The San Jose Sharks have long boasted a lethal power play unit. Anchored by world-class playmaker Joe Thornton, it’s a star-studded group of offensive talent that few teams in the NHL can match.
In a 3-2 victory over the rival Los Angeles Kings at SAP Center on Wednesday night, San Jose’s power play proved to be the difference. The Sharks went 3-for-4 with the man advantage and now hold a commanding 3-1 series lead as they gear up for Game 5 in Los Angeles.
In a 2-1 overtime loss in Game 3, San Jose had five power play opportunities and failed to convert on any of them. To date, it’s the only game in the series in which the Sharks didn’t net a goal with the man advantage. It’s also the only game in the series that they’ve lost.
The pattern is clear, and it lends credibility to the notion that San Jose’s power play is of paramount importance to the club’s success in the playoffs.
This season, the Sharks ranked third in the league with a power play success rate of 22.6 percent. They ranked fifth in power play opportunities with 275, and led the NHL in power play goals with 62.
Thornton and linemate Joe Pavelski wrapped up the regular season in a four-way tie for fifth in the league in power play points with 26 apiece, and standout Sharks defenseman Brent Burns tied Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom for second with 29 points with the man advantage.
The result? A 46-win season and a return to the playoffs after failing to qualify in 2014-15.
Against a team like the Kings, who had the third-highest power play opportunities against in the regular season with 285, capitalizing with the man advantage is essential. Los Angeles is a stellar possession team that plays a heavy, stifling brand of hockey.
The Kings don’t surrender many high-quality scoring chances at even strength. Their most exploitable weakness, particularly in a tight-checking, low-scoring playoff series, is their inability to stay out of the box. Los Angeles was shorthanded four times in Game 1, five times in Games 2 and 3, and four times again in Wednesday’s aforementioned Game 4 loss.
Facing a power play unit featuring three of the league’s premier talents in Burns, Pavelski and Thornton, that lack of discipline can come back to bite you.
The Road Ahead
If the Sharks are able to best the Kings in the first round, they’ll face the Anaheim Ducks or Nashville Predators next. Anaheim was shorthanded more than Los Angeles during the regular season, surrendering 290 power play opportunities against. That could mean even more time with the man advantage for San Jose in round two.
However, the Ducks had the league’s top penalty kill with a success rate of 87.2 percent, ranking much higher than L.A.’s 81.4 percent.
Meanwhile, the Predators were a disciplined group this season with just 245 power play opportunities against. If they end up being San Jose’s dance partner in the second round, the Sharks may have a harder time getting the man advantage. A possible silver lining is that Nashville’s penalty kill struggled this season, running at a lowly 81.2 percent.
Then again, the playoffs are a different beast. Whistles are often swallowed, and even the most egregious penalties can go uncalled. It’s entirely possible the Sharks go the rest of the postseason without getting five power play opportunities in a single game again.
But when those opportunities do present themselves, the Sharks need to smell the blood in the water and attack.
Sam Kelly is an experienced sports writer with a passion for the game of hockey. He currently covers the San Jose Sharks for The Hockey Writers and is a production assistant at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. He’ll never forgive the Sharks for blowing a three-game series lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.