The San Jose Sharks have come back from the Olympic break on a red-hot 7-1-1 run, moving into a tie with the Anaheim Ducks on top of the Pacific Division. They have done so despite a woeful lack of production from the power play, one of the early-season strengths for the club.
Since the break, the Sharks have been an anemic 2-29 with the man advantage, but the problems started before that. Since February 1, they are 3-46, and for the season have slumped to converting just 16 percent of the time, the 23rd-ranked power play in the league.
First, the good news
The Sharks are winning 5-on-5, and that is important come playoff time when the game gets tighter, the hitting gets heavier, and the referees somewhat swallow their whistles and let the game play. The Sharks are outscoring the opposition 147-119 playing at full strength, right at the top of the league – 7th best in goals scored and 4th best in goals allowed.
Despite the woes with the man advantage, the Sharks are solid when a man down and on the penalty kill. During their power play outage, the Sharks are 33-38 (87%) on the penalty kill, and that includes going only 2-4 against the super tough Pittsburgh Penguins in a recent 5-3 victory.
Now, the bad news
The Sharks have benefited from 39 power play goals, but the large part of the credit goes to their ability to draw penalties, as the Sharks are second in the league with 244 power play opportunities, just one shy of the league leading Washington Capitals. The struggles are in converting, and the Sharks suffer equally at home (15 percent) and on the road (17.1 percent).
Of course, the primary goal on the power play is to score. But, given the best teams convert only a fourth of the time, the secondary goal of building offensive momentum is also very important, creating repeated scoring opportunities that seem to slant the ice in one direction. Here the Sharks are suffering as well, giving up short-handed opportunities and even the occasional short-handed goal.
The playoffs feature close games and scoring very much comes at a premium. For the Sharks to go on a long playoff run, they will need to improve the power play, both scoring goals and building momentum that carries over through the balance of the game.
The Sharks have too much offensive talent – Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Dan Boyle, Jason Demers, etc. – on the roster to continue to struggle so mightily on the power play. The trouble gets compounded when that talent presses and tries to do too much, usually evidenced by over-passing and getting “too cute.”
Winning the faceoff in the offensive zone is critical, as pressure can be applied immediately, whereas losing the faceoff means losing 15-20 seconds of precious time. Thornton and Pavelski are two of the best in the league on the draw, and they need to shine when given the chance.
Traffic in front of the net serves two purposes. First, traffic screens the goaltender, and today’s goalies are so good, if they see the puck, they will stop the puck. Secondly, traffic in front of the net positions players for both tips and rebounds. Pavelski and Brett Burns often show a willingness to get in the mix in front of the net, and if they can do more of that, good things will happen. Ugly goals are still goals, and the scoreboard doesn’t discriminate.
The first two passes in the offensive zone need to be tape-to-tape. Doing so keeps the defense off balance and prevents an aggressive kill, while also freeing up huge chucks of ice to create scoring opportunities. Thornton is one of the best passers in history, and Boyle among the best puck-moving defenders in the game. Delivering good passes early in the power play will pay dividends in the form of shots and goals.
An old adage in hockey is to put the puck on net, where good things happen. Shooting might not be the best play, but it’s always a good play, so when in doubt, shoot. Defensemen like Boyle, Demers and Marc-Édouard Vlasic need to unwind the occasional bomb from the point when given free shooting alleys. Combined with traffic in front, pucks will begin to find the back of the net.
The Sharks are winning games and emerging as strong contenders for the President’s Trophy, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record. Doing so despite an ineffective power play shows the combative and competitive nature of this team. If the power play can be fixed, and the talent on the team suggests it can, the Sharks will add an important weapon to their arsenal just in time for the playoff push.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
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