Wednesday night’s breakout 7-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning showed they are capable of what has been a struggle all season long—successful power plays and penalty kills, and playing a full 60 minutes.
Before thinking about the postseason, they need to learn from mistakes and build on what has been successful so far this season. Problems that have surfaced thus far must be addressed and fixed in order for the Sharks to emerge as legit NHL contenders.
Let’s look at seven keys to a prosperous New Year for the San Jose Sharks.
All things considered, the Sharks have faired well on the injury front in 2011; at least all seemed well until we heard the news about Martin Havlat.
Meanwhile, Douglas Murray and Jim Vandermeer have been placed on injured reserve with upper body injuries, and Dan Boyle toughed out a broken foot.
Havlat suffered an unusual hamstring injury when leaving the bench on a line change against Edmonton on December 17.
Wednesday night, GM Doug Wilson announced that Havlat will miss six to eight weeks after having surgery to repair his hamstring on. While Havlat should be back well in advance for the playoffs, the Sharks will need a replacement in the meantime.
The key to being injury-free is to be well-conditioned and playing smart hockey. Coach Todd McLellan gave the team a gut-check after an embarrassing 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers on December 3 by holding a mandatory practice the day after the game. McLellan’s persistence and intolerance to failure will keep the team sharp throughout the second half of the season.
Playing smart not only involves creating scoring chances and protecting the puck, but it requires study knowledge of their opponents and avoiding unnecessary injuries.
Unfortunately, most injuries occur when players put themselves in a vulnerable position and are blindsided with a hit. And in Havlat’s case, some injuries are simply fluke accidents that cannot be avoided.
Striving to play 60 minutes has been a major theme in the Sharks locker room all season long.
While the Sharks typically do well when scoring first—winning 79 percent of the time—they tend to let teams get back into the game.
They have scored first in two of their past four losses, including the 5-3 loss to the Panthers, where they led 2-1 after the first period and allowed three goals in the second period.
McLellan expressed his dissatisfaction in such a loss, and it is something the team needs to address in making every shift count.
Currently ranked 10th in power play percentage (19.1 percent) and second-to-last in penalty kill percentage (73.6 percent), the Sharks special teams unit has been an NHL disgrace.
While they have been decent at even strength, their inability to kill penalties and capitalize on the power play is costly.
In losses this season, the Sharks have only five power play goals. In wins, they have 16.
Last season—with the help of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi—the Sharks were ranked second in power play conversions. Now, we need to see Thornton, Burns and Marleau step up on the power play and create consistent scoring chances.
Good things happen when Todd McLellan shuffles up the lines.
Martin Havlat ended a long scoring drought by connecting on a sweet setup from Michal Handzus after moving from line to line. And Brad Winchester capitalized after playing on Joe Thornton’s line for the first time on December 8.
Bringing up prospects Benn Ferriero and Justin Braun has also proved to be effective in the first half of the season. Both players have provided the team with instant playmaking and goal scoring.
And switching up the special teams lines could improve productivity during power play and penalty kill situations.
In truth, good teams have prolific defensemen. Looking at the NHL's elite, we notice big contributions from blue-liners.
The Florida Panthers, currently third in the Eastern Conference, have defensemen Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Jason Garrison to thank. The trio has combined for 62 points this season.
And the Chicago Blackhawks, currently atop the Western Conference, owe it to Duncan Keith and Nick Leddy, who have combined for 39 points.
Out of all the defensemen in the NHL, no Shark ranks among the top 30 in points. Dan Boyle ranks 28th in assists with 14, and Brent Burns ranks 10th in goals with six.
Basically, if the Sharks want to be considered a dominant force in the NHL, there must be more production from their defensemen. If not, perhaps a Dan Boyle trade is in order after all.
The Sharks started out the year with a sensational road trip, taking five out of six games in their first East Coast trip. That road trip helped them get their heads on straight after a flat start at home.
The Sharks have improved at home since then. They are currently 11-6-1 at the Tank, winning six of their last 10 home games.
Being comfortable and confident at home is vital to a successful playoff run. If the Sharks plan on pulling off another Game 7 home victory in the 2012 playoffs, every little bit of home ice advantage counts.
But there really is no excuse to when it comes to struggling at home or on the road. All NHL rinks are virtually identical with the updated boards and glass, and the atmosphere of the arena shouldn’t affect gameplay of any professional hockey player.
The 82-game NHL season is a marathon in itself. Yet, if the Sharks plan on succeeding in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they can count on a handful of intense games.
Consistency throughout the regular season is important, but it is more important to have plenty of fuel left in the tank at season's end, and playing with momentum.
When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup in 2009 they had won eight of their last 10 games of the regular season. And last season, the defending Stanley Cup Champions Boston Bruins won six of their last 10 games.
Although the last month of the season typically doesn’t mean much for teams that have already solidified playoff spots, it is essential to bring momentum and chemistry into the playoffs.