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A healthier Erik Karlsson and the drop pass

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San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) chases after the puck against the Vegas Golden Knights during the second period in game seven of the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center at San Jose. Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Since their four-goal explosion in Game 7 against the Golden Knights, the San Jose Sharks’ power play has come up a little dry, scoring just once on 10 attempts against the Colorado Avalanche.

However, there are signs that the Sharks are emerging from this slump.

“I don’t think we’ve been very good in this series,” Logan Couture acknowledged of San Jose’s power play. “We haven’t entered cleanly. I thought we did a decent job of that [in Game 3].”

Kevin Labanc agreed: “Games 1 and 2, [entries] were pretty bad. We didn’t break into the zone with speed. It was easy for them to check us, get the puck out.”

Better power play zone entries in Game 3 dovetailed with Erik Karlsson’s clearly-improving skating and the re-introduction of the drop pass on Karlsson-led entries.

This is an example of a Karlsson-led drop pass entry, from December — I wrote extensively about Karlsson’s prowess gaining the zone on the power play then:

In the Sharks’ last five contests before Game 3, there was just one Karlsson-led drop pass entry at 5-on-4. Compare this to 19 Karlsson-led five-man “swings” — which look like this:

In Game 3, Karlsson attempted four drop pass entries. Even including Brent Burns-led entries, San Jose tried zero five-man “swing” entries. Here’s a Karlsson-led drop pass from Game 3:

Tomas Hertl (48) is a beneficiary of this drop pass; he’s also the team’s main option to receive it: “We just have to come with more speed. We changed it up. They have a similar penalty kill with ours.

“Last game, I carried the puck more. On the power play, I think we did a pretty good job with entries.”

The reasons for the Sharks and Karlsson’s re-embrace of the power play drop pass might be two-fold.

The first reason is obvious: The Avalanche kill penalties differently than the Golden Knights.

The Colorado penalty kill employs a relatively passive 1-3 in the neutral zone, similar to what San Jose runs. Meanwhile, Vegas applies more pressure up ice.

The second reason is my theory: The re-introduction of the Karlsson-led drop pass is a vote of confidence for Karlsson’s skating.

Because the five-man swing involves five skaters moving in unison, this takes pressure off Karlsson, the central puck carrier. There are too many passing options for the penalty kill to concentrate on a hampered Karlsson.

The drop pass entry, however, features Karlsson going 1-on-1 against the first forechecker. There’s no hiding a hampered skater there. But perhaps Karlsson doesn’t need to be hidden anymore?

This is from Game 2: Karlsson seized on the fact that the Avs’ F1 (Matt Nieto, 83) hasn’t locked down the middle of the ice. Nieto might have been expecting the Sharks to go into the five-man “swing”, but it appears, with Timo Meier (28) and Tomas Hertl (48) breaking behind Karlsson, that the power play was in a drop pass formation. Regardless, Nieto gets caught with his hockey pants down.

Admittedly, the connection between Karlsson’s health and the drop pass is conjecture on my part. A former head coach agreed that my theory was sound, insofar as the five-man “swing” does “protect” Karlsson more. However, he emphasized, “Either way, he has to skate. It’s more what they think will work versus another team.”

We’ll see if this all translates into power play goals for San Jose tonight.

P-P-Changes

Meanwhile, other changes were afoot for the Sharks’ power play this morning.

Gustav Nyquist was promoted to the top unit, while Timo Meier slid down to the second group. Also, Marc-Edouard Vlasic joined the second unit in place of Marcus Sorensen. San Jose looks like they’ll be running these units tonight; remember that Burns and Karlsson are interchangeable:

  • Power Play 1: Burns (point)—Couture (left wall)—Labanc (right wall)—Nyquist (high slot)—Hertl (net front)
  • Power Play 2: Vlasic (point)—Thornton (left wall)—Karlsson (right wall)—Kane (high slot)—Meier (net front)

They were practicing with Vlasic at the point and Karlsson on the wall, but they’ve often used Vlasic along the wall this season.

Meanwhile, for Evander Kane, it’s another spin at the high slot, his customary position on the power play this year. He had been manning net front recently. Interestingly, he might be the only San Jose forward who has been assigned to three of the four power play positions this year.

He broke down the differing duties for each position concisely this morning:

Besides clean zone entries with speed, the Sharks are looking for more dangerous in-zone work on the man advantage.

“We haven’t had enough looks at their net, second chances,” Couture noted. “We seem to shoot it and they clear it, too much one and done.”

Kane added, “We’re getting some looks. We’re forcing a little too much, in terms of seam passes. They’re doing a good job of eating up the middle of the ice, keeping us to the outside. We have to find a way to penetrate their PK better.”