Turning the wrong direction from Husky Stadium toward our hotel last night and adding more than two miles to our walk made the phrase “Dad’s always right” ring particularly hollow at that moment in time. In lieu of risking possible revocation of my man card, however, I held firmly to principal number two found here.
Having said that, my article about the Sharks’ slow start nine days ago discussed the reasons why San Jose fans need not worry about the team’s initial 1-3 record out of the gate. In fact, not only did the team defeat the New Jersey Devils 4-3 in the shootout that very night to break a three-game losing streak, but then proceeded to win their next four games, all on the road, versus Boston (4-2), Nashville (3-1), Detroit (4-2) and the New York Islanders (3-2 in OT).
Granted, forecasting the Sharks shaking off their early-season cobwebs is more like predicting the sun will rise in the east than a poetic Nostradamus prophecy (The sloping park, great calamity, through the Lands of the West and Lombardy, the fire in the ship, plague and captivity; Mercury in Sagittarius, Saturn fading — say what?). Regardless, certain key players clearly needed to step up their games, and the team as a whole needed to gel after being carefully reassembled in the off-season.
With that said, the following is a look at the key reasons for the five-game surge:
One thing that hasn’t been questioned about the Sharks since nearly out-of-gas former NHL’ers Bernie Nichols and Tony Granato were amongst the team’s leading scorers is their top-six forward group. This has been particularly true in recent years, as Joe Thornton and company have regularly kept the team amongst the league’s elite in terms goals scored per game. However, in the 1-3 start, Patrick Marleau had just two assists; since then, he’s tallied six points in five games. Joe Thornton had no points in his first three games, and eight points since. More significantly, he’s been shooting the puck far more frequently than in years’ past. Joe Pavelski registered nine point in his past five games, and Martin Havlat, Logan Couture and Ryan Clowe had five apiece.
The offense has turned it up a notch, and as a result, the team is winning. As Nostradamus might say: Quod erat demonstrandum.
In two of the games during the streak, the defense allowed 20 shots or less. As of this writing, San Jose ranks fourth in the league in least shots allowed at 26.8 per game. The addition of Brent Burns has loomed large, both literally and figuratively: the 6’5″, 219 pound rearguard defenseman has logged over 20 minutes every game this season and has three goals and two assists in his first nine games.
Burns’ acquisition has freed up veteran blueliner Dan Boyle to be more offensive-oriented, as evidenced by his shots on goal. As of now, he’s on a pace to surpass 270, which would be the highest total of his career. It’s unlikely Boyle will continue that pace, but the ability to play a bit more of a specialist role could extend his career, even as his minutes/game have maintained top-ten status amongst league defensemen. With respect to this season, the shots have created more rebounds and chances for the opportunistic forwards to convert.
M.E. Vlasic, Douglas Murray, Jason Demers and Colin White round out a top-six defensive group that has steadily rounded itself into shape as the season has progressed.
When your backup goalie has a 2.26 GAA and a .917 save percentage, you know you’re in pretty good shape. Nevertheless, Antti Niemi’s return from pimple surgery was a boon to the team, and it responded accordingly. In his last three games, the 28-year old from Vantaa, Finland has given up just five goals, stopping 105 out of 110 shots against. His season totals are almost a mirror image of Greiss': 2.18, .917, although Niemi has a better record (4-1 versus Greiss’ 2-2) to show for his efforts.
The early numbers posted by both Niemi and Greiss advance a convincing argument that the goalie tandem ranks amongst the very best in the league.
San Jose has five players with a 50% or greater faceoff winning percentage, and ranks 9th in the league in that category at 50.9%. The team’s power play is lethal at 24.2%, but the penalty kill remains limp at 72.7% — third worst in the NHL. San Jose’s 5-on-5 scoring differential is #1 in the league at +1.67/game. Stay-at-home defenseman Douglas Murray, puck-mover M.E. Vlasic, and mainstay forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton are tied for 6th in the league in +/- at +6 apiece. Rugged forward Andrew Desjardins is 25th in the league in PIM’s with 25. Joe Pavelski is tied for 7th in the league in power play goals with three.