As with everything in life, the tiny details are the items people care the least about, but they are what strong foundations are made of. For the Sharks, those minute details have helped construct the National Hockey League’s second-best penalty killing unit with a success rate of 91.3 percent. That fact directly correlates with Team Teal’s first place ranking in the Pacific Division and second overall spot in the Western Conference.
Right now, the Sharks are in the middle of stretch where they have stopped an amazing 50 of 52 power plays and they feel success will happen each time they step on the ice down a man.
“It’s like anything, you get a little success and you start feeling confident,” said Mike Grier.
Many of the details are mundane, but they are necessary and any good team desires to be strong in this facet.
“It’s pride more than anything,” said Kyle McLaren. “You want a good penalty kill.”
San Jose has been extraordinary this season at blocking shots and defenseman McLaren is the team leader. It is not just luck with the puck bouncing in your direction.
“It takes courage to want to block shots,” said McLaren. “You have to get your body in the shooting lanes and have good position. There is no hockey school to learn how to sacrifice your body.”
McLaren knows first hand the damage a fast moving puck can have on a player.
“It’s why I started wearing a visor,” said McLaren, recalling the most direct hit he’s taken. “Right in the face (with a lot of stitches).”
Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov appreciates the amount of rubber his teammates take in order to help him protect the net.
“The forwards and defensemen are doing a really good job of trying to block shots,” said Nabokov, who has the Sharks third in the NHL in goals-against average.
Just as important as shots blocked are the shots eliminated. When a club gains the reputation for blocking shots, opponents can have a tendency to shoot less, knowing their efforts may not even reach the netminder.
The most critical part of a successful penalty kill, however, is good old-fashioned hard work.
“The penalty kill has to work harder than the power play,” said McLaren.
No matter how hard the shorthanded units work, there will be the odd chance where the goaltender has to come up with the game-saving stop.
“It almost starts and ends with the goaltender,” said McLaren. “If the shot gets through on the open one-timer, he has to be ready and ‘Nabby’ has been big.”
The far-away shots on Nabokov are the safest play for Team Teal when down a man.
“If we give up the long shot, he’ll get it,” said McLaren. “It’s five-against-five when he is back stopping what he does.”
“Nabby has been there when we make a mistake,” said Grier.
There are times when Nabokov makes the stop, but the Sharks blueliners have to step back into the fray.
“If I make the first save (and there’s a rebound), they get to the puck,” said Nabokov. “We have to be on the same page. They make sure to find the puck if I don’t cover it. They are playing smart and aware at all times. All six have been pretty good.”
In staying with the “keeping-it-simple” routine, the Sharks are clearing the puck whenever possible, eliminating any opportunity for a defensive zone turnover. When the puck leaves the zone quickly, it also allows for quick changes among the forwards and defensemen.
“It’s good to keep the guys fresh, especially in the second and third period,” said Grier. “That’s when you can get a little tired and can slip up.”
When the PK units are fresh, they can be their most efficient in chasing down pucks along the boards or charging towards the point man with the puck.
“Everyone’s been good at getting the puck out of the zone and putting pressure on the puck,” said Grier.
To continue their success, the Sharks know they can’t fall into any bad habits.
“We have to stay focused,” said Nabokov. “The reason we’ve been successful is the guys really care. Defense wins games and I think we’ve been pretty good defensively.”
Even with the Sharks offensive firepower, not every game can be won 4-1.
“It’s tough to consistently score three to four goals,” said Nabokov.
San Jose’s defense, notably when the club is shorthanded, has ensured that is not a problem.
DAY OFF Christian Ehrhoff returned to the ice for practice, while Jonathan Cheechoo, Craig Rivet and Marcel Goc all missed practice with day-to-day injuries.
NEXT GAME The Sharks will play Saturday night at HP Pavilion at 7:30 p.m. PST against Los Angeles. The contest will be aired on FSN Bay Area, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com.