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Inside the Cage: Five Keys for the Long Haul

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon / sjsharks.com

The Sharks' five-day break probably couldn't have come at a better time. Rest, relaxation and - eventually - hitting the reset button by Saturday when San Jose next hosts Arizona will springboard the team into the second half of a season that features more positives than negatives.

"Overall, we're OK," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer assessed Sunday following a 1-2-2 grueling slog through the frigid ice and snow of Eastern Canada that left the Sharks with a 21-13-6 mark after 40 games. "We're not perfect. We're not exactly where we want to be, but it could be worse."

With 48 points in 40 games, the Sharks are on pace for a season's total of 98 after 82 games. And while nothing is assured in what will be a nip-and-tuck race to the end, any team that can eclipse the 95-point plateau should be in position to secure one of the conference's eight playoff spots.

On the other hand, there's obviously not much room for error. And a veteran Sharks team is well aware of that fact.

"We're in a decent spot - we've got a few games in-hand - but you've got to win games," Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. "There's a lot of effort that went into those first 40 games - guys competed - and that's got to ramp up."

With that as a backdrop, here are five keys going forward for San Jose.

1) STRENGTHS: What the Sharks do well - defend and execute on special teams - are the hardest parts of a game to change or fix. That foundation is well in place for San Jose, which should serve the team well as it gets into the most challenging, demanding and critical portion of the season. 

The team's goaltending tandem of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell has ranked among the top five in the league the entire first half. Dell has been superb in a back-up role, going 8-3-2 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.27 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. Discount far-fetched rumors of the pending unrestricted free agent getting dealt by the trade deadline. Dell is too valuable, well-liked and too big a part of the team's success to be on the move. 

After a slow start on the power play, the unit has rediscovered its chemistry and ranked fifth at 22.2 percent. The tweak that features Joe Thornton trading passes high in the zone and working for his shot from the left circle has added a new and difficult to defend wrinkle. The Sharks have surrendered a league-low one goal while on the power play. 

Video: CGY@SJS: Pavelski, Thornton combine for slick PPG

The penalty kill - ranked second at 84 percent efficiency - has been strong from Day 1. San Jose has had success stacking the blue line and making it hard for opponents to gain the zone. Once inside, Jones and Dell have spearheaded the unit's success with key saves while teammates focus on short shifts and winning defensive-zone draws. In addition, San Jose finished Sunday with a league-high seven short-handed goals.

2) SCORING: The Sharks rank last in the league with 59 goals scored while skating 5-on-5. It's an area of concern until you realize this: San Jose has scored more goals this season (110) as at the same point after 40 games last season when it lit the lamp 105 times.

"There's no doubt we need to score more," DeBoer said. "I think everyone wants to score more 5-on-5 other than a couple teams. But there's no doubt (it's true) for us. We've had good special teams and we're still not a high, high-scoring team." 

As long as they're scoring somehow, that is ultimately the most important result. And it's hard to make out exactly what it means to be a leading 5-on-5 team. The division-leader Lightning and Golden Knights are Nos. 4 and 5 in 5-on-5 scoring, but the third-place Maple Leafs and last-place Islanders are first and second on the list.

And if you're looking for trends, San Jose's goal production has improved each month. The Sharks scored 30 goals in October, 31 in November and 37 in December. And with 12 in the first four games in January, San Jose is on pace to score 42 this month.

3) YOUTH: The Sharks obviously need everyone to contribute, but they weren't going to remain in the hunt for the Stanley Cup without more from their youth. And while San Jose has had to be patient with individual development, which is different for every player, there are definite signs the team is getting what it wants from its less experienced players.

"I think we've learned a lot about each other," Pavelski said. "We've had players take certain strides and you see where they are, how they can play and it's been encouraging to see that."

Speaking strictly numbers, Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney and Joonas Donskoi are on pace for career-best seasons in terms of goals and points. Timo Meier has five more goals than last year, and could reach 20 with a strong second half. Kevin Labanc, Melker Karlsson, Marcus Sorensen and Barclay Goodrow have contributed positively as well up front.

On the back end, rookies Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed have basically established themselves as NHL players while Dylan DeMelo has taken a definite step in his development even if he had to be patient to get his chance the first quarter of the season. 

4) VETERAN BOUNCE BACK: Aside from Brent Burns winning the Norris Trophy last year and fellow defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic turning in another outstanding if not unsung campaign, the Sharks were looking for key veterans to just give a little more to make a substantial difference across the board.

San Jose has - by and large - received that uptick, especially from Logan Couture, Vlasic and Thornton. Pavelski has battled through an injury that has limited his offensive production, but he's shown signs of finding a way to get back on the score sheet as the season has progressed. 

Burns, too, never got down after starting the season without a goal in his first 20 games. And on the strength of scoring five goals and 14 points in December, Burns found himself tied with Couture for the team lead in points (30 each). And Burns' 172 shots lead NHL defensemen by a wide margin again.

5) SCHEDULE: With as much parity as there is in the league, the schedule is almost a more viable foe than a team that poses as the opposition on any given night. 

The Sharks resume play on Saturday with more games left on their schedule than any division rival or conference foe. And while it's always nice to have games-in-hand, they're only good if you earn points in them.

Video: SJS@ARI: Couture tucks a backhand past Wedgewood

San Jose will play exactly 21 on the road and the same number at home. But after completing a stretch of playing nine of their next 13 games on the road through February 6, the Sharks will enjoy a finishing kick of having 17 of their final 29 contests at SAP Center where the team is 12-6-2. 

March is when the Sharks will need all hands on deck. San Jose plays 15 times in 31 nights - eight at home and seven on the road - with two sets of back-to-backs on the road and two stretches that include four games in six nights. 

Buckle up and get ready for what is sure to be a wild ride. 

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