With the 2-1 win in Calgary on Monday, the San Jose Sharks have bounced back from their struggles over the past eight weeks to open up a two-game lead over the Detroit Red Wings for the President’s Trophy. It was only their fifth win on the road against a team that has more wins than losses (regulation or overtime).
To close the season, San Jose plays three at home and three on the road, but three of those games are against teams not even in the postseason hunt. Detroit plays tougher competition down the stretch, though four of their last six are at home. Of course, Detroit did drop a home game recently to the New York Islanders, who possess the worst record in the NHL.
The Sharks were not alone in their struggles, not even among the NHL’s elite. The Flames have fallen out of first place in the Northwest, the Chicago Blackhawks have had a tough time as of late, and even the New Jersey Devils (my pick to kiss the Cup) have dropped five since Martin Brodeur became the winningest goalie in NHL history.
But San Jose is beginning to show moxie. In the matchup with Calgary, the team won despite being out-shot; incredible goaltending and disciplined, fundamental hockey allowed them to be victorious.
They also have battled through without a healthy roster, with their injury report reaching ten players and including key names like Patrick Marleau, Ryane Clowe, and Rob Blake. The Sharks should be at full strength by the Playoffs, and perhaps the adversity will have them better prepared for the "second season."
In years past, the knock on them has been that they crack under pressure. But in reality, the problem with the Sharks has had little to do with what is traditionally referred to as "choking."
The truth is that the Sharks have been a team lacking experience in a key position: the blue line. The last three seasons, the Sharks have had no more than one defenseman dressed who was at least 30 years of age.
Therefore, coach Ron Wilson was relying on players who couldn't even grow a playoff beard: Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Matt Carle were all under 25. When a defenseman who has little big-game experience is put in a pressure-packed situation—i.e., an elimination game on the road in overtime with a forward pressuring you as you dig the puck out of the corner—the chance of a mistake is exponentially higher than with an established veteran.
But the presence of such veterans is what makes this year's San Jose team different: The Sharks have Dan Boyle, Brad Lukowich, and Rob Blake at the defenseman position, and all of them are over 30. And more importantly, they have four Stanley Cup rings among them. They have been there and are not going to get flustered in those tight situations.
Besides, the system that new coach Todd McLellan has implemented does not put as much burden on the blue line. Wilson relied on the unit to always be in position, and any mistakes were thus magnified. McLellan encourages his defense to jump into the play and create scoring opportunities.
This works on two levels. First, it helps the team score more, making each opposition goal allowed less devastating. Second, it mandates that forwards pay attention to players jumping in and cover for them, spreading the responsibility among five players instead of two.
The Sharks blue line now is at or near the top of the league in shots, goals, and points. This has taken some pressure off the forwards for scoring, and the team has been in the top three in the league in scoring pretty much all season because of it.
While defense does indeed win championships, the top ten teams in the league in point percentage all average three or more goals per game.
This is not Ron Wilson’s Sharks, so we have every reason to think things will be different this May. Then again, we thought Joe Thornton would make the team different in 2006. And in '07, we thought Bill Guerin would. In 2008, it was Brian Campbell…
But keep in mind that teams that have to make midseason makeovers rarely win the Cup. This team has been together the entire season.