Team defense, or the lack thereof, has been the theme of San Jose’s lethargic two-step through Dallas and St. Louis.
It was a promising-enough start, as San Jose was able to get into one of the strengths of their game, the cycle. Timo Meier (28) beat Alex Pietrangelo (27) along the boards to win the puck. Joe Pavelski (8) made a pretty between-the-legs backhand pass to a circling Joe Thornton (19). Thornton dropped it off to Brent Burns (88). So far, so good. But then...
Over the years, Burns has received a lot of criticism for his aggressiveness, some fair, some not. This was not a Burns gaffe. A daring Burns dangled his man (Vladimir Tarasenko, 91), creating a Sharks advantage — that’s what you’re paying Burns for, and you want the defenseman thinking offense at this point.
Instead, the resulting St. Louis 3-on-1 should be placed at the feet of the San Jose forwards. Despite their offensive function — even Thornton, far from the action, was pulling Jay Bouwmeester (4) away from Burns — one of the forwards should have thought about covering for Burns sooner.
Maybe Thornton needed to track back the second that Bouwmeester leaves him? Maybe Pavelski shouldn’t have bothered forechecking Ryan O’Reilly (90) in the corner after the failed Burns-Meier connection? Maybe Meier should’ve been quicker on the backcheck?
Somebody needed to step up; nobody did.
Well, someone did. Credit to Tim Heed (72), left on an island, for interrupting the 3-on-1. It was some welcome back — this was Heed’s first NHL shift since February 25th.
But Heed and the ensuing, frantic Sharks coverage were only able to accomplish so much, yielding a couple more quality chances before Thornton was able to push the puck out.
The Blues didn’t score on this shift, but they set the table for the rest of the game with this 40-plus second cycle; they were also able to change forwards in the midst of this cycle, not the first time they would apply that type of pressure in this tilt.
As for the Sharks, Burns and Erik Karlsson are their most impactful players. They also both happen to be ultra-aggressive offensive defensemen who need defensive support to flourish. It’s not to say that either are perfect: They could exercise more caution here and there. But the best version of San Jose should feature Burns or Karlsson attacking, a teammate covering.
Otherwise, the Sharks could opt just to trade chances back and forth with little support for Burns or Karlsson. They’ll score some, but in that case, they’ll need better goaltending and to win the scoring chance battle.
This may not be the wisest strategy for San Jose, judging by the differential in outnumbered attacks (at all situations) on this road trip:
(Outnumbered attacks as defined as the attacking team having numbers at zone entry.)