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Inside the Cage: Reestablishing Their Identity

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

Playing without Joe Thornton in the lineup was definitely a shock to the system initially. But the Sharks drew on their identity, righted the ship and now will return from a challenging post-All-Star break five-game road trip in second place in the Pacific Division.

"There's no quit in them, they don't get down, they show up and they work," San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said. "It's starts with our leaders. Joe Pavelski has done a fantastic job. He gets great help from (Brent) Burns, (Marc-Edouard) Vlasic and all the other veteran guys we've got here."

That veteran leadership recognized without Thornton - quite the leader in his own right - the Sharks had to choice but to get back to defense-first hockey and grind out wins with what's worked to date: goaltending, depth scoring and special teams.

That's been the recipe for success as the Sharks take a two-game winning streak into Denver on Tuesday.

"We've done a lot of good things the last couple of weeks," Vlasic said. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't. If you stick with it, more times that not you'll get the win."

It was as if the Sharks needed a reboot after Thornton underwent arthroscopic surgery to aid in the repair of a torn right MCL on Jan. 23. First up was getting goalies Martin Jones and Aaron Dell feeling good about their games again.

Jones made three straight starts in the span of four nights on the road as DeBoer displayed the confidence he had in his No. 1 goalie, who was looking to recapture the consistency in his game that added up to a .930 save percentage in his first 17 games before suffering an injury on Nov. 25.

San Jose's goaltending success, however, works hand-in-hand with a defense that limits opponents shots and chances. One does not succeed without the other.

"(We) didn't get the result in the first couple of games, but the effort by the goalies and from the team defense has created offense for us," Pavelski said. "It's created a little bit of momentum. And everyone is buying in, which is important especially when you play on the road."

Video: SJS@CBJ: Jones stones Atkinson with great save

With Jones back on his game with consecutive road outings in which he allowed a goal apiece and the Sharks earned three points, it was Dell's turn in Carolina during a Sunday matinee. Dell's 10-game winning streak was snapped during a 6-5 regulation loss against the visiting Rangers right before the break. It was a long time to stew on a loss with that many goals allowed. 

But Dell bounced back, again in conjunction with the defense, to stop 29 of 30 shots as the Sharks won by the identical score of 3-1 in consecutive road games.

"The last couple of games we've been a lot more solid on defense," Dell said. "There was a stretch there where we were a bit loose, but I think it's shown the last couple games we can get our offensive chances and still get our solid defense."

The offense has come both on the power play and with continued depth scoring.

Youngsters Tomas Hertl, Kevin Labanc, Chris Tierney, Joonas Donskoi and Timo Meier have all tied or surpassed their goal and point totals when compared to the same point last season. Though 52 games this season, the five forwards have totaled 56 goals and 125 points, which is more than double their combined totals through 52 team games last season (26 goals and 59 points).

"We've got some skilled players," said Couture, who leads the Sharks with 22 goals and is on pace for a career-high 35. "Obviously you can't replicate one of the best passers of his generation, but other guys can go out there and put pucks toward the net. That's how we're scoring our goals."

It's gone under publicized, too, but the Sharks are getting tremendous offensive contributions from the blue line - and it's not all from Brent Burns either.

Since Dec. 7, San Jose defensemen have combined for a league-leading total of 74 points. In addition, the unit's 19 power-play points is tops in the NHL while their 16 goals and five power-play strikes are tied for third most. The Sharks are 14-6-6.

And since the calendar turned to the year 2018, Vlasic leads all NHL defensemen in goals (6), and ranks third in points (12). He and Burns rank in the top three in points among rearguards since Jan. 1 (Burns leads the pack with 19 points).

"They're just going in," Vlasic said as a reason for his up-tick in production. "Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don't. Take a look at Brent. (He has) more than 200 shots. He could easily have 30 goals. The more you join the rush, the more you'll get rewarded and that's what's been going on."

And, finally, the profound effect of special teams continues to be a driving force for winning. The 84.3-percent success on the penalty kill ranks second best in the league. And, sparked by a 29-for-92 run (31.5 percent) since Dec. 7, the Sharks are a fourth-best 23.7 percent on the power play. 

The same size is small, but the Sharks are 5-for-14 (35.7 percent) on the power play during their six games without Thornton. And twice during that span San Jose and enjoyed multi-power-play goal outings. 

"The power play has been key for us for the last two and half months," DeBoer said. "We have a lot of options there - a lot of guys who are comfortable on the power play - and they're playing with a lot of confidence right now. They're zipping it around and that's what power plays are all about."

So while the Sharks will certainly welcome Jumbo Joe back with open arms when the future Hall-of-Famer is fit to return, they can rest knowing their team identity allows them to find their game again.

"It's all about winning," Vlasic said. "If there's a guy out, others will step in. If we're down a goal, down two, we'll battle back. If we're up we won't sit back, we'll push the pace. Guys work. Guys want to work for each other."

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