As the Sharks power play continues to hum along, another factor in the Sharks success continues to succeed under the radar - team defense. San Jose currently ranks third in the League in goals-against average for the season with a stingy 2.32. During the current stretch where they’ve won six of seven, that number has been an even tighter 2.14 GAA.
Just as the goals scored garner greater fan attention than goals against, so do several of the keys to the low defensive numbers. To be top three in the NHL in GAA, good goaltending is critical, but many great goaltenders have looked below average with below average blueliners. In the case of San Jose, the defensemen are as talented as the netminders.
Christian Ehrhoff, who leads all blueliners in shots, and heralded rookies Matt Carle (leads all NHL rookie blueliners in points) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic
, still create headlines. But it is the old reliables – Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren – who still dictate what is allowed through the San Jose’s defensive zone.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, they will have to skate a few contests without McLaren as he underwent arthroscopic surgery on Wednesday and will likely miss the last two games before the All-Star break.
“Kyle had his knee scoped and will be out the next couple of games,” said Ron Wilson. “He is just getting it cleaned out.”
The surgery is a short term headache that could reap rewards come April.
For Hannan and McLaren, they are more than happy to let attention go the other way, which is a big part of the mental makeup in being a stay at home defenseman.
“I guess I’ve found my niche,” said Hannan. “Coming in, I was never expected to put up points. I put up numbers in juniors, but I was not expected to do it here.”
With statistics being limited in how to measure the worth of a Hannan or McLaren, rewards must be found internally.
“You have to play with a lot of pride in yourself, said Hannan. “I’m not one to worry about numbers. I worry about wins.”
“You can’t have 20 guys trying to be fancy,” said Ehrhoff. “It doesn’t work. You need guys not as worried about their points. You need those roles to be a successful team.”
The two aren’t exactly without any skill and do create offense in their own way as they are both strong with the first pass out of the zone.
“The first pass they make is a big part of everything,” said Ehrhoff. “If you have a bad breakout pass, the play can’t develop. It gets the whole offense started.”
Hannan knows that just like high-end goaltenders need effective defensemen, the same is true on the other end.
“We’ve got great goaltending,” said Hannan. “We know if we make a mistake, they are big back there.”
When it is crunch time, and the opposing club is pressing, that is when Hannan and McLaren are at their best.
“In the last two minutes, those two are always out there to save the lead,” said Ehrhoff.
The Sharks high-scoring forwards know what they have backing them up.
“They’re huge,” said Patrick Marleau
alluding to the confidence the forwards have in attempting to make plays knowing who is behind them. “You don’t want to hang Big Mac or Hannan out to dry, but you know they’ll be doing their job.”
In the room the two aren’t as quiet as their on-ice talents may make one believe.
“They definitely are two of the biggest leaders in the locker room, especially with the D-men,” said Marleau. “You always see them talking with the younger D, seeing how things are going. They see things I don’t and are huge factors in our room.”
The younger blueliners appreciate what they have in Hannan and McLaren. Ehrhoff, who transitioned into an NHL regular primarily under McLaren’s watch knows their importance.
“Kyle is like a coach on the ice and helps with the mental aspects,” said Ehrhoff.
“Hannan helps me with things like where to be on the penalty kill,” said Vlasic. “All the little things. Off the ice he chirps me pretty good.”
Vlasic, the elder of four Vlasic boys, acknowledged it was a bit like being the younger sibling for once.
The old adage for all sports holds true in hockey as well – defense wins championships – and the Sharks should be in good shape when the postseason rolls around.
“Every defenseman enjoys being trusted at the key time to do their job,” said Hannan. “You look forward to the times in the playoffs when you’re out their five-on-five or in a penalty-killing situation and they need a goal.”
For in the postseason, it is penalty killing and defense which will eventually lead to the Sharks first Stanley Cup Championship.
“Defense basically wins and loses games, especially in the playoffs,” said Marleau.
Marcel Goc will likely be out a couple more contests with his upper body injury.
“Marcel was much better today, but I doubt he’ll play in the next two games,” said Wilson. “He should be ready to go after the break.”
With the injuries, the Sharks still won’t need to phone Worcester.
“We don’t need anybody right now,” said Wilson. “More than likely, we’ll go with seven defensemen.”
REMEMBERING A CHAMPION
The Sharks family would like to express their condolences to the family of Gerry Heffernan. Heffernan, a long time Bay Area resident who recently passed away, was a member of the Montreal Canadiens 1944 Stanley Cup winning squad.
The Sharks practice at Logitech Ice on Friday is closed to the general public.
San Jose returns to action Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. at HP Pavilion as they host the Phoenix Coyotes. Limited tickets are still available at the HP Pavilion Box Office and at www.ticketmaster.com. The game can be caught on FSN Bay Area, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com.