The San Jose Sharks have been in unfamiliar waters all season. Generally accustomed to building a sizable lead in the Pacific Division, and all but securing a prime spot in the Western Conference playoff race well before the All Star Break, a slow start and persistent issues have the Sharks struggling to climb into a playoff spot in this, their 20th year of hockey.
Reasons for the change are numerous. Some of it is due to the fact that, while general manager Doug Wilson did a fantastic job holding as much of an All Star-studded roster together as possible over the offseason, the Sharks still lost key components like Rob Blake and Evgeni Nabokov.
The loss of a Hall of Fame defenseman and a perennial All Star goaltender would wreak havoc on any team's ability keep pucks out of their net, and the Sharks have been no exception in 2010-2011. Nonetheless, their struggles cannot be solely (or even largely) pinned on the loss of key personnel.
Throughout this season, the Sharks have consistently played as less than the sum of their illustrious parts. Fundamental team hockey has seen lapses that have lasted far longer than they ought to, communication has been lacking and discipline has not been up to par. All this translates to a team that now finds itself battling for its playoff existence for the first time since 2005-2006.
One persistent indicator when the Sharks have been struggling is the lack of efficiency in special teams scenarios. Overall, the Sharks are near where they usually are on the power play, ranked fourth in the league, but they rank just 15th on the penalty kill with allowing the opposition to convert more than 17% of the time.
This came to a head in their final game before the All Star Break. While they took the game against the Los Angeles Kings to a shootout—earning a point to extend their point-streak to five games at the time (it now stands at seven)—they squandered a 2-1 lead and failed to convert on a four minute man advantage in the final six minutes of play, which could have netted them a regulation win and a four-point swing against a divisional rival.
In two games since the All Star Break, however, the Sharks have been much better in odd-manned situations.
The Sharks have out-scored the Phoenix Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks 4-2 in such scenarios over their last two games, earning four points while allowing none to their division foes in two regulation wins. This included two power play goals, one short-handed goal, and an empty net tally for the Sharks against just one power play goal each for the Ducks and Coyotes.
The odd-manned scoring edge helped the Sharks overcome a 3-0 deficit against the Coyotes and fend off a fierce comeback attempt in Orange County. Furthermore, this reversal of special teams fortunes suggests that the Sharks may finally be making real progress toward becoming the team their roster says they ought to be.
The fact that they faced a 3-0 deficit to begin with, and nearly let the Ducks tie the game after chasing nemesis goaltender (and Darth Vader look-a-like) Jonas Hiller in the first period of Wednesday night's game is certainly concerning. The Sharks lacked drive and urgency through two periods of the Coyotes game, and while they responded admirably in the following two periods of play, they suffered a predictable let down in the second period of the Ducks' game, nearly letting them tie it late.
There are undeniably still issues to be resolved. The Sharks need to work on the fundamentals of crisp passing and communication, smart dump ins and zone entries, and solid defensive coverage. Management also needs to work a deal to reinforce the defense, something that has been known for some time.
The Sharks are not without issues, but they are finally finding ways to overcome them, if only by the slimmest of margins for the time being. Hopefully the recent surge on special teams is an indicator that the team at large is finally figuring things out, and is poised to make it back into solid playoff position.
Keep the Faith!
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