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Inside the Cage: Sharks Defense is Buying Time

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon / sjsharks.com

It's easy to see the Sharks are searching for consistency in their forward lines and reconfigured power-play units in the hopes to produce more goals.

What's easy to overlook is the fact the Sharks defense, staunch goaltending and attention to detail on the penalty kill is buying the team time to solve it's challenges at the other end of the ice.

The netminding duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have combined to amass a league-low 2.24 goals-against average through 19 games. After his first two starts of the season, Jones has allowed more than two goals in a game only once. That's two or fewer permitted in 11 of his last 12. His back-up Dell had produced similar numbers.

Here's Jones: 2.11 GAA and .926 save percentage. Here's Dell: 2.14 GAA and .923 save percentage. Each has posted a shutout, too. And Jones, well established as a No. 1 goalie in his third full season in that role, has posted a save percentage of .920 or better in 10 of his last 12 games.

Jones and Dell have had their hand in improving the penalty kill, a point of emphasis when the team ranked 18th at 80.7 percent. Through nearly a quarter of a season this year, the Sharks ranked No. 2 at 89.2 percent - nearly 4 percent better than Boston's league-leading figure of 85.7 percent last season.

Video: ANA@SJS: Jones robs Perry in front of the net

San Jose has allowed a power-play goal at home in just three of 13 games, and only once in its last eight at SAP Center.

The staunch defensive posture is even more impressive considering Jones, Dell & the blue line know they've had to keep opponents off the scoreboard as much as possible because the Sharks have hit a rut offensively during the season's second month.

Their offensive woes were not as noticeable in October when San Jose scored three or fewer goals three times in 11 games. But it's been more of a pressing issue in November when six out of eight contests have featured the Sharks scoring three or less.

"We're in one of those things where you've really got to stay positive," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "We're doing more good than bad. We're just not getting rewarded. And we've got to stick with it."

The tough numbers include ranking 29th in goals per game (2.42) after Monday's nine-round shootout loss, last in 5-on-5 production (26 goals) and 28th on the power play (15.3 percent), which has undergone a recent facelift.

But, as outshooting opponents 15 of 19 times - and all but once in eight November games - might attest, San Jose has not been lacking in shot volume. The Sharks ranked eighth with 33.5 shots per contest, but second-to-last in shooting percentage (5.5 percent).

Several factors are in play here:

  • Logan Couture supported the theory that too many of San Jose's shots have come from too far away. He suggested forwards need to do a better job of working pucks down low and close to the net so opponents have to respect that threat and not cheat out toward the blue line where San Jose often looks for shots that lead to straight-in goals or rebound opportunities. "We've got to keep working," captain Joe Pavelski said. "We've got to be a little harder around the net. We've got to make that next play and just find it."

  • San Jose has featured an all-new look the last two games on its power play. For years the top unit included forwards Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and defenseman Brent Burns. With Marleau gone, the Fab Four were split into the following two groups: Couture and Burns joined by Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl and Danny O'Regan with Thornton and Pavelski teamed with Mikkel Boedker, Kevin Labanc and Tim Heed. Each unit, again, featuring four forwards and one defenseman each. While producing shots and looking dangerous, the power play finally snapped a recent 0-for-19 drought on Monday. "I think it's just mentality and getting back to working harder," Couture said. "Playing with some different guys, sometimes you need change. I think our power play definitely got to the point it needed it."

  • Burns is definitely had no bounces or good fortune. Still searching for his first goal after producing a league-high 29 from the blue line en route to winning the Norris last season, Burns again leads all NHL defenseman with 82 shots on goal. For comparison, Burns had five goals on 83 shots after 19 games in 2015-16 en route to scoring 27 goals. And he had seven goals on 81 shots through 19 contests last year. Almost identical number of shots this year, but they just haven't gone in. "When they go in, they go in bunches and when they don't he's gone through streaks like this before," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "But if he was not getting those looks, was not getting shot generation, if he's not getting those chances, then we would be worried."

The goals will come as the forward lines find chemistry and gain consistency. DeBoer has experimented with a number of young skaters who are searching for the kind of success that made them stars at lower levels. It's easy to forget just how few games some of these teal-behind-the-Sharks have in the NHL: Timo Meier (52), Ryan Carpenter (22), Tim Heed (18), Joakim Ryan (17), Barclay Goodrow (83), O'Regan (5) and Labanc (71).

Video: ANA@SJS: Donskoi opens the scoring with slick goal

"The reality is we've got some young guys in the lineup and we need 20 guys going a night," DeBoer said. "We can't have 15 or 16 - more contributions for longer stretches." One younger Shark who appears to have broken through is Donskoi, who needed only 19 games to tie and surpass his goal total from a year ago. Now Donskoi would love to forget about 2016-17, an injury-interrupted season in which he had two shoulder separations and managed six goals in 61 games. But that off-year following his 11-goal, 36-point rookie campaign of 2015-16 seems to have served as motivation.

"He's one of the guys who has driven our team," Pavelski said of Donskoi, whose seven goals in 19 games is a pace to net him 30 goals.

"He's been great," Couture added on Donskoi's contributions. "He's bounced back, and that's all you can ask from a guy who didn't have the kind of year he wanted last year. He put in the work in the offseason, and he's had a really, really strong season."

Now it's up to other players on the roster to produce breakthrough performances while the goaltending and defense works to keep things close.

"We've got to find guys who can score some goals," Couture said. "Guys in this room can score. We just have to go out and do it."

"The losses are unacceptable, no doubt," Pavelski added. "You've got to be patient. It's a long season. We're 19 games in. Yeah, I believe it's going to come."

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