NHL Playoffs 2012: 3 Keys to a San Jose Sharks' Turnaround
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My paying job is at a theatre a short distance from Bijon Bakery in San Jose. After paying for a couple of their very tasty croissants, I turned around to see coach Ken Hitchcock exactly as he has looked behind the bench for the St. Louis Blues.
Wearing my leather San Jose Sharks jacket (apologies to those sensitive to use of animal hide, but it was a gift from a dear friend) despite it being far too warm for a Wisconsin native, I said hello and offered, "Your boys are playing really well."
"It's a long series. There's a long way to go," he said as though he were talking to a peer. I did not have the heart to tell him that he should not have the Stanley Cup he was awarded while coach of the Dallas Stars.
The cashier asked him if he was getting it for here or to go. He looked at her and then at me and said, "Here, I guess."
Seeing he was being conversational, I felt I could get a little material. "It's anybody's series, no doubt." But what to follow up with?
The first thing that popped to mind was the rough stuff. I feel fighting is an inevitable byproduct of escalating bad hits, not just in this series, but throughout the league.
That is not a problem unless the NHL proves they think it is by making the punishments prohibitive: Suspending Raffi Torres for the same hit he delivered in the conference semi-final against the Sharks is a step in the right direction, but the elevated frequency of dirty hits and gratuitous fights in this year's playoffs shows it is not enough.
No time for a conversation about that. Too complicated.
How about the Sharks PK? Right, like he is going to tell fans how to solve the problem his opposing coach cannot. I decided there had been enough pause, so I added, "It's tough here, with a team always on the cusp," (I might have said edge).
Before I could make it into a question, he replied, "This is a tough place to play." He made reference to things like the building, fans and team, and then was handed his food.
Wanting to show San Jose in its best light, I left the man to his own. I reiterated his boys were playing hard and he thanked me for the sentiments. As I left, I noticed he was seated outside and gave him a smile. He smiled back and rose his glass.
On the way back to work, I started thinking about how Hitch (that's what his good friends call him!) said very little, but communicated so much. That makes for good coaching. The student can focus on the basics, learning them better and then moving on.
That kind of simplicity would serve the Sharks well down 2-1 in the series. If they can solve the following three keys based on Hitch's remarks, they will have success:
Players Must Execute
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Ken Hitchcock said it himself: The San Jose Sharks are a talented team.
Right now, St. Louis looks better. But if you remove the Sharks disgraceful penalty kill, the series is almost even.
Going into detail about the PK problems does not solve them. A quote from Sharks head coach Todd McLellan included at that link shows there will be no change in the PK strategy, and will count on the players for better execution.
This is the very reason that Hitchcock is out-coaching McLellan. After a Game 1 loss, Hitch found the adjustment to rattle off two wins with a young team by a combined margin of 7-3. McLellan has faced a bad penalty kill since around Christmas 2010 and has yet to find the adjustment that works.
Now he is apparently not even trying. Maybe it is the players, but every one of them was good at killing penalties in the recent past, either in San Jose or elsewhere.
Nevertheless, if changes are not going to be made, it is on the players to execute better.
They did play well on the PK for about two months mid-season. They just have to find that again, stay out of the box.
It would also be great if they execute better in the circle. San Jose is the second-best team in the NHL and has lost four more than it has won through three games. The other major PK problem, protecting the weak side, would also fall under the category of execution.
HP Pavilion Must Be Inhospitable
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Player poll after player poll calls HP Pavilion among the loudest arenas in the NHL. The "Shark Tank" is a tough place for the opposition.
Being cordial and complimentary is a good way to represent the City of San Jose to Ken Hitchcock. But the best thing we can do to represent the fan base is make the environment hostile for the Blues.
No violence. No throwing things on the ice. Just be loud and proud throughout.
Make it hard for Hitch to instruct the team. Make it hard for his boys to communicate when they have the puck. Make it hard for them hear the puck cycle around the boards.
Come expecting and demanding success from the Sharks. Get fired up with every good San Jose play and every mistake of the St. Louis Blues.
Push the St. Louis Blues to the Brink
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Like Hitchcock said, "it's a long series."
For the San Jose Sharks to make that true, they have to force the St. Louis Blues to face elimination. While that could happen for Game 6, it more likely requires pushing the series to seven games.
We saw in the second round last season how precarious a commanding lead can be. The Sharks were two goals up with 20 minutes to go before eliminating the Detroit Red Wings, only to have the wily Wings call upon their superior playoff pedigree to force the series to seven games.
The experience margin is higher between the Sharks and Blues than it was between the Wings and Sharks. By winning Games 4 and 6 at home, the Sharks can put the young Blues team into a nerve-racking situation.
Mental errors often follow physical fatigue. If the Blues do not handle both well, San Jose advances to the second round.