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Winning Play: Braun limits Gaudreau

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Dec 20, 2016; San Jose, CA, USA; Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau (13) shoots past San Jose Sharks defenseman Justin Braun (61) in the second period at SAP Center at San Jose. John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose Sharks, to a man, knew they needed to tighten up defensively after clocking an ugly -10 outnumbered attack differential on their recent road swing.

They responded with one of their more assertive defensive efforts of the season, stamping out the Calgary Flames 3-1 back home at SAP Center last night.

In particular, the reunited Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic stepped up. Hard-matched against Calgary’s top line — Vlasic-Braun played over 16 minutes at 5-on-5 against Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Elias Lindholm — they excelled, especially at limiting scoring chances.

Gaudreau VS Vlasic

Gaudreau VS 5v5 TOI CF CA SCF SCA HDCF HDCA
Gaudreau VS 5v5 TOI CF CA SCF SCA HDCF HDCA
Vlasic 16:33 15 15 4 8 2 4

(Corsi For: CF, Corsi Against: CA, Scoring Chances For: SCF, Scoring Chances Against: SCA, High-Danger Corsi For: HDCF, and High-Danger Corsi Against: HDCA. Stats courtesy Natural Stat Trick.)

”It was probably our best game as a pair since we’ve been back together,” said Braun. Long-time partners Vlasic and Braun have been paired since October 28 in Anaheim after starting the season apart.

Pete DeBoer liked what he saw. “Those guys were great. [Braun] is always the unsung one in that pair. But he’s as valuable as [Vlasic] is.”

How did they, and in particular, Braun (61), limit Gaudreau (13) and company?

Time after time, the small, slippery Gaudreau was forced to the outside by the 6-foot-2 Braun’s long stick and quick-enough feet.

”He’s a dynamic player,” noted Braun. “You just gotta stay up on him, stay tight to him.”

Braun has been dinged for his mobility, but he gets around reasonably well for his size. Lindholm (28) had beaten Vlasic to the outside, but Braun bailed his partner out. Vlasic responded in kind by rotating on Gaudreau.

Here, Braun’s gap control on Lindholm was terrific. The rule of thumb, in terms of gap between defender and attacker, is three stick lengths away at the far blueline, two stick lengths away at center ice, one stick length away at the blueline.

Braun blew those standards away on this play, as Lindholm never even reached the blueline.

Gaudreau wanted Monahan (23) with the pass, but again, Braun’s gap was tight. A couple trademarks of solid gap control are a long stick and the ability to match the attacker’s speed, which Braun showed off when he gapped up on Lindholm in the previous clip. Add defensive anticipation to Braun’s credit here — he knew what Gaudreau wanted to pull off.

Speaking of anticipation, at Saturday’s practice, Braun thought his fellow rearguards needed to improve in this defensive department, noting, “Looking around, not letting guys get behind us.”

Not only was Braun in front of Gaudreau, he jumped the Travis Hamonic (24) stretch pass, forcing yet another Flames turnover.

But alas, when you wage war with an offensive wizard like Gaudreau, you’re not always going to come out on top. This clip underscored the challenge that Braun and Vlasic faced.

A humble Braun offered, “A couple plays, I thought I was all over him, he’s still making passes through me.”

This hiccup withstanding, the Vlasic-Braun pairing rewarded DeBoer’s faith in them. It’s still early in the season and defensive pairings remain a work in progress, but if Vlasic-Braun can shut down top lines as they did on Sunday night, this could potentially free up offense-first blueliners Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson to do what they do best.