Sharks kick off imposing three game stretch with a big game against the Blackhawks



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The San Jose Sharks kick off a huge three game stretch tonight against the Blackhawks before facing the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday and the Los Angeles Kings on Monday. For a team that has had so much success as of late, winning three in a row and posting a 11-2-1 record since October 20th, this upcoming lineup of games should prove to be a rather poignant example of what this Sharks team is capable of.

I guess you could call it a litmus test, but something tells me we should save that term for Monday when San Jose takes on RudyKelly's Los Angeles Kings.

After huffing and puffing their way through the 2010-2011 season, this year the Chicago Blackhawks have shown the NHL just what kind of team they were built to be-- a dangerous squad with an elite top-six and a strong defensive core that can tangle with the best on a nightly basis.

The only outstanding issue with the Hawks has been their goaltending, as Cory Crawford has struggled thus far following a successful campaign last season. Crawford's true talent level is likely well above the .901 SV% he has posted this season, but his struggles have shown up in the Hawks goals against numbers. Despite being the 11th best team in the NHL at shot prevention, Chicago sits 23rd in the League with 3.10 goals against per game. By and large their offense has managed to bail them out, posting 3.29 goals per game, but Crawford's play has caused some hot air to begin to blow in the Windy City.

If his season last year is any indication however, he will be fine. And it's at that point the Hawks will truly begin to shine and prove that last season's 8th place finish was nothing but an aberration for a young and supremely talented team.

On the Sharks side of the docket, it's hard to find too many faults with the way the team has been playing as of late. The bottom forward lines have begun to add some scoring depth after struggling through the early portion of the year, coupling that with their already successful physical game on the forecheck. The top six has remained excellent, with Patrick Marleau going Takeru Kobayashi all over one of his standard all-you-can eat scoring binges, and the Sharks blueline unit has continued to receive standout play from their top four.

The only outstanding criticisms one can justifiably level are thus: the bottom defensive pairing going through some fairly noticeable pains outside of Justin Braun, and the Sharks penalty kill which, as of this posting, continues to sit and stew at the 28th spot in the League.

But even that has shown signs of improvement.

As FTF reader Noctro has pointed out in the comment section, the Sharks have switched to a 1-3 alignment on the penalty kill when teams are entering the zone. This switch has provided some tangible results for the club as of late-- San Jose is 10 for 12 shorthanded in their last five games, with the lone blemishes on that record coming against the Detroit Red Wings on November 17th.

Avoiding the parade to the penalty box has been instrumental in that success of course-- taking a mere 12 penalties over the course of 5 games is bound to help ease the burden on the PK. Much credit has to be given to the Sharks for the implementation of the 1-3 as well however, as it has made opposing teams' ability to enter the zone much more difficult than it was earlier in the season.

The basic premise of the Sharks "new-look" PK is this-- San Jose stacks three bodies (one forward, two defenseman) at the blueline while a lone forward (usually the centerman, but it has varied) pressures the puck as it comes up the ice. That forward attempts to drive the puck carrier to one side or another, taking away the middle zone entry. Fairly basic stuff for any defensive alignment of course, as you always want to drive players to the outside and use the boards to your advantage, but it's something the Sharks have amplified as of late.

When this forward is pressuring the puck carrier to either the left or right side, the three players on the blueline will begin to collapse towards that side in order to force a dump-in. If the puck-pressuring forward is doing his job, he's slowing up the attack into the zone and making it harder for the opposing team to get to any puck that is dumped in. This is key, because with three players back the Sharks are able to collapse around the puck and quickly outnumber the opposing player that is trying to dig it out.

The guiding principle of this unit is pressure-- the Sharks have always been a fairly good team at pressuring the puck shorthanded, and this "look" is no exception. They're like dogs on raw meat right now, and that's a good thing. San Jose is big and strong, which means they're able to outbattle opposing players for pucks and utilize that size to their advantage. Any time you can tie up the puck along the boards on the PK it's a win, and San Jose has been able to do this effectively.

There are two things to watch out for however. The first is that with all of the puck pressure San Jose has been delivering when teams are set up in the zone, a soft spot can develop in the middle of the zone that allows an opposing team to either send a cross-ice pass to a forward on the far side of the ice or have an opposing player jump into that hole and get off a good scoring chance between the circles. These aren't issues exclusive to San Jose's PK (you're playing 4v5, there's going to be soft spots), but it does have a tendency to become magnified with all of the puck-carrier pressure San Jose delivers (again, though, pressure is a good thing).

The second is how Dallas managed to break down San Jose in the neutral zone and retain possession with strong, effective entries. Stars Head Coach Glen Gulutzan did an excellent job of breaking down film and preparing his club for San Jose's penalty kill; although they only received two power plays throughout the game, the Stars rifled 8 shots on net with the man advantage and gave Antti Niemi quite the workload.

After the puck carrier crossed the red line, he would make a quick cut and deliver a tape to tape pass to the far-side winger. As San Jose's three players on the blueline shifted towards where the puck was originally headed in order to converge and attack, Dallas would receive a nice entry into the zone and have some space to work with to either carry the puck down low or occupy the half wall.

With three games against elite Western Conference opponents coming up, San Jose's penalty kill will definitely be tested. In order of appearance you have Chicago's power play at 17.3% (14th), Los Angeles' at 18.9% (10th), and Vancouver's at 26.7% (number one with a bullet). These are all good teams with some elite firepower, and should provide an excellent test for San Jose both in this situation as well as at even strength.

Should be a dandy tonight. Enjoy.

Prediction: Sharks win 5-4. Goals by Pavelski (x2), McGinn, Marleau, and Braumers. San Jose avoids the pre-Thanksgiving meltdown against Chicago, giving season ticket owners their second straight year of things to be thankful for since the travesty that was November 25, 2009.