March Madness, hockey style, begins tonight for the San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks play hosts to Pacific Division rival Dallas at HP Pavilion. The game pits two long-standing Pacific Division rivals. The game also begins a stretch of games where San Jose will have 10 of their final 17 within the division.
Of course, the players know this. And so does the head coach.
“We’re getting into a different phase right now,” Sharks boss Todd McLellan said during this morning’s presser. “We’re getting more into divisional and conference play. We play Phoenix and Dallas six of our last 17 games. Throw in another four against Anaheim and Los Angeles.
“I don’t know if this changes our approach,” McLellan added, “but we better be prepared.”
The Sharks enter tonight’s game against the Stars as winners of their last eight games. That’s the longest winning streak of the season and three shy of the franchise record set in the 2007-08 season. In addition, a win tonight against Dallas will tie a Sharks record for most consecutive wins at home, which was established during the 2003-04 season.
Since the Sharks lost six straight in early January, they’ve gone 17-2-1. According to McLellan, there’s been a simple reason for their current success.
“We’re developing an identity within the locker room,” he said. “A commitment-level identity. We block more shots. We finish more checks. We’re more prepared to be involved physically. We compete harder along the boards. We’re better in the blue paint.
“They (players) didn’t go to hockey school and learn all of this,” McLellan continued. “It was there. They just decided to use it.”
McLellan felt the drive for this commitment-level identity came from that season high losing streak.
“When you do that, reality sets in,” McLellan said. “Each of the individuals looked at themselves and what they were and weren’t doing. Policing themselves is very important. They hold themselves accountable the right way. It’s not a bunch of kids bickering over toys in a sandbox. They’re serious about their jobs right now.”
They should be. San Jose leads the Pacific Division by six points over Los Angeles and Phoenix. Meanwhile, Dallas and Anaheim trail by seven. The games-in-hand factor isn’t that huge. The Kings, who play Vancouver this afternoon, are plus-1 over the Sharks. So is Dallas. Phoenix is minus-1, while the Ducks are even.
“They (players) understand numbers,” McLellan said. “They know where they are in the standings. That’s been a powerful motivating factor.”BIG CHANCE
Injuries to defensemen Dan Boyle
and Kent Huskins have provided a huge opportunity for rookie Justin Braun
. Over the last three games in place of Boyle, Braun has been averaging around 18 minutes per game.
“I feel like I’ve been getting more confidence,” Braun said of his play lately. “I’ve been out in more stressful situations. It’s been a good experience.”
The 24-year-old has nine points (eight assists) in 18 games with San Jose. He appeared in 34 games with San Jose’s American Hockey League affiliate in Worcester and scored 23 points (18 assists).
Braun, who made his National Hockey League debut on Nov. 26 at Vancouver, has learned one thing: keep the game simple.
“I just need to make the right play, the simple play, and not to over think too much,” he said.
Rookies often use the phrase “make the simple play” when they make their NHL debuts. What does it mean to Braun? “It just means to get the puck into the forward’s hands as quickly as you can,” he said. “It’s also important to clear (the puck) out of the (defensive) zone and not get trapped in the zone for long shifts. That’s when you get into trouble.”
For now, Braun is paired with Douglas Murray
, who was Boyle’s partner. Murray helps the rookie in many ways.
“He likes to run guys over,” Braun said with a smile. “I’ll come and pick up the puck after that. He also talks to me a lot out there.”