The San Jose Sharks have, at times this postseason, made the game of hockey look easy. They have done this against some very good teams.
The key to the Sharks’ success is very basic. The key is hard work. On paper, other teams match the Sharks in terms of talent. Their competition in the Western Conference Final, the St. Louis Blues, are a very good team. Entering the series, every article I read suggested that, group by group, the teams were close. Similar quality forwards, defensemen and goalies.
So far, the Sharks have outscored the Blues 8-2 in three games and hold a 2-1 lead in the series. The Sharks have not allowed a goal in the last two-and-a-half games.
Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer has been preaching the merits of rolling four line and three defense pairs. This approach is supposed to keep players fresher. This allows players to bring more energy to each shift while less wear and tear accumulates on the top players. With five starters over age 35, four in major roles, these things matter.
DeBoer may have spoken to the philosophy, but earlier in the season, he did not feel comfortable implementing it. For a large chunk of the season, DeBoer leaned on five defensemen while committing limited time to his fourth line. The trade deadline additions made a huge difference. DeBoer believes in the acquisitions and has used them fully in the playoffs. Roman Polak, as a sixth defenseman, is getting over 16 minutes a night while Nick Spaling, as a fourth line forward, is averaging 13 minutes a night.
In my prior article, I described the Sharks as a team that feels like it is battling back, even when it is in the lead. Having players who are able to play with energy is a difference maker. St. Louis has made several pushes in the series, but the Sharks have been able to hold them off. Importantly these surges do not seem to last for more than several minutes. The Blues have not dominated an entire period since the opening stanza of the series. At the start to Game 3, St. Louis kept the Sharks without a shot on goal for nearly half of the first period. By the end of the period, the Sharks were almost even in shots and they left the period with a 1-0 lead. Aggressive play from St. Louis resulted in mistakes which gave the Sharks opportunities to counter. The first two Sharks goals in Game 3 were quick strikes, both coming moments after a St. Louis turnover.
In my prior article, I suggested the Sharks had more upside to their game. I cited two areas of opportunity. First, the Logan Couture line had the potential to contribute more. In Game 3, the line delivered, with Joonas Donskoi scoring off a sweet feed from Couture. Second, I mentioned Joe Thornton hadn’t put up any points in the first two games of the series. In Game 3, Thornton had two assists while continuing to play dominant hockey. The Sharks can beat you in various ways, as noted here and here. Hard work means lots of players are getting rewarded. The top three Sharks in points are Couture, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski. The top three in plus-minus are Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Tomas Hertl and Paul Martin. Thornton is not top three on either list, but he is currently the team’s best player. Unless it is goalie Martin Jones.
The Sharks are showing up shift after shift, playing hard, effective hockey. There is no secret sauce for this team. They are winning with what coaches would call honest hockey. They deliver consistently high levels of focus, poise and effort. They do not cheat on defense. Odd-man rushes against the Sharks have been rare in the past two games. The goalie has been sound; the few shots that have gotten past him in the last 2-plus games have found the post. As a result, the Sharks skate off with victories. The Sharks are taking the path described in a famous commercial, they are doing it the old-fashioned way, they are earning it.
Talent, health, focus, poise and effort. The Sharks are winning games based on these attributes. If this powerful combination continues to show up, it will be very difficult for St Louis to recover in this series.
There has been a lot of discussion about the Sharks’ very effective power play. The Sharks’ top power-play unit consists of Couture, Thornton, Burns, Pavelski and Patrick Marleau. These five players have scored a combined 1,419 regular season goals. In comparison, the entire St. Louis roster that skated for Game 3, all 18 skaters, have a combined 1,465 regular season goals.
Four Sharks players have more career goals than David Backes, who has the most career goals for the Blues. The first three are obvious; Thornton, Pavelski and Marleau. The fourth is Dainius Zubrus.
The Sharks, collectively and individually, are setting numerous franchise records this postseason. With the Game 3 win, they have tied the franchise record for most postseason wins (10) and have guaranteed they will at least tie the mark for most playoff games (18). This also marks the first time the Sharks have led a conference final. One gets the sense the Sharks players are not paying much attention to the records, which is a very good thing.