have every reason to think things will be different this May. Then again, in 2006 we thought Joe Thornton made the team different. In 2007, we thought Bill Guerin would. In 2008, it was Brian Campbell…

But teams that have to mid-season makeovers rarely win the Cup; this team has been together the entire season.

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