Winning Play: Braun prevents déjà vu

Joe Pavelski was frustrated after Thursday’s 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The San Jose Sharks captain noted, of his team’s defensive inconsistency, “We haven’t played to our identity. We do it for a few minutes. Then all of a sudden, there’s a breakaway.”

These breakdowns were addressed in a recent meeting.

”We said we have the talent to not force the offense,” acknowledged Aaron Dell. “It was kind of a we got to figure out, address it, move forward thing. It wasn’t a get yelled at thing. We need to play smarter, wait for our chances.”

One shift after Erik Karlsson opened the scoring in the second period against the St. Louis Blues last night, San Jose coughed up a 2-on-1 to St. Louis’s top line.

Vladimir Tarasenko (91) scooped up the loose puck. Brayden Schenn (10) joined him. Justin Braun (61) retreated.

”What a play by Braun. Buys time. Delays the rush. Delays the opportunity,” exclaimed Sharks color commentator Bret Hedican. “Because he took the pass away, the help could come back.”

Help came in the form of Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44), who hustled back to force the trailer, Jordan Schmaltz (43), to bury a shot into Braun.

But more important than the block, it was Braun’s textbook reaction to the Blues’ 2-on-1 that kept his team’s momentum afloat. Five minutes later, San Jose was up 3-0 and St. Louis was singing the you-know-what.

There’s an art to playing the 2-on-1.

First, Braun dug in his heels and got in the middle of Tarasenko and Schenn. Then, he matched the puck carrier’s speed.

“Fortunately, I slowed him down enough, where he didn’t have enough speed to shoot that or had any angle,” noted Braun.

Next, Braun passed the most critical test of a 2-on-1: Defending both the shot and the pass. It’s a delicate balancing act — play shot too hard, the puck carrier passes it for a dangerous chance, play pass too hard, the puck carrier shoots it for a dangerous chance.

“You’re worried about him taking the shot because he’s such a good shooter,” said Braun. “But at the same time, you can’t overplay him because he’s going to make that pass.”

Trying simultaneously to force a shot from a worse angle and discourage a pass, Braun drifted slightly toward Tarasenko to push the winger’s possible shot more to the outside. But remaining between Tarasenko and Schenn, Braun put his stick in front of him, moving it to dissuade the pass.

Braun offered, “If they’re going to try to make a pass, they have to sauce it. Hopefully, you get a bounce.”

Eventually, Braun simply outwaited Tarasenko.

Making the first move can expose you, so Braun doesn’t step up on Tarasenko until Vlasic has re-joined the play. At this point, Tarasenko’s shot would have been just inside the right dot — a good-not-great spot — so the winger opted to pass, more often than not the desirable option when dealing with the St. Louis sniper.

“As much as I can,” Braun acknowledged, when asked if he played the 2-on-1 as well he could. “You try to play them the same way.”

”Any kind of dangerous play, they don’t even get a chance, we feed off that as a team,” said Pavelski. “You can shut down one or two [dangerous chances] a night, it’s when you give teams five or six, they start burning you.”

Dell, who turned away 30 shots for the shutout, liked what he saw defensively.

”That was probably the best all-around game we played this year.”

But if it weren’t for Braun, it might’ve been a different story.