New year's resolution: Improved special teams

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New year's resolution: Improved special teams

SAN JOSE Its been a long four days since the Sharks last played a game, but its time that could benefit the team down the road.

After a day off immediately following Wednesdays 3-2 overtime home loss to the Canucks, San Jose held three extended yet spirited practices at Sharks Ice as they prepare for a stretch of 13 games in 22 days leading up to the NHL All-Star break. It begins on Monday against Vancouver (5:00 p.m., NBC Sports Network).

The break gave the Sharks a chance to work on their struggling special teams game, which simply put is going to have to improve if the club is going to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup in 2012. The Sharks are 28th in the league in penalty killing (75.2 percent), including the worst in the NHL at home (72.3 percent), and 15th in power play percentage (18.2 percent).

San Joses power play is just 5-for-49 in its last 15 games (10.2 percent).

Its not where we want it to be, said Michal Handzus, who sees time on both units. I think its lost us more than a couple games, for sure.

How do you remedy that?

Just constant work. I think were getting better at it and just working at it with the four days off, he said.

The penalty killing has been a constant Achilles heel for the club since it allowed three goals to Phoenix on opening night. After finishing 24th in the NHL last year, its led to speculation that the Sharks just dont have the personnel on the ice to get the job done.

Thats not something coach Todd McLellan can worry about, though. His challenge is to find a way to make improvements with the players he has, and its something he tried to do for at least a portion of each of the three days this weekend at the teams practice facility.

He was asked if there were any visual improvements from Friday to Sunday.

Small things that we tried to adjust or change a little bit evolve with each of the units. You can see them working on it and you can see them trying things, McLellan said. What you dont want them to do is get into a game like tomorrow and be thinking it all the time. You want them to play it naturally.

Its going to be fresh in everybodys mind, Patrick Marleau said. It should be a lot easier to go out there and execute it.

Thats the biggest challenge of all. Teams can only do so much in practice, and coaches can only ratchet the intensity level up so high, before the fear of hurting a teammate or your own self keeps each player from going full speed.

Every drill you do in practice you try to create game intensity. You do the best you can but you always get to about that 85 percent level, and its hard to push it past there, McLellan said.

Its not because dont want to do it, but you want to avoid injury. When you get on the power play drill youre not always shooting the puck like you would in a game, because of shot blocks and guys getting in the way. That affects things.

The red-hot Canucks are on the other end of the special teams spectrum. Vancouver continues to lead the NHL in power play at 24.2 percent and is seventh in penalty killing at 85.7 percent. The Sharks and Canucks were each 1-for-4 on the power play on Wednesday night.

That will be the big test. Vancouvers got very good special teams, so we know that we play against them that could very well be the difference, said McLellan.

Brent Burns working through offensive dry spell

Brent Burns working through offensive dry spell

DALLAS – Brent Burns hasn’t altered his routine, despite his name not showing up on the scoresheet for a little while.

“It’s not like I stopped eating the same meal or I’m not sleeping anymore,” Burns said on Thursday, after a rare Sharks road practice. “It’s the same. I do the same thing every game.”

What he hasn’t been doing every game, like he seemed to be for the first three-quarters of the season, is racking up points. The Norris Trophy frontrunner hasn’t potted a goal in his last 14 games, and is scoreless in his last seven. He still leads the Sharks with 70 points, and has four more points than Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson for the most among NHL defensemen, but there’s no denying he’s hit a cold streak. Previously, he hadn't gone more than three games without a point.

He’s not the only one, of course, as the Sharks have managed just four goals in their last four games, all regulation losses. But when a team is struggling to put the puck in the net, it’s often the top guys that have to lead the resurgence. And no one has been better or more important to the Sharks this season than the 32-year-old blueliner.

Could it be that as Burns goes, so do the Sharks? The team is 33-9-3 when Burns finds the scoresheet, and just 9-15-4 when he doesn't.

Coach Pete DeBoer doesn’t think so, though, pointing to the Sharks putting up plenty of offense at the start of Burns’ dry spell, including nine combined goals in wins over Dallas and Buffalo last week.

“I don’t think we only score when Brent Burns is on. I think we’re deeper than that. I think we’ve shown that,” DeBoer said. “He hasn’t scored in awhile, and up until a few games ago we were putting up some significant goals and numbers and offense. 

“I think even the nights he’s not scoring, we’ve generated lots of chances. Other than the St. Louis game (a 4-1 loss on March 16), the last three games we’ve lost, we’ve generated enough chances that on a lot of nights that’s three or four goals. But, that’s not just [on] Burnzie…It’s some other guys bearing down and sticking it in the net. It will come.”

Joe Thornton believes that the forwards can also do more to help Burns, who has become the team’s most valuable offensive weapon with his ability to get shots or passes through from a distance with velocity and precision like few players in the NHL can.

“He’s obviously a dominant player, and I think we just need to help him out,” Thornton said. “It shouldn’t always be on one guy, I think we’ve got to give him better opportunities to put him in better spots. It shouldn’t all lay on his shoulders. We’re not doing a good enough job to kind of work away from him, and getting him opportunities.”

Burns, of course, is a guy that wears his heart on his sleeve. During practice, his hooting and hollering can typically be heard echoing throughout the rink. Simply put, no one has more fun than this guy.

So, is the cold streak weighing on him? Maybe a little bit.

“I think it weighs on him, for sure,” DeBoer said. “We have good dialogue, there’s a lot of communication, especially with him and [assistant coach Bob Boughner]. And also, him and his teammates. The guys know how much responsibility he takes on himself – sometimes too much. Guys are good with that, they recognize that.”

Thornton said: “When you’re a d-man and you get so many goals and so many assists, you kind of expect it’s going to happen every night, but that’s just not the reality of it. He’s doing something that hardly [any] d-men do in the history of the game. … He’s capable of just getting out of that quick, and pouring it on like he has in the first 65 games of the year.”

For now, Burns is taking every new day and new game as it comes, and said: “It’s no different if you’ve won four in a row and you’ve got 10 points.”

And if he did have 10 points in his last four games?

“You want 12. If you’ve got zero, you want one. Then 12,” he said.

Notes: Injured Sharks Hansen, Karlsson return to practice

Notes: Injured Sharks Hansen, Karlsson return to practice

DALLAS – Injured Sharks forwards Jannik Hansen and Melker Karlsson both returned to the ice for Thursday’s practice in Dallas, in what Pete DeBoer called “a good first step” in their recoveries.

The coach left open the possibility that one or both could play against the Stars on Friday night, even though neither was skating on a set line for practice.

“We’ll have to wait and see how they feel [Friday] morning and what the recovery is,” DeBoer said. “I’m not prepared to say they’re in tomorrow, but it’s a good sign they’re on the ice and participated.”

Hansen has been out for the past two games since getting a stick in the head from defenseman Brandon Montour on Saturday against Anaheim. 

“Took a couple days [off] to make sure everything was aright,” Hansen said. “Getting better, back on the ice today.”

Officially, it’s an upper body injury. When pressed if it was a concussion issue, Hansen said: “I don’t know. It’s tough to say to begin with, but obviously you do all the precautionary things that [are] involved now.”

Although he has just one assist in his first six games with the Sharks, Hansen seemed to spark the Sharks’ top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, as the line generated one even strength goal in each of the first four games Hansen played.

Karlsson has missed the last six games with a lower body injury. He has 19 points (9g, 10a) in 60 games with a plus-nine rating.

* * *

The lines remained the same for Thursday’s practice. Patrick Marleau was with Thornton and Pavelski; Logan Couture centered Joel Ward and Mikkel Boedker; Tomas Hertl was between Joonas Donskoi and Marcus Sorensen, while the fourth line sweaters were worn by Chris Tierney, Micheal Haley, Timo Meier and Danny O’Regan.

San Jose stayed over in St. Paul on Tuesday night and flew to Dallas on Wednesday morning on their day off.

The Wild game, a 3-2 loss, was the Sharks’ fourth straight. They’ve generated just four goals over that span.

That game also capped off a stretch of seven games in 11 days for the Sharks, who now have just a two-point lead on Anaheim for first place in the Pacific Division – a lead that was nine points before the losing streak began.

Was the day off good?

“Yeah. We’ve been kind of struggling scoring goals, so just to kind of relax yesterday and then kind of get back and refocus today,” Thornton said. “But sometimes you just need a little time away from the rink. I think yesterday was needed.”

DeBoer said: “I think our group is pretty mature. I don’t think we’re overeating to the situation. No one’s happy we’ve lost a few, but we also know that we’ve done enough good things that we could have won two or three of those games. We’ve just got to stick with it, clean up a couple things, and score some goals.”

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Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic skated after missing Tuesday’s game with the flu. Tierney missed Monday’s game in Dallas, also due to illness.

Is that all gone now?

“Knock on wood. Nothing today. Hope so,” DeBoer said.