Sharks Gameday: Live by the Special Teams, Die by the Special Teams


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7:30 PST
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14-14-3, 31 points 16-10-3, 35 points
12th in Western Conference
8th in Western Conference

Television
CSN-CA (HD)
Radio
98.5 KFOX, Sjsharks.com
Antagonists
Copper & Blue
mc79hockey


It's been a one strange season for San Jose Sharks. Up-and-down from the start.

At times the team looked like a contender, easily dominating all 60 minutes and on all four lines. Other times the team looked passive and easily pushed around. And then there were times when the team looked both ways in the same game.

On any given night, it's impossible to predict how Sharks would do, and there's been little consistency from night to night.

Take the last 20 games as a sample - 10 games before Thanksgiving - and 10 after.

During the first stretch, the Sharks won 7 out of 10, culminating with Niemi playing possibly his best game as a Shark when he helped his team defeat the Blackhawks. Power play was still working - it was 21% in those ten games. Penalty kill wasn't disastrous by today's Sharks standards - 80%. Sharks scored 31 goal and allowed just 21.

During the next stretch, the Sharks won just 3 out of 10. Power play was a hideous 6% - which would put them dead last by far overall in the league if this was a normal result. Penalty kill was just as depressing - only 65%. Today's worst team in the league has an average of 73% (that happens to be Toronto Maple Leafs right now, regaining that spot back from the Sharks). Sharks also scored six less goals in that stretch - 25 and allowed eight more - 29.

When viewed as a group, it is the special teams that are causing the Sharks the biggest headache. When Sharks can kill penalties and score power play goals, they can win games.

In the last 20 games, if Sharks killed 80% or more penalties, they are 5-4. If they did not, they are 5-6. If they can kill 100% of penalties, they are 6-2 in those games. During the same stretch, if Sharks scored a power play goal in a game, they won 5 out of 8. In games without power play goals, the Sharks won just 5 out of 12.

In the previous seasons since the lockout, with Sharks power play and penalty kill generally being top 10 in the league (except mediocre PK last season), it was 5-on-5 game that determined the fate the team that season. This year, the Sharks are so far no. 4 team in the league in 5-on-5 play, trailing only Boston (no shock), St. Louis (wait.. what?) and Detroit (duh..). It is 5-on-5 play that's keeping the Sharks from sinking to territories occupied by teams like the Islanders and the Ducks.

Todd McLellan and the Sharks can right the ship this season if they just normalize their special teams. If penalty kill can be 80% of better, the Sharks will win more games than they lose. If power play can score more often than twice in the last 30 tries, the Sharks will also win more often.

The good news is that there is no way any team in the NHL can maintain 6% power play percentage, or 65% penalty kill for an extended stretch of time. The PK unit consisting of Mr. Plank, Matthew Taylor, Ivano M, and Jon Allred with mymclife in goal will likely do better than that. Add idunno723 to the line to make it a PP unit (sorry man, but you can't kill penalties), and FTF line scores at least 10% of the time.

As things regress back to the mean for this year's Sharks team, their position in the standings will move more to where they belong - close to where Boston and Detroit is right now. What will it take to do it - a new scheme, new assistant coaches, or new players is another question. But it is the special teams that need to improve more than anything else.

PREDICTION: Sharks score twice on PP, and kill all penalties to beat the Oilers 3-0, with goals by Ivano M, Matthew Taylor and an empty netter from the goalie mymclife. Jamie McGinn writes the game recap for Fear the Fin.

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