Defense at heart of Sharks' problems

Defense at heart of Sharks' problems
February 28, 2012, 3:49 pm
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Its pretty simple sometimes, this game of hockey.

The Sharks are losing games at an alarming pace for a number of reasons, but what it boils down to is quite elementary the team simply cant keep the puck out of its own net.

On its just-completed road trip, in which the Sharks stumbled and bumbled their way to just two wins in nine games (2-6-1) and lost to some downright lousy teams in the process, the club surrendered 35 goals. That averages out to 3.89 per game. To put that number in perspective, the Sharks allowed just 27 goals in 13 games during a 10-1-2 stretch from mid-December to mid-January, or 2.08 per game.

Five-on-five play, which had been so strong all year, also took a step backwards. The Sharks were outscored 30-18 at even strength over the nine games.

Defensively we had a horrible trip, so thats where it starts, Dan Boyle said.

Ive said this all along, if were going to give up four and five a night and think were winning, were dreaming, Todd McLellan said after the 6-2 loss in Nashville on Saturday. We have to keep pounding and pounding and pounding that into their heads until they absolutely believe it.

Complicating matters has been the subpar play of starter Antti Niemi. It certainly hasnt been all Niemis fault, as hes faced a multitude of odd-man rushes and prime scoring chances, but he hasnt made the big stop, either.

RELATED: Antti Niemi game logs

On the road trip, Niemis numbers were horrible. He was 1-3-1 with a 3.94 goals-against average and .859 save percentage, and was pulled twice in the first period.

Since a win on Jan. 15 at Chicago, Niemi is 5-8-1 with a 3.10 GAA and .893 save percentage, and there was even a reported rumor from TSN that the Sharks offered him up to Philadelphia as part of a potential trade for winger James van Riemsdyk before Mondays deadline came and went.

Niemis confidence is shaken, too, as he basically admitted after Saturdays game when he allowed a pair of goals on odd-man rushes on the first two shots of the game to the Predators. After a stoppable one-timer by Kevin Klein got by him later in the first, Niemi was replaced by Thomas Greiss for the second time in three games.

After giving up two goals early, its not the easiest to continue, Niemi said after that game, adding that he felt good at the morning skate and in warm-ups.

There have been calls for Greiss to get more starts moving forward, and it will be interesting to see who mans the crease against Philadelphia on Tuesday. Greiss allowed four goals to the Wild on Sunday, but three came on a deflection in which he had no chance.

RELATED: Thomas Greiss game logs

That would certainly be a statement by the coaching staff, and could fuel a goalie controversy at a crucial time of the year.

Regardless of who it is, though, the Sharks know they have to button up their defensive game if the fading club is even going to make it into the postseason. Complicating matters is the fact that the Sharks have 17 games in the month of March, including another weeklong road trip, leaving little time for practice.

Assistant coach Matt Shaw, who spoke to the media on Sunday after McLellan was unavailable, explained.

We dont have any time to go back and think were going to get some good days of practice. Its just not in the cards, said Shaw. Its going to be a mental strength issue. Were going to become a little bit resolved and determined to right the way the road trip went. We fully expect everybody to do that.

The coaching staff, the players, everybodys involved in that process. We expect that to happen.

It has to. Quickly.