With only four laps to go in the regular season race, it’s a fight to the finish for positioning with no pit stop windows open for all 30 teams in the NHL. It’s been interesting to hear the perspectives of the players and coaches as the intensity ratchets up, the margins for error get thinner, and everything comes together for the men in Teal.
Case in point number one involves the search for more offense and what needs to be improved. During our KFOX/Sharks Radio Network broadcast from Dallas, associate coach Larry Robinson said, “I personally think we can get better in our D-zone coverage when we don’t have the puck. Offensively, I think that’s going to come, getting to the net more and that kind of stuff, but going into the playoffs, I think it’s not so much about what you do offensively, it’s more about what you do defensively, and no better example than last year, when you had two of the top defensive teams in the League going at it in the Finals, so that’s the point that we want to get to.”
It was interesting to hear that, because the Sharks have been doing a good job in defensive areas for much of the season, and have gone through stretches where they couldn’t score goals. Yet in the past few games, Robinson’s mantra of continuously focusing on improving the defensive game has brought many benefits in the other area of the ice.
Case in point number two involves something that a lot of coaches talk about at this juncture of the NHL season. While we hear a lot of talk about “going back to basics,” “playing a simple game,” “focusing on the moment,” and other pleasantries, the one item that many coaches in playoff races seem to key on the most is “playing a simple game.”
Sharks assistant coach Jim Johnson recently provided one of the better on-the-fly definitions I’ve heard on what “the simple game” really is. He defines it as “taking the risk out of critical area decisions.”
On our KFOX/Sharks Radio Network broadcast last night vs. Minnesota, Johnson elaborated:
“To keep it simple is to use the available ice around you,” he said. “For instance, in a game like (April 18th vs. Minnesota) , the simple area we know is going to be behind their defensemen. ‘Using ice behind’ is a term we might use in making a simple play, but we think it’s a smart play, because we get their defensemen to turn. (I always say) if we put pucks into areas where we have a better than 50% chance of getting it back, that’s a smart, simple play.”
Johnson continued talking about some of the most important areas of the ice, which he identified as being inside a team’s blue line, and five feet outside the offensive blue line: “Those are critical decision areas where we have to make the right decision to make the right play. Now, if there’s a play that’s available, and it happens to be in the middle of the ice, we may look at that, but if it’s not there, we don’t force pucks into that area, because (you get) the transition the other way with numbers to their advantage. To me, it’s all critical decision making, at the right times, in the right areas, and then, at the right time of the game.”
Part of it is not panicking, right?
“That’s right,” Johnson said. “We call it game management. Game management is knowing where you are on the ice, the time on the clock, the score of the game, and making the right play.”
What has happened on the ice is falling right into line with what the staff is saying. San Jose continues to work on improving its defensive game. They’ve been more disciplined, giving fewer power play opportunities to the opposition, while gaining more power play chances of their own. The work on defensive zone coverage has produced better opportunities, and along with the focus on the simple game, the results have included a 4-0 win in Phoenix, a 3-2 shootout win against Los Angeles, and an offensive explosion, a 6-1 win against Minnesota.
Head coach Todd McLellan believes that the team has improved in its focus on these two areas. “We have fewer and fewer turnovers,” he noted on the “Coach’s Chalkboard” radio segment. “We’re playing more of a 200-foot game where their D have to turn to go back and get it. Once the trade deadline rolled around and we moved some players around, our team had to take on…not a new identity, but reconfirm what we were. When we use the ice behind other teams and when we use the corners to our advantage, and when we’re playing with authority in front of the other team’s net, we can be a load to handle. It’s when we get away from that, when we’re standing and we’re stationary, we become a lot easier to check.”
Are the Sharks at a point where they’re prepared for anything? “I hope we are,” McLellan remarked. “We’ve played in certain circumstances that haven’t been ideal, a lot of games back to back, on the road and we’ve found ways to win, we’ve dug in and we’ve got contributions from everybody, so that’s the sign of a team that’s coming together. Now, with that being said, we’ve witnessed even throughout this year and years past where it can fall apart quickly, so the attention to detail, the commitment level to bringing your energy and your enthusiasm I think has been the most important thing, and after that, we’ll see what happens as the nights go on.”
There are four laps to go. The checkered flag to the season is getting closer, and the next marker for the Sharks will be an “X” next to their name in the standings, signifying that a playoff spot has been clinched.
Thanks for being there with us on KFOX 98.5/102.1 and the Sharks Radio Network, each and every game. Check out our podcast featuring these coach’s remarks and more: