Sharks more confident than this time last season

Kurz: Sharks have benefit of balanced attack

Sharks more confident than this time last season
April 29, 2013, 7:15 pm
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I think confidence starts there and flows through the team, and he’s done a tremendous job.
—Todd McLellan on Antti Niemi

SAN JOSE – Drawing the Blues in the first round last season was a bad matchup for the San Jose Sharks, who lost all four games of the season series. But, the subsequent and submissive five-game defeat in the first round to St. Louis went much, much deeper than that.

Offseason additions didn’t work out as planned, leading to an inconsistent 2011-12 regular season. Trade deadline moves did not have the desired result. The goaltending was inconsistent, and the penalty kill was atrocious.

The Sharks might not get out of the first round in 2013, either, drawing a Canucks team that is playing well and getting healthier. But, there is an entirely different feeling surrounding San Jose in the days leading up to this year’s playoff opener when compared with last April.

[RELATED: Canucks already adjusting to Sharks' offensive attack]

“100 percent,” TJ Galiardi said. “Confidence is one big thing. I don’t think we felt great going into the playoffs. No one admitted it last year, but we didn’t really feel great going into it. This year we’re so balanced up front, that any one of our lines can hurt other teams. It’s going to be hard for other teams to try and figure out how to match up against us. We feel way better about it this year than last year.”

Todd McLellan said: “We’re playing a bit of a different game then we did back then, a game that’s more suited for the type of lineup that we have. The confidence level, I think, is better than it was last year at this time.”

On paper, the biggest difference is the aforementioned penalty-killing unit, which finished sixth in the league at 85.0 percent. In 2011-12, it was 29th at just 76.9 percent.

General manager Doug Wilson mentioned the need to fix that part of the Sharks’ game shortly after the season ended, and assistant coaches Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson were brought in to assist McLellan. Consider it a success.

Having a better penalty kill may have helped the Sharks’ in their aggressiveness, too, as taking a penalty isn’t as much of a risk this season. Still, there’s more to it than that, according to the coach.

“I don’t know if it’s been more aggressive or not. We’re a different group and play a little bit of a different game,” McLellan said. “I think we’re a little bit quicker than we were in the past. Sometimes that allows you to be more aggressive and hunt down pucks, as well. I’m sure the penalty kill has been a bit of a factor, but I wouldn’t pinpoint it purely on that.”

A Vezina-type season from the goaltender has helped, too, as Antti Niemi should be a finalist for the league’s top goaltender award after his stellar campaign.

“I think confidence starts there and flows through the team, and he’s done a tremendous job,” McLellan said.

Unlike last season's moves at the trade deadline, the Sharks jettisoned some of their slower and more ineffective players in Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus and Ryane Clowe, while adding the tenacious Raffi Torres, who’s found chemistry on the third line with Joe Pavelski. Torres has six points (2g, 4a) in 11 games with the Sharks.

“I think we’ve got more of an identity now, I really do,” Tommy Wingels said. “I think in the past 15-20 games we’ve found what made us successful and gives us success on the ice, and that’s playing a north-south game.

“At times you can make pretty plays, but at other times you’ve just got to advance the puck. With teams swarming and constantly hounding the puck, you’ve got to move forward. That’s something we’ve got to continue to do.”

Vancouver closed out the season a 13-6-1 record in its last 20 games, including two losses in the last two games that were essentially meaningless as they had clinched the Northwest Division by then. The Sharks are 12-5-1 in their last 18, and look nothing like the team that plodded its way through February through mid-March.

It should make for some great hockey, unlike last year's first round when the Sharks lost four straight after winning the opener in overtime.

McLellan said: “We’ve been playing a better game for a longer period now, and we’ve had more unity with our team as far as lines and pairings go down the stretch than we did last year.”

* * *

Canucks goalie Cory Schneider skated for a full practice on Monday in Vancouver, making it all the more likely that he’ll get the call in Game 1 after not dressing for the final two games of the season with an undisclosed injury.

(For a good look at the circus surrounding whether or not it will be Schneider or Roberto Luongo, check out this piece in the Vancouver Province).

On Monday, McLellan gave the predictable response that the Sharks don’t care which goaltender leads his team onto the ice on Wednesday, referencing Luongo’s lengthy resume.

“Their goaltending, whatever they do with it, they’re not turning to a rookie,” McLellan said. “They’ve got a guy in there that’s won an Olympic gold medal, and has taken them to Game 7 of in the Stanley Cup finals. He’s very capable of playing, and I’m sure he wants to play.”