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Robinson, Johnson strengthen Sharks' defense

by Eric Gilmore

SAN JOSE -- The San Jose Sharks have long been known for having big, skilled players who can score. But if there was ever any doubt about how much the Sharks value defense, it ended during the offseason when they shuffled their coaching staff and made two big hires.

First, the Sharks added Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson to coach Todd McLellan's staff as an associated coach on July 9. He played 20 seasons in the NHL and has won the Stanley Cup nine times -- six times as a player, once as a head coach and twice as an assistant.

One day later, the Sharks added former Washington Capitals assistant coach Jim Johnson, a 14-year NHL defenseman, to McLellan's staff.

The Sharks allowed just 2.33 goals per game during the regular-season, sixth best in the NHL. They've been even better in the playoffs, giving up just 1.50 per game as they've raced out to a 2-0 lead in their first-round series with the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs entering Game 3 Sunday night at HP Pavilion.

"It's been great," Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart said. "Two guys with a lot of experience. Larry's back there running the D. He's a great guy to have behind you. He keeps you calm. Keeps it loose back there, relaxed, but at the same time, he's going to let you know when you've done something wrong. Not only that, but how can you do it better, what can you do to fix it, maybe what you should have done, but he's not going to beat it into you. He's going to let you know in a way that makes you feel good about going back on the ice. He's a good presence to have behind us, for sure."

Robinson said he and Johnson have the same coaching style, relying on positive reinforcement.

"They don't need another person chirping in their ear about all the stuff that they're doing bad," Robinson said. "Jimmy and I as assistant coaches are here to kind of smooth things over and make them feel positive. You still got to point out different mistakes, but there are different ways of approach it and telling players, too. Jimmy and I both have the same kind of a personality. We still believe that the game is a game and should be fun."

The Sharks defense has been consistently good throughout the season, even when the offense went into a prolonged slump.

"I always look at it as a team defense," Johnson said. "Obviously when you get goaltending like we have from (Antti) Niemi all year, and he's been consistent, one of the top goaltenders in the League, I think that makes everybody look good. But in order for him to have those type of numbers, too, everybody has to be playing well in front of him. I've always looked at it as a group and a unit of five guys together on the ice, and we've been pretty committed and for the most time all year we've done a pretty good job of keeping our chances against in check. I think that always bode well for your defensive play, also."

Veteran defenseman Dan Boyle said he has "no issues" with what past Sharks assistant coaches have done, but he has enjoyed having Robinson and Johnson as coaches.

"Sometimes it's just a fresh idea," Boyle said. "But I think the most important thing is they've brought a positive attitude, which I'm a big believer in. I think some coaches bark a little bit more. I think that sometimes can be hard on players. I think these guys have been positive and yet, at the same time, they're teaching. They've done an amazing job back there."

Johnson took the lead role in fixing a Sharks penalty kill that ranked 29th last season in the regular season and had no answer for the St. Louis Blues' power play during the first round when they lost in five games -- the fastest postseason exit in franchise history. This year, the Sharks' penalty kill ranked sixth during the regular season. Vancouver is 1-for-5 on the power play in two playoff games against the Sharks.

"The one good thing with this staff is we do everything together, and everybody's got a say into it," Johnson said. "It's fun working with guys that all have a philosophy and we all share ideas and we're not afraid to say something and make adjustments to things, and I think that's been a key to that. As a group we've turned (the PK) around. Again, I reflect back to the players. They're the ones that have executed it. It's really not a lot different than what they've done in the past.

"It's paying attention to the details. It's the commitment to block shots. It's being in the lanes. It's good stick positioning. It's putting them in the right areas. It's pressuring at the right times. It's doing all the things you need to do to be successful and getting them to buy in, the players, because they're the ones ultimately that have to go out and do it every night."

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