Sharks dealing with stress of playoff race

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Sharks dealing with stress of playoff race

SAN JOSE The Sharks werent supposed to be in this position in the last week of March.

The fans know it. The players do, too. And so, of course, does head coach Todd McLellan, whose club is still in 10th place in the Western Conference with just eight games left to play.

Following two disappointing losses to Anaheim and Los Angeles to start the week, the coach sensed that the pressure of the playoff race might be weighing the team down. So, he had a clear message before the 2-1 win over the Bruins on Thursday.

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When youre in these situations and there is stress put on you, your body reacts in one of two ways. It shuts itself down and it hinders any type of elite performance, you feel sluggish, tired, your mind doesnt react the way it needs to react. Or, you accept the challenge and realize youre one piece of a big puzzle and you do your thing. Thats basically what I told the players before the game.

Well get it done with you, not because of you. That was it. I think the guys took a deep breath, and then they went and played. Thats all we can do. If we carry around all this baggage, its going to hinder our ability to play free and to perform.

According to Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Sharks took the message to heart and it showed.

Ive never seen our team skate that much lately. The forwards were coming back, D were skating. Its the same thing, youve just got to play the game, play for fun and play free, he said.

Guys are here because they love to play hockey. Everybody is good at it, and yesterday we played free. We played hockey, we skated, and we did the things we can do. Guys made plays, nobody had tight sticks, nobody made bad plays. Thats what we were talking about. We have to play that way from now on.

The result was one of the more complete games in recent weeks, and the club resembled the version it iced in wins against Nashville and Detroit last week much more than the two ugly losses to the Ducks and Kings on Monday and Tuesday, when the team was seemingly starting to collapse under pressure.

You cant play cautious, especially this time of year, Dominic Moore said. Cautious is a recipe for playing on your heels. We need to just continue to play free, and with energy.

The challenge now is repeating it from here on out, as the games are only going to get more and more important. It begins on Saturday against the Coyotes, a club that is two points ahead of San Jose in seventh place in the West, and Colorado, which is ahead of the Sharks by one point, in eighth place.

Unlike the Sharks, the Coyotes and Avalanche werent among the organizations that many hockey pundits had as a Cup contender in their preseason prognostications. Consequently, the pressure of the playoff race is likely less of a burden on their shoulder pads when compared with the Sharks.

But the Sharks cant look at it that way.

Were looked at as the disappointing team because were in the battle, McLellan said. There are other teams that are very, very excited about being in this battle because of where they maybe should have been. The demeanor around those types of teams is different than the demeanor around ours, and we have to address the mental aspect of it, too.

We have to accept where we are right now. Thats where we are. Would we like to change it? Yes, but this is where we are, so now accept the challenge. We have to be excited about the opportunity to get there, too.

Joe Pavelski, who has a career-high 27 goals, hopes the team has turned a corner with the effort against the defending champs.

I hope so, as long as we keep moving forward with it. Every team is winning right now, Pavelski said. We have some big head-to-head matchups, and its not going to get any easier from here on out.

Moore said: Weve all played the game for a long time, and we just needed to tap into that energy.

Top pick Meier 'real close' to making Sharks debut

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USATSI

Top pick Meier 'real close' to making Sharks debut

SAN JOSE – Struggling to score goals lately with two or fewer in eight of their last 11 games, the Sharks may soon turn to their biggest prospect to try and give the offense a boost.

Timo Meier, the ninth overall pick from the 2015 draft, is tearing up the American Hockey League lately with the Barracuda. He scored four goals (and registered 15 shots) in two games in San Antonio over the weekend, has eight points (5g, 3a) in his last four games, and leads the Barracuda with eight goals.

On Thursday, Pete DeBoer was asked what he’s heard about Meier lately and how close he may be.

“Good things, and real close,” DeBoer said. “I think he would have been even a consideration [Wednesday], but he came down I think with the flu. 

“You feel for him because we’re looking to bring some guys in, and he obviously had a great weekend. He’s one of quite a few guys down there that we feel real comfortable can come in here and are going to help us before the year ends, for sure.”

It’s the second time an illness has affected Meier’s status, as he came down with mononucleosis early in training camp and missed a month of action. He did, however, return to Barracuda practice this week.

One month ago, Barracuda coach Roy Sommer told CSN that Meier had to make some adjustments coming out of juniors. 

“He’s just has to simplify his game,” Sommer said on Nov. 9. “I think he’s just trying to do too much. He’s got to be north-south, and [forget] this circling and trying to put pucks through people. … It’s not going to work.”

Apparently, Meier has figured it out. On Tuesday, Sommer told The Gackle Report: “He’s getting better every game. At the start, I was going, oh man, he’s all over the map, circling and not using his teammates. But shoot, now he just keeps producing.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time with him on video and he picks stuff up.”

The 2015 draft has already produced several players that are regular contributors for their respective clubs, led by Connor McDavid (Edmonton), Jack Eichel (Buffalo), Mitch Marner (Toronto) and Zach Werenski (Columbus). 

Meier is the only player among the top 11 picks that year that has yet to play an NHL game, while 17 of 30 of the players overall chosen in the first round have played at least one NHL game.

Sharks still struggling to get consistent offense

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USATSI

Sharks still struggling to get consistent offense

SAN JOSE – There are games where the Sharks’ lack of offensive firepower isn’t an issue. Recent 2-1 wins over two of the best teams in the league, Chicago and Montreal, were impressive in that San Jose kept a pair of the league’s better offenses from getting more than a single score.

In other instances, though, that necessary goal from the team’s depth just hasn’t come. Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to Ottawa was one example. The Sharks got goals from Logan Couture and Brent Burns – no surprise there – while Joe Pavelski was all around the net, generating more scoring chances than any single player on the ice.

Again, though, the depth forwards and defensemen other than Burns never found the scoresheet. 

And it’s becoming a real issue.

In fact, in the Sharks’ last 11 games in which they’ve gotten 25 goals total, 60 percent of them have come from just those three aforementioned players – Couture (7g), Burns (5g) and Pavelski (3g).

Also over that span, in which San Jose has gone 6-4-1, they’ve gotten no goals from Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi, Mikkel Boedker, Micheal Haley or Melker Karlsson; one goal apiece from Joel Ward and Tommy Wingels; and just one goal by a defenseman other than Burns (Dylan DeMelo). Of the 12 forwards that dressed against the Senators, eight of them had two or fewer goals.

The Sharks sit at 23rd in the NHL at 2.38 goals-per game. Sure, it’s just fine winning games by 2-1 final scores. But at some point, other guys are going to have to start putting the puck in the net if this team is truly going to contend for the Stanley Cup.

Couture – who himself got off to a slow start offensively – believes it’s going to come soon.

“Everyone wants to score,” Couture said after the Senators game. “It’s not about trying, it’s just the way that things are going right now. Pucks just aren’t going in for some guys, and, hey, I went through the same thing for awhile there where I wasn’t finding the back of the net. 

“That’s the way that goal-scoring works in the NHL, is you go through streaks where you’re hot and when you’re cold. Some guys are going to get hot soon. It’s going to happen.”

For his part, coach Pete DeBoer also believes the offense will pick up shortly. In the Senators game, the coaching staff internally tracked the scoring chances as 22 for the Sharks and just eight for Ottawa.

When that happens, “you should win, and you should score more than two goals,” DeBoer said.

Without getting into specifics, DeBoer pointed to the “analytics of where we are in the league” as a reason not to panic. Perhaps he’s aware that the Sharks are sixth in the league in shot-attempt percentage (52.25), and first in the NHL in shot-attempt percentage in close games (55.67).

Still, those numbers don’t mean anything when the puck isn’t going in. So what’s missing?

“I just think finish. I think we’re doing a lot of things right,” DeBoer said.

“Obviously I’d love to see us score some more goals five-on-five, but we’re getting some chances,” Ward said. “I would think if we weren’t or if we were getting shelled then it would definitely be something to be concerned about. … We’ve had some good looks and some really quality chances. Things just haven’t fallen in five-on-five, but I think that will come around.”