It was a rough and tumble opening night tilt between the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks. After the Kings scored their only goal less than two minutes into the game, surprise surprise, Mike Brown and Kyle Clifford fought off the ensuing face off. Fighting just for fighting. Yawn. We all know correlation doesn’t mean causation yet some will of course try to convince others that the fight is what sparked the Sharks to score five unanswered goals.
The real truth of the matter? San Jose dominated the game for the vast majority of the 60 minutes because they were simply the better team. And for the Sharks, the far more important number in the 5-1 final score is the one allowed behind starting netminder Martin Jones.
Jones made a handful of impressive saves in beating his former team in his first game since being traded this offseason but the key is that he only had to make 19 of them. Los Angeles has been a puck possession juggernaut over the last few seasons but they simply did not have the puck in this opening tilt. San Jose won the shot battle 32-20, controlling the action for long stretches without giving up much on the other end.
Getting Back to Being a Stingy Team
Obviously we are talking about just one game out of 82 but last season the Sharks dropped off the map defensively. In 2013-14 their goals against average was fifth overall at just 2.35 but last year they plummeted all the way down to 24th in the league, or seventh worst with a 2.76 goals against per game. Antti Niemi was not the answer in goal providing at best average goaltending and the blue line in front of him was a mess all season long.
This season however, there is a lot to like about the Sharks defensively. Again, only one meaningful game has been played but both Jones and newcomer Paul Martin were excellent in their debuts. Early on in the game Martin brilliantly defended a two-on-one attack. The savvy veteran waited until the exact perfect time to attack the puck carrier and force the issue. Defensemen in that situation cannot overcommit to the shooter too early and leave the pass wide open in space. That said, when the scoring area in front of the net shrinks as the play moves closer to the goal, then a good stick check and pressure can force a more difficult shot or pass attempt. This is exactly what happened in this situation. Martin thwarted the attack with a perfect read.
Having Martin, who was the Penguins’ best defenseman last season, in the fold is going to do wonders for this Sharks team. San Jose has been missing a second-pair shut-down defenseman to play behind Marc-Edouard Vlasic. With each of these guys playing roughly 20 minutes per night, teams will have a tough time scoring against the Sharks.
Most game recaps will focus on Joe Pavelski leading the way with his three point night and how the game got out of hand late with some extra curriculars. But the team defensive effort was by far the biggest positive coming out of this game. We knew San Jose was going to be able to score, they are almost always a top scoring team. And while they also sagged offensively last season, the offense was not the big question mark heading into this year. The question marks were can they get the penalty kill back on track, play better overall at even strength and can they get the big saves from their goaltender. At least for one night, those questions were answered with check marks across the board. The penalty kill was a perfect six-for-six, the team played a strong 60 minute two-way effort, and Jones made the high quality stops when they were asked of him.
There is a great sequence in the third volume of the Mighty Ducks movies where the new coach yells at his players “I don’t give a damn how many goals you score! I want one number on your mind, and that’s zero, as in shutout, you got that!?”
Jones may not have gotten the shutout but he and the Sharks looked very much like a team committed to defense in their opening night victory.