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Inside the Cage: Working Towards the Big Picture

After a slow start, the Sharks are getting close to where they need to be

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

The Sharks just might be on to something here.

Frustrated they didn't take better advantage of a season-opening five-game homestand, the Sharks have since stayed the course, used a road trip to minimize distraction while honing their game and now are starting to look more like their familiar selves again. 

Monday night's grind-'em-out 3-2 win over the dangerously legitimate Toronto Maple Leafs fortified the team's belief that things are back on track to match the expectations everyone had during training camp.

San Jose does not view this 2017-18 season as anything other than an opportunity to put itself in the best possible position come spring time when health and how a team is playing after 82 games goes a long way toward a chance for postseason success. 

"We're getting our game to where it needs to be," Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. "I think on the road trip we learned a lot about ourselves, how we need to play and what guys can give up. And it was real nice to see coming back in our first game to play our best game of the season."

Playing that first game back after having crossed three time zones via air travel, and without the benefit of two nights off beforehand, the Sharks were focused and determined on Monday. Facing the league's most potent attack this early season may have caught their attention, but the Sharks also relied on what they've patiently built back into their game.

A real key is limiting how little San Jose has to defend short-handed, and it doesn't get any better than not permitting a single power play as was the case on Monday. Penalty killing is a point of emphasis this early season as the Sharks aim to improve on last year's 80.7-percent showing, which ranked 18th in the league.

Penalty killing is getting a workout all over the NHL early on as the crackdown on stick fouls - particularly slashes - are leading to an inordinate number of power plays. The Sharks fell victim to the strict new standard when 15 of their 20 minor penalties on the road trip were stick-related fouls. But, because San Jose killed all but one, it showed the team can stand tall while down a man.

Through their first 11 games, the Sharks ranked third in the league at 88.4 percent on the kill while their 19-for-20 showing on the road ranked tops in the NHL.

"I think the key for us is staying out of the box," Sharks forward Joel Ward said. "We took a few penalties on the road trip, which is uncharacteristic of us. It's good to play four lines rolling, everyone is jumping and creating chances. If you stay out of the box you give yourself a chance to win."

Keeping special teams play to a minimum allows Peter DeBoer to roll four lines, and that's playing to the Sharks' strength. San Jose fancies itself as a team with strong depth on its four forward lines, and the coach is trusting his three defensive pairs, too, which includes the folding in of a pair of rookies. Joakim Ryan has successfully stepped in for an injured Paul Martin, who has missed nine straight games, while Tim Heed's powerful shot has come in handy on a restructured power play in addition to his responsible play at even strength.  

Monday night was an example of everything together.

"That's the best game we've had this year where we had 20 guys contributing," DeBoer said. "I didn't hesitate to put anyone over the boards in any situation. Everybody was tilting the ice the right way when they were out there. That's what we need as a team.

"We've incorporating some people at different positions - some young guys - and I think we've all been building our game," the coach added. "We've been talking about it for two-to-three weeks and it's been getting better."

The Sharks, too, will know if they're on the right track regarding how they fare in their next three games starting with Wednesday's visit by defending West champ Nashville. Pacific Division rival Anaheim and high-scoring Tampa Bay are next in line on Saturday and next Wednesday, respectively.

"It's important for us to stick to our game, play within our strengths and play our system," forward Timo Meier said. "Every time you go out there you want to bring quality to the team in whatever way you can help the team be successful."

"If we're going to be a real good team we're going to have to replicate that kind of game on a consistent basis," DeBoer added. "The good thing is we've got that game, we've shown it, we've been building toward this and now it's just going out and doing it again."

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