Sharks-Senators: What to watch for


Sharks-Senators: What to watch for

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SAN JOSE Since the calendar turned to 2012, the Sharks and Ottawa Senators have been among the two hottest teams in hockey. In fact, both are 7-1-1 since the New Year began.

The Sharks were expected to be in prime playoff position, as they continue to lead the Pacific Division, but the Senators? Not so much. Ottawa finished in 13th place last season, just two points out of dead last in the Eastern Conference. Now, they find themselves in fifth place in the conference, and are surging with a 9-1-1 mark in their last 11 overall.

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Theyre arguably the biggest surprise. Especially in the east, for sure, Dan Boyle said. They went from being one of the worst teams to one of the best right now. Theyre coming in hot, and we expect a pretty fast-paced game.

Theyre all the way up to the fifth spot in the east, so theyve been playing well. Its going to be a good test for us, Joe Thornton said.

The Senators play a fairly wide-open style. They are seventh in the league with an even 3.0 goals-per game, led by Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek and defenseman Erik Karlsson, but allow 3.08 per-game, 27th in the NHL.

Familiar coaches: Sharks head coach Todd McLellan and Sens bench boss Paul MacLean spent three seasons together as assistants in the Detroit Red Wings organization from 2005-06 through 2007-08. McLellan left to coach the Sharks, while MacLean took over the Senators this summer after three more seasons with the Red Wings.

Hes done such a good job in instilling a system and getting the players to believe in it, McLellan said of MacLeans Senators. I think when you watch the pre-scout its pretty evident. Obviously, spending time with him and Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, I have a good idea of how they want to play, and you can see it. I think thats a sign of a coach doing a tremendous job.

Both coaches see similarities not just between the Sharks and Senators, but the Red Wings, too.

It looks like theyre having fun playing the game. It looks like they have in identity, McLellan said. They are a very dynamic offensive team when they are on the entries. Their defense it up on the rush. Very much like a Red Wing team.

There are similarities between all three teams, Id say, but each person also brings their own little tweak or own thing that they might think is a little bit more important, MacLean said.

Top lines: Injuries to Ryane Clowe and Marty Havlat leave the Sharks down two of their top six forwards, and based upon his game on Tuesday night against Calgary and rushes in practice on Wednesday, Tommy Wingels will remain on the teams top line with Thornton and Joe Pavelski.

Hes a pretty calm guy in general, and it didnt really phase him, Thornton said of the rookie Wingels being on his line. Hopefully we get some chemistry, and get er going.

That leaves a second line of Logan Couture-Patrick Marleau-Benn Ferriero; a third line of Michal Handzus-Jamie McGinn-Torrey Mitchell; and a likely fourth line of Andrew Murray-Brad Winchester and Andrew Desjardins, who is returning from a two game absence due to a head injury.

Rare meeting: This is the one and only time the Sharks and Senators will see each other this season. The previous time they played, over a year ago on Dec. 10, 2010, was a memorable one, though.

Couture scored twice for the first two-goal game of his career; Antti Niemi recorded his first shutout with the Sharks; and Justin Braun tallied his first career NHL goal in a 4-0 San Jose win at Ottawa.

This is Ottawas first visit to HP Pavilion since Dec. 1, 2009.
Niemi vs. Anderson: Niemi will get the call in net for the Sharks, facing Ottawas Craig Anderson.

In his last 26 starts, Niemi 16-6-4 with a 2.04 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. Last years shutout was the only time hes faced Ottawa in his career.

Anderson has not fared well against San Jose. In eight career games, hes 2-6-0 with a 3.42 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.

Anderson will be making his sixth straight start, and has not allowed more than two goals and has a .960 save percentage over that span, though.

Odds and ends: Ottawa allows the second-most shots per game in the league, at 32.1. The Sharks lead the NHL in that category with 34.6. The Senators have 67 third period goals most in the NHL. Ottawa is third in the league with 14.5 penalty minutes per game. Erik Karlsson leads all NHL defensemen with 44 points, 10 more than Brian Campbell. Jason Spezza leads Ottawa with 48 points (20g ,28a). San Jose is 5-1-1 against Canadian teams this season. The Sharks have won their last five meetings overall with the Sens.

Burns getting his points, but other Sharks d-men are not

Burns getting his points, but other Sharks d-men are not

SAN JOSE – Brent Burns has resumed his place among the NHL’s highest scoring defensemen. His nine points (3g, 6a) puts him first among all blueliners, and ties him for second overall in the league scoring race with six others.

For the rest of the Sharks’ defense corps, though, the points haven’t been there just yet. Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s overtime score on Tuesday was the first goal by a Sharks defenseman that employs the use of a razor on a regular basis, while he and the four others on the back end have combined for just three assists in seven games.

While that lack of production is reflected in the team’s goals-per game average – 2.26, 26th in the NHL – coach Pete DeBoer isn’t all that concerned. He attributes it more to being unlucky than anything else.

“We’ve put a lot of pressure on the other team five-on-five. The puck has bounced, or we just haven’t finished,” DeBoer said. “We’re getting some chances. Most nights we’re out-chancing the other team, and usually that’s a formula for success for us.”

The Sharks have been a strong team in terms of possession, as the coach indicated. They are averaging 32.4 shots per game, fourth in the NHL, and are second in the NHL in shot attempt percentage in close games (56.3 percent).

Still, they could have more. Vlasic, Justin Braun, David Schlemko, Paul Martin and Brenden Dillon have a combined 51 shots on goal, but they’ve also had 48 attempts that have been blocked. In fact, Braun and Martin both have had more attempts blocked than have that made it through to the goalie.

“Five-on-five we haven’t really been getting the tips or the dirty goals around the net that come off shots, but that starts with us getting it through,” said Braun, who has seven shots, but 12 that have been blocked. “The more shots we can get towards the net the better chance we’ll have for the forwards to bang some home, and go from there.”

David Schlemko is also scoreless through seven games, but he managed six shots against the Ducks on Tuesday and has 17 for the year (with 13 blocked). Other than Burns, he’s been the Sharks’ most effective defenseman at getting the puck through.

Brenden Dillon (nine shots, eight blocked) and Paul Martin (five shots, 10 blocked) have one assist each.

Martin indicated that it gets harder and harder every year to get shots through, as more teams commit to getting in lanes. The Sharks also make it a point to put the puck on Burns’ stick as much as they can, considering how much of a weapon he is. Both are factors in those low point totals.

“A lot of times we key on making sure that [Burns] gets the puck. But teams do a better job each year at getting in lanes and blocking shots and fronting pucks and packing it in [around the net],” Martin said. “It’s harder to get pucks through to the net than it used to be.”

The primary role of the defense, of course, is to defend. Except for some notable lapses against the Rangers and Red Wings, the Sharks have been doing that fairly well, holding the opposition to just 24.9 shots per game, second in the NHL.

As long as they keep that up, and Burns continues to produce, the Sharks will be in a good position to win on a nightly basis.

“We’re defending well,” DeBoer said. “That’s our team defense, and that starts with us controlling the play, playing in the other team’s end [and] putting pressure on the other team. I think that’s something that we’ve prided ourselves on all the way back to the beginning of last year.”

Rewind: Vlasic the unlikely hero in Sharks OT win

Rewind: Vlasic the unlikely hero in Sharks OT win

SAN JOSE – Prior to the season’s start, Marc-Edouard Vlasic mentioned that the Sharks’ blue line group might not get the league-wide respect it deserves due to it only having “one offensive defenseman.” He was, of course, referring to Brent Burns.

Through the first six games, that was the truth. Burns entered Tuesday night’s action with nine points, tied for the league lead in scoring, while the other five Sharks defenseman had just three assists – combined.

For at least one night, though, it wasn’t Burns who was the offensive hero. That honor went to Vlasic, who seized a loose puck in the neutral zone in overtime against Anaheim, raced ahead towards goalie John Gibson on a partial breakaway, and finished off a beautiful goal in giving the Sharks a much-deserved 2-1 win at SAP Center.

“Put my head down, breakaway, cut across and I was able to put it in,” said Vlasic, who had the presence of mind to use his skate to keep a backchecking Corey Perry from knocking the puck away. 

Pete DeBoer said: "He's got some speed when he wants to use it, and he's a big game player. That's what he does. Those guys find another level at key times, and he's one of those guys.”

The goal served as poetic justice in that the Sharks were the much better team throughout three periods. San Jose held a 35-20 advantage on the shot clock but only managed one goal, a power play marker by Joe Pavelski in the first period. Chris Wagner answered that late in the second period, despite San Jose registering 15 of the 20 shots in the middle frame.

DeBoer rearranged all four of his forward lines after the Sharks were shut out in Detroit on Saturday, and the Sharks looked much more dangerous despite just the single lonely marker before overtime.

“There’s a lot of good little things that we did well,” Pavelski said. “We were on the attack, felt like we were on the inside. We just weren’t cashing in or getting that bounce.”

Logan Couture said: “We created some chances. We could have had a couple. Each line played pretty well.”

DeBoer, too, liked what he saw from his new combos.

“If we keep playing like that, it's going to come,” he said. “But, it was a nice response game after the Detroit game.”

Perhaps the most consistent part of the Sharks’ game through seven games has been their penalty kill. San Jose fought off all three Ducks advantages, including a brief five-on-three in the first period shortly after Pavelski had opened the scoring.

Micheal Haley took exception to a high hit by Clayton Stoner on Patrick Marleau, and dropped the gloves with the Anaheim defenseman. He was issued an instigation minor to go along with a fighting major and 10-minute misconduct, and one minute and 24 seconds later, Tomas Hertl was busted for a faceoff violation.

Couture, Burns and Paul Martin worked to nullify the two-man advantage, and the Sharks proceeded to kill the remaining time on the Hertl penalty, too.

“It was an important time of the game with a one-goal lead,” said Martin Jones, who made seven saves on the PK and 19 total.

Penalties like Haley’s, where he was sticking up for a teammate, are also easier to get up for according to the goalie.

“I don't think he was expecting to get an instigator call on that one, but yeah, we'll kill that off, for sure,” Jones said. “Hales is a good team guy to go out and do stuff like that."

San Jose is 18-for-22 on the penalty kill overall, including a third period kill of a Joe Thornton holding-the-stick minor at 4:09.

“We’ve allowed [four] goals against, but they were unfortunate bounces or really nice shots from them that we could do nothing about,” Vlasic said. “Penalty kill has been good. Guys have been bearing down, blocking shots when we need to.”

The Sharks will remain at home where they will host the rebuilding Blue Jackets on Thursday and Predators on Saturday. After an odd training camp with many players missing and a tough five-games-in-eight-days road trip after the home opener, they’ll get a chance now to enjoy a much more normal day-to-day routine, with practice.

Tuesday’s win could serve as a solid foundation on which to build.

“That was definitely one of our better games this year,” Couture said. “It was good from basically start to finish.”

Especially the finish.