Sharks Gameday: New Power Play
@ 1:00 PST
22-19-5, 49 points 23-13-9, 55 points 11th in Western Conference 4th in Western Conference
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Before you read anything, a quick reminder that this is a 1pm start. With many of us still working, it makes me wonder why NHL keeps scheduling these games, even if it's a holiday for some people.
It seems as though these two clubs are currently playing in different leagues.
The Sharks, as you all well remember, have won just two games in 2011, having lost the other six. During that stretch, the team scored just 13 goals. The Coyotes lost only three games in 2011 (one in OT) and won 6 (4 in a row now), having scored 33 goals in that stretch. They're one of the hottest NHL teams right now.
But when you look at the overall Coyotes record, it's only one regulation win better than the Sharks. When San Jose was doing well in December, the Coyotes were struggling, with such notable losses as being shutout by New Jersey Devils, or losing to San Jose in a memorable game on December 23rd.
While it seems like the Coyotes have a mental edge right now, having played great hockey for a couple of weeks - the Sharks still remember the years of dominance. A big 4-1 win right before Christmas is hopefully still fresh on their minds. From divisional standpoint, it's another important game for both teams, although major battles between the clubs will come towards the end of the regular season when Coyotes and the Sharks face each other three times in the last two weeks.
Get ready for another hard fought battle - though likely a super boring one, which is what Dave Tippet likes to do when he employs his neutral zone trap against the Sharks.
After another frustrating loss by the Sharks, Todd McLellan mentioned in the post game that he's looking to change things up in terms of how he's approaching the players and the training. He mentioned benching some players, but that hasn't happened yet, and with injuries and the lack of NHL ready talent in Worcester or Cheechoo under NHL contract, this likely wouldn't happen. We do know from the reports by David Pollak that the players are spending a lot of time in practice just talking and listening to the coach. It's fair to assume they're going back to the basics.
Whatever they're doing, it worked on Saturday night against St. Louis Blues. As I was watching the game, there were times when I could hardly recognize the Sharks. They were playing solid defense, they were back checking, and they were fast. Only the soft goals allowed by Niemi were reminding me that we're in 2010/11 season. The transition game was working this time, Jamie McGinn scored, Heatley scored two, and for some stretches in the game, the team looked like the Sharks of the past regular seasons - when the only way to stop them was to start taking penalties. That the Blues did and it proved them costly.
One of the bigger weaknesses during that losing streak to start the year was the Sharks power play. Whether they were 5-on-4, and especially when they were 5-on-3 - they just didn't move. The recent PP reminded me of the old Ron Wilson days, when the only creative move was to pass the puck to Joe Thornton who always stood in the corner and wait for him to find an open Cheechoo somewhere. During that losing streak, the only open man usually turned out to be either Vlasic on the blue line, or Patrick Marleau on the other corner, with all other passing and shooting lanes blocked. None of this resulted in a whole lot of goals. Or where was Cheechoo when we needed him again?
That all changed on Saturday as a result of three things.
First, Joe Pavelski is back from injur. While he didn't look great against the Oilers on Thursday, his legs and his brain were back on Saturday. He's the brain of the top PP unit. He typically plays the point, but hardly ever shoots from there. He also likes to move around a lot, thus forcing the other Sharks players to move to his slot.
Second, McLellan changed how Pavelski starts the PP. Usually Joe Thornton would take the faceoff, with Joe tending the point and waiting for that pass to start the cycle. But I found it interesting that against the Blues, JoePavelski was often taking that faceoff - just like he did for the top PP unit for team USA in Vancouver. If you don't remember who won that key faceoff to tie the final game of the Winter Olympics against Canada with seconds left, you're not American. Not that Pavs is any better or worse than Thornton on faceoffs - both have a respectable 54% on the season. But when he starts the PP in the faceoff circle, it forces someone else to tend the point, and everyone would move more as a result if Sharks win the pocession and Pavs would want to go back to the point, or stay in the circle.
Third, of course, McLellan put Logan Couture on the top unit, thus sliding Patrick Marleau to the second unit. When healthy, the HTML line stayed together for most of the season during the power play. It worked great ever sinceMcLellan created that line a year and a half ago. But the PP magic between the three stopped working in the past few weeks. Todd at last decided to do something about it - and rewarded team's best player with a chance to play with the big guns on the top unit. I had my reservations when I first saw it - mostly because I see Couture as a very similar player to Dany Heatley - both play their best PP time when they're right in front of the goalie, scoring garbage goals. I thought there may not be enough space for both. But it worked, and Heatley played his best game of the season. Logan Couture did not score any points, but still played a big role on the PP, creating space for Heatley.
This was of course St Louis Blues, another team who just had a long losing streak and who's fighting to stay alive in the tight Western conference. Coyotes will be a harder test.
But seeing that McLellan can find few more things to do besides just shuffling the lines all game long is a positive sign.
Prediction: Someone wins this one by the score of 1-0.