San Jose Sharks Bounce Back Where Rubber Meets the Road

MJ KasprzakSenior Writer IIOctober 27, 2011

Martin Havlat has an assist in all three games of this road trip
Martin Havlat has an assist in all three games of this road tripBruce Bennett/Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks embarked on an 11-day, six-game road trip through the Eastern Time Zone last week. It is likely that four of those teams will be in the playoffs, and two of the games were on the second night of back-to-back games.

The Sharks had opened the season at home with an offensive explosion, winning 6-3. They scored three five-on-five goals and three more on the power play.

After that, crickets. Well, maybe not crickets—there was plenty of activity, just that none of it lit the lamp.

The Sharks had over 30 shots in each of their next three games, with 110 total. They scored just three goals, a 2.7 shooting percentage.

Players know that the common explanation from fans, "They ran into some great goaltending," is bunk. NHL goalies stop what they see, and if you are not scoring, you need to look at the battles in front of the net.

Occasionally, a goalie is on another plane. With some it happens more than others. But none of these goalies are going to be in line for the Vezina Trophy. In fact, two of them are not even their team's top netminder.

When it happens three times with two backup goalies, it is the failing of the offence. And that failing made every bad giveaway in the defensive end, something the Sharks were doing prolifically as they got used to one another, that much more perilous.

A road trip in that context could be devastating, even so early in the season. The Sharks are in the toughest division in all of hockey. Had they continued at their current pace, they would have earned just three points on the trip and returned with five through 10 games.

Even teams in weaker divisions do not usually recover from that kind of start.

But road trips in the NHL are funny things. You usually come back with a lot of losses but they make you a better team.

More than even American football, hockey requires a feel for your teammates to be successful. The NFL is about timing, but the team runs set plays. Hockey players have to read plays, look for space and make adjustments more than football players.

To do that without making the team vulnerable requires a feel for one's teammates. Before you jump up into the play, it helps to know if your partner on defense is going to stay back. If you have a player who will release for an outlet pass, you want to have a teammate who knows that and advances the puck.

This is part of the reason the Sharks were missing on passes. They were not sure if their new teammates would try to take the direct but impeded route through the middle, or take the path of least resistance along the boards.

Hockey is too fast to wait and see, so risks were taken and mistakes made.

But there is nothing that does more to help a team to get to know one another than living, traveling, eating and talking hockey together. That understanding of one another translates on the ice as well as practice time.

That is why the timing of this road trip could be perfect. It may very well address the things the Sharks are struggling with most.

Early results are good for San Jose. Wins in New Jersey, Boston and Nashville have come through different means.

The Sharks lead the league in shots on goal and fewest shots allowed, but they were out-shot 39-30 in Boston. They went on the road as a top face-off team, but lost that battle in both Boston and Nashville, leading to a 96-94 deficit for the trip so far.

To compensate, the Sharks improved the other areas of their puck possession game. They had substantially fewer giveaways, with just 15 to their opponents' 50 over the three contests. Takeaways were virtually even, with the Sharks being outdone 19 to 18.

That gives them 32 extra possessions so far, yet San Jose has only been out-hit 37-41. Those extra possessions have resulted in just two extra shot attempts, but they missed nine fewer and blocked 18 more.

In other words, the Sharks have blocked more than three shots for every five that have reached Antti Niemi. Their opponents are blocking shots at less than half that rate. That is working on the defensive end and finding the opening while on the attack.

The end result is opposing goalies have faced 29 more shots than Niemi has. Sure, some are from bad angles to create rebound opportunities, but those extra shots have resulted in three more scores outside of the shootout.

You often hear the term "Where the rubber meets the road," to describe a defining moment. In the Sharks case, it could also apply to the vulcanized rubber pucks finally meet the back of the net on this road trip.

San Jose is playing smarter hockey and getting stellar goaltending. They have their full roster at their disposal and are developing a better feel for one another.

In the process, they have turned a three-game losing streak into a three-game winning streak.