The San Jose Sharks have played 11 games in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. Out of those 11, eight have been decided by one goal, with the Sharks holding a 6-2 record.
Why have they been successful in these close contests? Skill can be the overriding factor in an occasional 5-1 blowout, but playoff games are won with grit and determination and in those areas, where there’s quantifiable data, the Sharks are showing their intestinal fortitude.
Let’s start with blocking shots. As a team, San Jose ranks fifth overall with 85. Individually, Rob Blake is seventh with 31. A National Hockey League player can be padded like the Michelin Man, but there are still times when a shot will hit the wrong spot. That’s the price a Sharks defender pays to keep shots from reaching goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.
“It’s just being in the shooting lane,” said Blake about the positioning needed. “Manny Malhotra had a huge one there 5-on-4 against Detroit in Game Five. They go a long way with the guys on the bench because they understand it more than anyone else.”
“You’ve got to,” said Ryane Clowe
about blocking shots. “Sometimes you don’t really know what angle you’re throwing your body at the puck. You’re just laying in front of it trying to block it. Whatever you can do. People probably don’t think that one blocked shot means that much, but you don’t want to get any extra shots to the net. It frustrates the other team and the next time they shoot they’re hesitating.”
Then there’s hits. San Jose ranks fourth overall with 338 and are led by Scott Nichol (39, seventh) and Douglas Murray
(34, 11th). Hockey is a physically demanding sport, not only with the skating, but when hitting is incorporated, the fatigue level really comes into play.
“You have to pick your spots, but especially against the high-minute guys, you want to try and finish every chance you get,” Murray said. “The top guys are very highly skilled and every chance you can get to slow them down that way, it benefits you as the series goes. It’s the couple of extra steps you might take in the playoffs.”
Murray and Nichol may lead in the statistical category, but every Sharks player understands that aspect of the game.
“I think you see a lot more guys hitting in the playoffs,” Murray said. “That’s more noticeable than anything. Guys that don’t hit so much usually hit more in the playoffs. It’s a lot more tiring to be hitting all the time, but there’s nothing to save it for.”
And then there’s the faceoff circle. Faceoff wins are very important to Head Coach Todd McLellan, who once said the faceoff “is the first battle of every play,” San Jose has three players in the top-15: Manny Malhotra (second, 61.7 percent), Joe Thornton
(eighth, 55.7) and Joe Pavelski
(14th, 53.3). San Jose is fourth best in the NHL at 53.1, but that’s even more impressive after having toppled a club who’s strong with faceoffs like Detroit.
“It’s starting with the puck,” Nichol said. “The Detroit series was a battle. They wanted to start with the puck and we did. It didn’t matter when the puck was dropped, at the beginning of the game or the end. It was good because it gauged you right off the bat. When they pull their goalie with 30 seconds left, you want guys that can win draws or tie them up and create a scrum.”
All of these factors, especially during the postseason, make the difference between winning and losing games. On the Sharks, everyone agrees with being good on blocking shots, hitting and winning faceoffs.
“We talk about that a lot,” said Dany Heatley, who was part of an extended playoff run in Ottawa in 2007. “You need contributions from everybody. Whatever it takes to win a game. Against Detroit, all the wins were one-goal games.”
And while those three statistics are measurable, there are also the intangibles -- plays that don’t count on the stat sheet, but that everyone in the building can see. Like when Thornton or Clowe protects the puck in the corner for an extra 10 seconds and then creates a play. The extra hits they take also play a role in tiring out the opposition’s best defenders and in the end, may eliminate an extra shift of puck possession for the other team where there’s potential for a goal.
“I like it a little bit,” said Clowe of taking an occasional beating. “It gets me into the game and when you’re controlling the puck a lot, I think it wears down the other team’s D-man. When I’m on the other side, it’s hard when you can’t quite get it. That’s why I like to hold onto it. When they’re trying to reach around me, I’m trying to make them work. That play won’t wear them out, but over time it wears on them. I think you saw that against Detroit and Colorado.”
“Wins and losses, intangibles and little things are measured by winning,” Blake said.
“Whether it’s blocking a shot or taking a hit to get the puck in, that’s what it takes to win those one-goal games,” Nichol said.
The physical part and sacrificing is much easier to take after a win.
“If you get the wins, the hitting doesn’t hurt so much afterwards,” Murray said. “Winning cures pretty much anything.”
“A lot of the one-goal games have been us holding a one-goal lead and a lot of times we’ve had more scoring chances than the other team,” Clowe said. “It all adds up.”
The math is certainly working for the Sharks, even thought there isn’t measurable data for everything they do.
The Sharks will be watching tonight in anticipation of possibly learning their opponent in the next round. Chicago leads Vancouver 3-2 and could clinch with a Hawks win at Vancouver’s GM Place. While the Sharks have no preference for their opponent, they wouldn’t mind seeing whoever they play going to a seventh game and having to face an additional flight from and to the West Coast.
“AND THERE SHE IS…”
Lacey Wilson, the daughter of Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson, will be competing in the Miss USA pageant as Miss Massachusetts. The event takes place May 16, but Sharks fans looking to help out the extended family can vote for Wilson online in the Most Photogenic category by clicking here: http://www.nbc.com/pageant-life/miss-usa/#.
Then click on the “Miss Photogenic” link. From there, a pop-up with each of the contestants’ photos will come up. Click on the photo of Miss Massachusetts and then you must click “select.” You must “select” three different contestants before your vote can be counted, then hit the “Submit Vote” button. Once your vote has been submitted, you must enter your name, zip code, email address and a few other details before your vote is officially counted. Good luck, Lacey!