The San Jose Sharks have cleaning up to do as they seek to neutralize the high-flying Carolina Hurricanes in Friday night’s home opener. The mental mistakes committed against the Nashville Predators won’t fly against a stacked Hurricanes squad looking to build on their 4-1 opening-night victory. In perspective, San Jose needs more than just a clean-up to hang with Carolina, they need a complete makeover. That’s why a week between games could be a blessing in disguise for a Sharks team that appeared to be stuck in preseason form.
Cleansing their mental blunders will make life easier for Team Teal at both ends of the ice. Some attention to detail can go a long way in countering Carolina’s quick counterattack on the rush. That said, the Sharks can take the Canes’ by surprise on Friday night if they focus on these three areas of their game.
No Hesitation or Collapsing in the Defensive Zone
The Sharks’ defense has a bad habit of collapsing around their goaltender once the puck enters their zone. On top of that, their decisions in the defensive end have looked very hesitant as a whole. This collapse and hesitation left the Nashville Predators with a lot of room to maneuver between the blue line and the top of the circles. If San Jose gives the Hurricanes that much room to skate, it will be a persistent carousel of cycle plays in the Sharks’ zone until something gives. Sharks defenders need to skate first and ask questions later rather than hesitate to jump into the play late.
Head coach David Quinn used the term “on top of them” when describing his team’s choking style of play in the final period of the Global Series. That’s the same style the Sharks will need to emulate against a much quicker Hurricanes team if they wish to neutralize their speed. Team Teal needs to do a better job of forcing the opposition to dump the puck in. That means standing them up at the defensive blue line with active sticks and active bodies. If San Jose implements Quinn’s hard-nosed coaching philosophy by playing on top of the opposition, they have a fighting chance against one of the best teams in the league.
Execute Simple Clearing Attempts and Tape-To-Tape Passes
The first two games of the season saw the Sharks commit innumerable unforced turnovers and errant passes that were easy tape-to-tape looks. You would think an NHL team wouldn’t need reminding of this point, but the Sharks struggled with the simple plays. I’d chalk that up as an early-season bug if it wasn’t such a persistent issue last season. Their execution of simple clearing attempts will play a key factor in Friday night’s outcome.
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It’s one thing if a ferocious forecheck forces a turnover. It’s an entirely different issue when you have multiple zone-clearing opportunities and still fail to get the puck out. Those are precisely the clearing attempts that end up in the back of your net. Take, for instance, this very promising Sharks’ breakout that dies before it even has the chance to start:
This is just a lazy play by Sharks forward Jonah Gadjovich in the defensive zone. Not to discredit a good takeaway by one of the best defensemen in the NHL, Roman Josi, but a harder backhand gets that puck out easily. This is a prime example of a self-inflicted turnover that ends up in the back of San Jose’s net.
No. 42 also had two alternatives here. Both may have been easier executions. The first choice is a forehand give-and-go with Jaycob Megna who presented himself as a return pass option. Secondly, he has Radim Simek open far side for a cross-ice pass option. Though on his backhand, Simek is in a soft area with more space to skate for a cleaner breakout attempt.
Instead, a weak backhand pass along the boards gets cut off and ends up in the back of the net. The inability to make those simple clearing attempts also have trickle-down effects on line freshness when you’re unable to make a much-needed change. The Sharks will need to be much crisper on their D-zone breakouts and tape-to-tape passes to keep Friday night’s contest from getting ugly.
Win the Special Teams Battle
San Jose’s first two games on the man advantage featured the best puck movement and high danger looks they’ve had in years. Despite going just 1-8 on the man advantage, the goals will come if the Sharks circle as they did on the man advantage against the Predators. The only downfall to those good looks is they passed on several grade-A scoring opportunities. Getting more pucks on net should give the Sharks more success on a man advantage that already has a night-and-day contrast to last season’s struggles. But they’ll need to do it against a Hurricanes penalty kill that topped the NHL ranks last season.
On the flip side, the Sharks’ second-ranked penalty kill from last season picked up right where it left off, killing all seven Nashville attempts in Prague. However, defending a power-play unit featuring former teammate Brent Burns will be no easy task. They’ll need to do more of the same on the PK to give themselves a fighting chance in their home opener.
Bracing for the Storm Ahead
If San Jose cleans up the self-inflicted wounds, they have a chance to weather the Hurricanes in San Jose. Couple that with the advantage of a rowdy home crowd at the Shark Tank. It may be a growing year for Team Teal, but don’t count the Sharks out just yet. If there’s anything we’ve learned in wake of the Montreal Canadiens late period victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s anything can happen this early in the season.
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