San Jose Sharks: 10-Part Recipe for a Successful Road Trip
The San Jose Sharks hosted a rare Friday evening game in February.
Rare for two reasons: Most of their home games are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and they spend most of their Februarys on the road every year.
That is because the SAP Tennis Open uses the HP Pavilion for two weeks every February. Because NHL schedules have most of a team's road games being either the first or second game of back-to-backs (San Jose has 25 such road games this season), the Sharks enter every February with fewer games played than most of the league.
That is why after just four wins in their last 10 games, the Sharks had to beat the Chicago Blackhawks. Trouble was that with six straight losses of their own, the 2010 Stanley Cup Champions were at least as desperate. At least the Sharks were in control of their division—Chicago was fourth in theirs.
The Sharks came out of the gate dominating, putting three pucks past goalie Corey Crawford. The second one instead became an interference penalty even though it was Crawford who came out and made contact with Patrick Marleau.
The third was after a scrum near the boards in which Chicago received a questionable extra penalty. Penalties were a big part of the first period, resulting in 28 PIMs and both Sharks goals.
In a less emotional second period (just one minor penalty), Chicago took over the game. They out-shot the Sharks 17-3 and tied the game up before a Joe Thornton pass deflecting off the stick of Dylan Olsen once again gave the Sharks the lead.
They continued to dominate after the intermission and re-tied the score. That is when Jamie McGinn took matters into his own hands, literally. Not literally as most people use it—as an emphasis to a figurative statement—literally literally.
He started with his fists, energizing a flat Sharks team with a bout with Bryan Bickell 3:03 after his tying marker. He ended it with great hands on a power play goal, pushing the puck to his forehand before snapping it past Crawford from a tough angle.
Because of the long lapse of emotion, the Blackhawks out-shot the Sharks for the third time in four meetings this season, 33-27. (San Jose has only been out-shot eight times in their other 48 games.) It would have been worse if not for the Sharks registering 25 blocks to 13 for the Blackhawks.
San Jose also registered seven more hits, won four more faceoffs, had an extra takeaway but five more giveaways.
The win enabled the Sharks to keep their NHL Pacific rivals (whose recent successes are outlined at that link) at bay. An tough road trip—nine games over 15 days involving more than 15,000 miles of travel—begins Sunday in St. Louis, and turning those games in hand into points could secure a fifth straight division title.
But what is their recipe for success?
1. Put Your Heart into It
A little more than 42 minutes into the 2009 State of the Sharks event, I challenged Joe Thornton to play with more emotion, specifically anger. Three years later, the captain's team still clearly plays better when they have it.
In Friday's game against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Sharks controlled the first period and almost 15 minutes of the third period. During that time, there were 42 penalty minutes between the teams, and San Jose scored all four goals.
In the other 25-plus minutes that Chicago controlled, there were two penalty minutes and the Sharks were out-scored 3-1.
Without that intensity, the Sharks have shown repeatedly that they do not have the talent to beat good teams. It is one of the main reasons they are widely perceived as soft, playoff underachievers.
So why is it the Sharks often appear less intense than their foes? They need to apply the lessons of each game and play with fire and even anger throughout this trip, because without some adrenaline, they will be exposed as a tired team.
2. Make Healthy Choices
Every team has injuries by the time the playoffs start. The team that is the healthiest often wins come May.
The Sharks have been without James Sheppard all season, and spent time without Andrew Murray, Tommy Wingels and Frazer McLaren healthy. But they only project as fourth-line forwards, a role being more than adequately played by a committee of young players.
Likewise, the Sharks have spent considerable time without Antero Niittymaki, Jason Demers, Jim Vandermeer and Colin White on the back end. Even Antti Niemi has missed four games. But the Sharks are deep enough in net and on the blueline to absorb those losses, too.
But Martin Havlat was supposed to be able to come back eight weeks after his injury, and every update told us he was on schedule. Then the updates stopped coming after the All-Star break, and he is still more than two weeks away because he is not on the road trip with the team.
Since his injury, every game missed to a top player is nearly debilitating. When Ryane Clowe missed six games, the Sharks scored fewer than three goals in four of them.
Because of the lack of scoring, losses to top defenders have not been overcome. When Dan Boyle and Brent Burns missed a game each, the Sharks lost both, scoring a total of four goals. They also struggled without Douglas Murray in the lineup.
3. Shop to Restock the Cupboards
The previous slide underscores a lack of depth that makes the margin of error too slim. When the cupboards are bare, it is time to head to the market.
Since Havlat's return will not be until after the NHL Trade Deadline, the team needs to make a move before then in case he has set-backs. Rarely are teams healthy come May, so the Sharks need to get a little insurance—someone who can step up onto the top two lines if another forward goes down.
This is what makes one wonder why the Sharks did not spend for one more such forward in free agency. They had more than enough cap money, and had a low-priced free agent available who fit well on the team and helped in the push last season in Kyle Wellwood.
Doug Wilson said last spring that playing catchup in 2010-11 was a major reason they ran out of gas come playoff time. Why fritter that space away until late while falling behind in the race for an important top-two seed?
Now they will have to give up something in return—perhaps more than the player is worth because it is a seller's market. But they have the aforementioned backup goalies, fourth-line forwards and third-pair defencemen in excess, with both young and veteran talent depending on the needs of their trading partners. Trade two of them for one second- or third-line calibre forward.
4. Use the Right Ingredients You Have
When you are making something, you want to use the best ingredients at your disposal. If you have sweet red bell peppers, why settle for green?
After scoring Friday, Benn Ferriero has seven goals in just 25 games for a team that is lower-ranked in scoring than it is on defence. And they are not insignificant ones, either—four of his seven goals are game winners, second on the team.
Jim Vandermeer has shown himself not only solid on the back end, but capable of playing forward. He has three assists and a plus-two rating in 14 games, and sticks up for his teammates.
Both have earned more playing time.
5. Nothing That Is Bad for You
During training camp, Colin White was paired with Justin Braun and Jim Vandermeer with Jason Demers.
They have been together almost every game ever since, while other lines and pairs have been routinely juggled to increase results. It is as though either third pair is the only grouping of players on the team that cannot be broken up.
But Colin White has been the weakest link of the eight defencemen to receive playing time. He had five giveaways in the game against Chicago Friday, and in 39 games this season has just two points and an even rating for a team that has scored 29 more goals than its opponents.
Jason Demers has been the second-worst, with 11 points in 35 games but a minus-seven rating. Even once he is healthy again, he and White should be sat in favour of Vandermeer and Braun.
Finally, some forward has to sit to give Benn Ferriero playing time. Andrew Murray (four points, plus-three in 39 games) is out right now, ostensibly because he is hurt, but should remain so because Ferriero is outplaying him.
6. Find the Right Combinations
Speaking of lines and pairs that have been juggled, the top two pairs were changed when Douglas Murray was injured. Marc-Edouard Vlasic took over Murray's spot with Dan Boyle.
Murray is back, and belongs with his long-time blue line partner. That balanced the strongest defensive player with the best offensive player, the best skater with possibly its worst, and the largest with the smallest.
The second pair had the second largest and second-best offensive defenceman with a lighter, faster partner who is the best positional defender on the team.
Now the two largest players are on one pair and the two best skaters on the other. That makes no sense.
Once the forwards are healthy, a similar approach needs to be applied there. Every line needs to have a balance of speed and size, passers and shooters, and preferably a right-handed player.
7. Keep Special Teams Hot
At one point in December, the San Jose Sharks had the worst penalty kill in the NHL. Short stretches of average penalty killing were celebrated, then two goals in five chances would bring them back down to earth.
Around Christmas, the tide started to turn. That began a stretch of 48-for-54 (88.9 percent) that includes killing off all three Blackhawks power plays Friday.
The problem was that, at the same time, the Sharks went cold on their own power play. It plummeted from the top-five all the way to the bottom half of the league.
It has been white hot recently, however. A 3-for-6 night Friday has the team 10 for its last 21 (47.6 percent), allowing it to climb back into fourth in the league at 20.4 percent.
Being good on the penalty kill allows you to be aggressive. That pushes other teams into penalties and that is deadly when you are better than 20 percent, much less 47.6.
8. Make Sure the Goose Is Cooked
There are not many good things about being on the road for 15 days.
One of them is becoming more tightly-knit. However, two-thirds of this team came into this season with plenty of chemistry, and the rest had two-thirds of the season to catch up.
But this particular road trip has an added advantage. Three of the nine Sharks foes are teams in the bottom eight of the league and two more borderline playoff teams.
Furthermore, two will be hosting them on the second night of back-to-back games. Even though one of those games is also the second night for San Jose, it will still help.
That leaves six of the nine games more winnable than your average road contest. The Sharks must be like their namesake and smell blood.
Show no mercy on those whose goose is nearly cooked—finish them off. Getting even eight points in those six games almost guarantees the Sharks finish over .500 for the trip, leaving the rest of the division about 20 games to make up the same ground they have now.
9. Let the Help Set the Table
If the Sharks are in a lot of close games, the top lines and pairs will play a lot of minutes. With so many games packed in so closely, that could lead to fatigue or even injury.
The best thing that could happen to San Jose is a couple blowouts. The worst thing is overtime games.
Ideally, the Sharks take an early lead and can roll all 18 skaters most of the game, then sit on the lead in the third period with role-players getting most of the ice time. But a blowout loss is as almost as good as a blowout win for resting starters.
If you are going to lose in regulation, you might as well lose big. Then you can know for the last half of the third period that the third and fourth lines and third pair can get ice time without sacrificing anything in the standings.
Unfortunately, this is not the Sharks modus operandi. They have had only nine wins and three losses decided by at least three goals all season, and only three wins and one loss since their 7-2 win over Tampa Bay December 21.
10. Mix in Liberal Portions of Thomas Greiss
With three back-to-back games on the road trip, Antti Niemi should be replaced in net for one of those two each time. The Sharks have three more back-to-backs in their remaining 21 games.
Thus, even if the Sharks only play Greiss in either the first or second of those games, he will play 18 times in 2011-12. That leaves Niemi (with one game played in which Greiss was the goalie of record) with 65 games played, far within his tolerance.
Last season, the Sharks relied on Nemo 36 times in a stretch of 37 games heading into April. He looked overworked and fatigued in the first round.
Martin Brodeur is the only goalie in the post-Original Six era (I did not bother checking further back) to win the Stanley Cup after a regular season in which he has played in more than 68 games. Nemo needs his rest for the Sharks to still be playing on Memorial Day for the first time in franchise history.
More importantly, Greiss is very capable: 7-4-1 (.625 point percentage) with a 1.98 goals against average and .925 save percentage compares favourably to 23-12-5 (.638) with a 2.35 GAA and .917 save pct. Granted, Nemo has played more of the better teams, but having a rested Greiss in net will probably be better than playing Nemo for the second day in a row.