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Penalty kill, position changes sparked Sharks' run

Wednesday, 04.24.2013 / 12:30 PM
Eric Gilmore  - NHL.com Correspondent

SAN JOSE -- When the San Jose Sharks opened the 2012-13 season with seven straight wins, they looked ready to cruise to their ninth straight berth in Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Not so fast.

The Sharks had three regulation wins in their next 21 games and needed a late-season surge that included another seven-game winning streak to secure their spot.

The Sharks have faced playoff-like games for weeks, which should have them well-prepared for the pressure and intensity of the postseason.

Here are five reasons why the Sharks are in the playoffs yet again:

1. Penalty kill overhaul

Last season the Sharks' penalty kill ranked 29th during the regular season, and it got worse in the playoffs, when they lost a first-round series to the St. Louis Blues in five games. The Sharks' penalty killers were passive last season, and on most nights ineffective, so the team did a major overhaul of its PK this season, with help from new associate coach Larry Robinson and assistant coach Jim Johnson.

This season the Sharks' penalty kill has ranked among the League's best. San Jose's penalty killers have taken a much more aggressive, attacking approach, disrupting plays and getting clears, which has allowed them to keep fresh skaters on the ice.

2. Forward-thinking move

The Sharks were searching for an offensive spark in mid-March, and coach Todd McLellan found one on the blue line, of all places. McLellan moved defenseman Brent Burns to forward, the position he was drafted at by the Minnesota Wild, and the move has paid huge dividends.

Burns had a goal against St. Louis on March 12 in his first game at forward, and he had eight goals and nine assists in his first 18 games at his new position. He has spent most of his time skating with center Joe Thornton, and he's given the Sharks an attacking wing with a big shot and big body.

3. Niemi's standout season

Goaltender Antti Niemi, who won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks three seasons ago, is having his best season since signing with San Jose as a free agent in September 2010. Even when the Sharks were struggling to score during a long stretch earlier this season, Niemi consistently kept them in games with his stellar goaltending.

Niemi is on pace to post career-best marks for goals-against average and save percentage. He's put himself in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy with his solid play. Thanks in part to Niemi and in part to the improved play of the teammates in front of him, San Jose has held opponents to around 2.33 goals per game, down from 2.50 last season.

4. Late-season offensive surge

It took until late in the season, but McLellan finally got his team playing the north/south, fast-paced style he has been preaching all season. The lineup has been faster overall since the trades of veterans Douglas Murray, Ryane Clowe and Michael Handzus and the addition of third-line forward Raffi Torres. But most of the improvement has come from the commitment McLellan's players have made to moving the puck quickly out of the defensive zone and getting shots on goal.

During their offensive surge, the Sharks have had much more balanced scoring throughout their four lines. Moving Joe Pavelski from a top-six wing to third-line center March 25 helped immensely. Pavelski scored a goal in four straight games after the move. He had eight goals and four assists in his first 15 games centering the third line.

5. A rising star

In just his fourth NHL season, Logan Couture has developed into arguably the team's most dangerous offensive weapon. After tying Pavelski for the team lead in goals last season with 31, Couture leads the team with 20 and ranks a close second in points to Thornton.

Couture, according to McLellan, has taken on a larger leadership role this season, one that fits a player who has become so important to the Sharks on the ice.

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