Focus on defense paying dividends for Sharks

February 8, 2011, 1:49 am
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In hockey, a goalies statistics can be misleading.

More times than not, a netminders goals-against average and save percentage are a reflection of the way the team is playing defense. Bad numbers usually mean the team is giving up too many scoring chances and odd-man rushes, while good numbers typically reveal a sound effort on both ends of the ice.

Saturdays 2-0 Sharks victory in Boston is a fine example, as Antti Niemi was credited with his third shutout of the season, making a solid 26 saves. But San Joses defense and forwards did a great job clogging up the Bruins passing lanes, taking care of the area directly in front of the net, and clearing rebounds to make it much easier for its goalie.

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Its a facet of their game the Sharks have been steadily improving upon as they bring a 7-0-1 streak into Tuesday nights matchup with the Washington Capitals.

Just ask the goalie with the sparkling 2.21 goals-against average and .927 save percentage since Dec. 1.

I think were getting tighter at our own net. Were ready for rebounds, too, and wherever the puck is, were there first, Niemi said. Our position is pretty good. Our D is close to the net, and ready.

Coach Todd McLellan has also seen an improvement in the team defense, specifically in front of the net, which was an area of concern for much of the first half of the season.

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The net play, and the ability to control sticks and bodies in and around the net area, gives us a chance to spend less time in our zone and get going on offense a little bit more, he said. They look like a more confident group than they did two months ago.

During that eight-game stretch in which the Sharks havent lost in regulation, the team has allowed just 2.0 goals per game. In the six-game losing streak that preceded it, San Jose allowed 19 goals, or 3.16 per game.

Dan Boyle, who continues to lead the league in ice time with almost 27 minutes a game, said that the improved mark in the goals-against department has simply been a consequence of better execution.

We havent changed anything as far as Xs and Os are concerned. Were just doing a better job at it, Boyle said.

It starts with defense. Thats how you win hockey games and championships. Were tightening up there. Offensively its been kind of a struggle this year, but if we have to win games 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1a win is a win.

McLellan will likely look at Saturdays video as a tool. With the Western Conference standings as tight as they are, it's a reminder to his team how it needs to play defense for every game the rest of the season.

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At the same time, hes hoping the message will reach them without him underscoring the obvious.

Im hoping that I dont have to go in there any say that, yet thats our job as coaches," he said. "If they say to themselves, we can play like this and play against anybody and it allows us to win some games, that will be more powerful."

But ...

"They will be reminded and shown video-wise. Well continue to work on it.