For one period, everything finally seemed right with the San Jose Sharks.
”This is one of the best periods I’ve seen this team play in a while,” exclaimed color commentator Jamie Baker, as the Sharks took a 1-0 lead after the first period.
It wasn’t just the lead — the opening frame in Dallas featured winning San Jose hockey all over the ice. Ultimately, the Sharks couldn’t keep it up, dropping a 3-2 decision to the Dallas Stars, but it was a first period that a flailing San Jose squad, mired in a 1-6-1 road slump, can look to for inspiration.
As usual, it started in the defensive zone:
While the Stars were able to forecheck successfully, forcing a Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) turnover (00:06), each Shark covered a man with purpose in this clip. Consequently, there was never a moment when Dallas had anything better than a perimeter shot. All this culminated in Tomas Hertl (48) helping his teammates outnumber the Stars along the wall (00:35) to get it out.
In between, San Jose rotated tightly down low. Joe Pavelski (8) took Radek Faksa (12), Vlasic chased Tyler Pitlick (18), while Justin Braun (61) filled in net front for Vlasic and engaged with Blake Comeau (15). When the Miro Heiskanen (4) point shot arrived, Pavelski had a crashing Faksa marked, while Braun had moved Comeau off to the side of the net.
Hertl was a constant defensive zone presence in the opening frame. Once again here, he helped his teammates outnumber the Stars down low:
Here's type of small play that shows #SJSharks have got it so far in 1st. Simek (51) goes back for the puck, Radulov (47) on top of him, good backhand pass to Burns (88). Benn (14) on top of Burns, good backhand pass to Hertl (48). Essential Hertl comes back to low to help out pic.twitter.com/QXAWW2lrNc— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) December 8, 2018
The Czech star also helped San Jose apply relentless pressure on Dallas through the neutral zone:
Hertl forechecked Mattias Janmark (13) behind the Dallas net, forcing Janmark to toss it to Pitlick. Logan Couture cut off Pitlick’s path, while Pavelski hung in the middle between Pitlick and Faksa.
Pavelski’s positioning encouraged a pass back to Janmark. The captain was also in a good place to attack Janmark from the front, while Hertl took the rear.
Janmark eluded Pavelski, but pressured so, delivered a pass behind Faksa. Brent Burns (88), as he so often does, took advantage of a 50-50 situation to step up, forcing Faksa into a backhand hope pass to Pitlick to gain entry; much maligned for his defensive play, Burns is underrated in his ability to make aggressive and accurate reads like this. Both Couture and Radim Simek (51) ensures that Pitlick had no chance at the puck.
At their best, this is the kind of 200-foot pressure that the Sharks can consistently apply.
Meanwhile, between a Evander Kane goal, a Timo Meier post and a wrongly disallowed Marcus Sorensen goal, San Jose flashed plenty of offense in the first period too. But it’s small play on the opening shift that showed they were on the ball.
Forward support for pinching defensemen, or the lack thereof, has been a constant sore spot during this up-and-down season. But when Erik Karlsson (65) pinched, look where Hertl went. Meanwhile, Karlsson won the puck back down to Pavelski.
Nothing materialized for the Sharks down low here, but this is the formula of success for them: Let the blueliners, especially Burns and Karlsson, be aggressive, cover their backs, use the forwards’ size and skill to cycle and wear down the opposition.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this caliber of play from San Jose, and it’s understandable if you had forgotten, but the Sharks can be a dominating hockey club. Their 13-5 shots edge after 20 was the product of terrific work in all three zones.
Pavelski struck a hopeful note, “Our game is still going a good direction. We didn’t have long stretches where we didn’t have our game [tonight].”