The old sports expression is “defense wins championships.” In hockey, there is no more pure defensive part of the game than when a club is playing shorthanded. When a teammate is in the box, the defending club must play a man short, or without 20 percent of its usual allotment of five skaters. Never an easy task, the San Jose Sharks have made it an art form this year.
It’s not as if the Sharks penalty killing in 2008-09 was a detriment as the team finished fifth in the National Hockey League with an 83.3 percent success rate. This year, San Jose continues to be successful at killing penalties. In fact, they lead the League at 86.4 percent.
And they’ve been near perfect at HP Pavilion, killing 94.7 of penalties at home – nearly seven percent better than any other NHL team. Away from Silicon Valley, they’ve stopped 81.5 percent of power plays.
The reason for the success? Players have bought into Coach Todd McLellan’s system.
“He put in a new system last year and now we’re more familiar with it,” defenseman Douglas Murray
said. “It takes a while to be completely confident with it.”
High success rates in other statistical categories also help the penalty killers. San Jose plays an intense style, so they aren’t immune from a trip to the penalty box, but by taking less than 14 minutes in penalties a games, they have kept themselves from unnecessary kills. The fewer chances the opposition has up a man definitely means less goals.
“The big thing is we don’t have that many each night,” Murray said. “It’s tough taking a lot of penalties. We’ve been successful lately in not taking that many. As long as you’re skating, you won’t take many penalties. You take penalties when you don’t move your feet.”
The opponents will always put their top snipers on the power play and in the NHL, given enough opportunities, they will eventually find a hole.
“If we don’t take a lot of penalties, they can’t break down our team,” Murray said. “If you put (Dan) Boyle, (Rob) Blake and those guys (on the power play) eight times a night, they will find a weakness and take advantage.”
San Jose also eliminates a lot of the two-minute increments by simply controlling their faceoffs with their top-rated faceoff men.
“You eliminate 20-25 seconds with every faceoff win,” McLellan said. “If you can win two faceoffs and block one shot (clearing the zone each time), you have a really good chance of killing the penalty.”
The defense is very similar to last year, but there were new forwards brought in who’ve taken on a leadership role in penalty killing.
“We’ve got some good new personnel in Scotty (Nichol) and Manny (Malhotra),” Murray said.
Even with the reputations that preceded them, the new players still had to adjust to the Sharks penalty killing style.
“The system is a little different,” said Nichol, who was with Nashville last season. “It’s a little more aggressive. This is the best league in the world and if you give any team time on the half board, they will make something happen. We try to hurry them and rush the play. You try to minimize the odds the best your can.”
The forwards and defensemen do their work by eliminating time and space, but in the end, shots will be had when up a man. When that time comes, it all falls to one man and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov is a dynamic figure when facing a critical shot.
“The best penalty killer is always the goalie and he’s been great,” Murray said. “When you have a hot goalie, everything looks good.”
San Jose also keeps the opposition on edge by using some of their best snipers as penalty killers. Having Patrick Marleau
, Joe Thornton
and Dany Heatley on the penalty kill can create havoc with an opponent’s power play. Marleau and Heatley have accounted for three of the Sharks four shorthanded goals, a total that’s tied for second in the NHL.
“Todd shows a lot of faith in us,” Heatley said. “Speaking as a power play guy, when the other team throws out two offensive guys with speed, it’s in the back of your mind. If you get the chance, maybe you go.”
To enhance their odds, McLellan has found a way to keep his penalty killers fresher while asking them to skate their hardest.
“Last year we used three pairs, this year we’re using four and maybe more,” McLellan said.
In the end, the Sharks penalty killing units keep feeding off of each other’s success.
“It’s confidence,” McLellan said. “When you step on the ice, you believe you can kill those penalties.”
If the penalty killing units are an indicator, San Jose is one very confident hockey team.
NO NEWS IS NO NEWS
Dany Heatley met with the Ottawa media for the first time since his big trade to San Jose, but there wasn’t much to report
“The first time playing your former team, it is a little different,” Heatley said. “When the puck drops it will be about hockey. I’ve certainly moved on.”
A SPECIAL MASK FOR A SPECIAL CAUSE
San Jose Sharks goaltending prospect Alex Stalock
has agreed to wear and autograph a specially designed W6 Tribute Mask for games in late November until Dec. 6 while playing for the Worcester Sharks in the American Hockey League. The W6 Tribute Mask will help to raise money and awareness for the Worcester Fire Scholarship Program and the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
To bid on the mask, go to http://auction.nhl.com/cgi-bin/ncommerce3/ProductDisplay?prrfnbr=111241326&prmenbr=12717464&aunbr=111588036.
The Worcester Sharks will play hosts to “Heroes Night – A Tribute to the Worcester 6,” on Dec. 6 at the DCU Center at 3 p.m.
On Dec. 3, 1999 a five-alarm fire began in the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse and raged for six days. Six brave firefighters lost their lives: firefighters Paul Brotherton, Jeremiah Lucey, Timothy Jackson, James Lyons, Joseph McGuirk and Lt. Thomas Spencer.
On this 10th year anniversary, the Worcester Sharks have partnered with the Worcester Fire and Police Departments to honor these six individuals and to raise funds for the Worcester Fire Scholarship Program and the burn care unit at the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
“The Worcester Sharks are very proud to be associated with Worcester Police and Fire Departments,” Worcester Sharks President and Chief Executive Officer Michael T. Lehr said. “Alex was very gracious to offer to wear the mask in hopes of raising money and awareness for the Worcester Fire Scholarship Program and the Shriners Hospitals for Children.”
The W6 Tribute Mask will be worn through Dec. 6 and be auctioned off on NHL.com and SharksAHL.com beginning on Dec. 2 at Noon (EST) through Dec. 9 at 3 p.m. (EST).
San Jose will play hosts to Ottawa on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at HP Pavilion. Tickets can be found at the HP Pavilion Ticket Office and at www.ticketmaster.com The contest will be available on CSN California, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com.