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Sharks get boost from improved special teams

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- There is little doubt in Dan Boyle’s mind why the San Jose Sharks lasted only five games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season: Porous penalty killing.

The Sharks gave up six goals on 18 chances against the St. Louis Blues and bowed out earlier than any of their nine-straight postseason appearances.

“Our PK let us down and we were out,” Boyle said bluntly.

The veteran defenseman is confident it won’t happen again, not after the Sharks’ penalty killing unit went from 29th in the NHL at 76.9 percent last season to sixth in the League this year, killing off 85 percent of the chances they gave up.

That success continued in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals on Wednesday, with San Jose surrendering three shots on two chances for the Vancouver Canucks. Aggressively pursuing the puck in their own end, and seemingly not afraid to overload on one side, the Sharks kept the Canucks off balance and never really let them get set up and comfortable.

“One guy goes, everybody goes,” Boyle said. “Our unit as a whole has done a very good job all year and it’s just as important as the power play. It’s huge.”

The improvement comes after the addition of a pair of former longtime NHL defensemen to the coaching staff: Hall of Famer Larry Robinson, and Jim Johnson, who played 829 games over 14 NHL seasons.

“Two veteran defensemen that have played many, many games in many, many pressure situations on the penalty kill and they bring their expertise there,” said coach Todd McLellan, who pointed it wasn’t “a lot different systematically.”

There are, however, different players involved, and the increase in the Sharks’ team speed is reflected when shorthanded, with faster skaters able to put more pressure on the puck in the defensive zone. Making sure they are all on the same page when they do so is imperative, Boyle stressed, and that was credited to the experience of the two incoming assistant coaches.

“We have some reads that are different, we have some different personnel, we’re a little bit of a quicker team, [the] goaltender feels more comfortable with certain situations, our net play is better,” McLellan said, “And that is in large part due to the input that Larry and Jim have brought to our organization.”

It was a needed change because special teams were a deciding factor when the Canucks beat the Sharks in five games of the Western Conference Finals two years ago. But San Jose established a clear edge in the series opener this time, applying all kinds of pressure with seven shots on their first advantage and tying the game on their third power play and easily nullifying Vancouver's two advantages. A bad power play even cost the Canucks momentum while outshooting San Jose 13-6 in the second period.

That may not seem surprising given Vancouver was 22nd in the NHL this season with the man advantage at 15.8 percent, but the Canucks converted 25 percent of their chances over the final 12 games and seem to have their power play problems figured out -- at least until playing the Sharks in Game 1.

“They seem like they are trying to get us out of synch,” Ryan Kesler said of the Sharks’ aggressive penalty killing style. “But we have ways of beating that.”

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