“In my personal opinion, I don't think we're close. We show spurts and signs that we're capable of it, but we haven't put it together against a top quality team. We've got to figure it out soon.”
That was the Sharks' alternate captain on 11/28 after a disappointing loss to the Maple Leafs during an overall disappointing road trip. Logan is known for being brutally honest, and this was no exception. After picking up Erik Karlsson during the off season, and re-signing a number of key forwards, the Sharks seemed poised make a run for the cup. By the end of November it looked like they might not even make the playoffs.
What a difference a few weeks can make. Having won their last 5 games, and 7 of their last 8, the Sharks seem to have turned their season around. They look better all around, but there are some key differences between the team Couture was talking about and the team playing now. The main reason for the turn around? Defense. But since that’s not enough substance for my blogging debut, let me outline 3 specifics that I see.
1. Defensive Pairings
It turns out adding a Norris trophy winning Defenseman into a lineup isn’t as easy as it would sound. Not only did it take time for Karlsson to get a feel for the team, it took some time for the right defensive paring combinations to be found. Over the first couple months we saw a number of different lineups, but nothing seemed to click until recently. The new combinations of Burns-Simek, Karlsson-Dillion, and the ever familiar Vlasic-Braun, seem to match up abilities well. Simek has been a breath of fresh air for the Defense and seems to have really clicked with Burns in a way that Heed and Ryan never quite did, Karlsson seems to have found his stride with Dillon across from him, and Vlasic looked a lot more like himself in the Wild game last night. All in all these guys seem to have found their best line mates, and new confidence shows on the ice.
2. Better Discipline
There has been a push the last few seasons to get the D men more involved in offense. This isn’t a bad idea, especially with shooters like Burns and Karlsson at the blue line, but it has to be done correctly. Earlier in the season there were a number of times the netminder was left out to dry due to defensemen being out of place and giving up an odd man rush. Burns especially likes to move up and play some forward even during 5 on 5 play. Lately though, the D men have been much more disciplined. They are staying back and sticking closer to the boards to be in place to stop a break away. It hasn’t really hurt them on offense either. As it turns out, Burns and Karlsson have a mean shot, even from that far back, and while they may not hit the back of the net as often, they are getting a good number of assists by setting up good opportunities at tips and rebounds. If they can keep up this balance of offensive support and defensive preparedness, the team will be in pretty good shape.
Lastly, but certainly not least, the goaltending has improved. Many of the problems with defense this season couldn’t be laid directly at the feet of Jones and Dell, the play in front of them left a lot to be desired and put them in too many bad situations. It has been true, though, that Jones has had trouble making big saves at times. There was a glimpse of this on a not-so-big save Sunday night that snuck past him. Overall he seems to be improving and after a wake up call against the Blackhawks where he was pulled in the first period, he had probably his best game of the season in a 4-0 shutout that included multiple reply worthy saves. Technical play is more his style, more substance than flash, but he’s going to need to make saves like that moving into the post season for the Sharks to have a chance at the cup. It also doesn’t hurt the sharks to have a back up who can come in cold and prevent the other team from scoring to give your forwards a chance to win it.
If the defense can keep these three key going, and the offense stays as hot as it’s been most of this season, we could be growing beards until mid June.