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Sharks Have Killer Instincts

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon / sjsharks.com

This article originally appeared in Issue 29.3 of the Sharks Magazine. 

When it comes to killing penalties, the Sharks have no reason to doubt what they're told to do.

Through the first two months of the season the Sharks allowed only nine power-play goals in the first 100 short-handed situations for a league-leading 91-percent success rate. 

The gap was wide between the top two penalty-killing units in the league as San Jose was four percentages points better than its closest pursuer. That was the biggest margin between any team on the list. 

Entering 2020 the Sharks maintained a healthy lead on the next opponent, 2.6-percentage points better than the second place team, earning an 87.9-percent rate. 

Historically, the Sharks have had good penalty-killing units in the past. They led the league in 2007-08 with an 85.8-percent rate. The franchise mark was set in 2000-01 at 86.2 percent. So far, San Jose is on pace to beat their franchise mark this season.

Yes, the Sharks are used to being good on the kill, but they've never been this efficient. 

"We've stuck to the same system over the last couple of years, and that helps," Sharks forward Melker Karlsson said. "Everyone knows what to do, and everyone buys in that it's an important part of the game."

In addition to preventing opponents from converting, the Sharks scored four short-handed goals in the season's first two months - two by Evander Kane and one each from Tomas Hertl and Marc-Edouard Vlasic - so not only was San Jose denying opponents it was adding to its offensive totals, too.

Video: VAN@SJS: Vlasic puts home Goodrow's dish on the rush

The Sharks are certainly pointed in the right direction. 

Of the team's first 15 wins, the penalty kill combined to go 49-for-50. San Jose didn't allow a power-play goal in its first eight wins (25-for-25). Not until the fifth of a six-game winning streak - Nov. 14 at Anaheim - did the Sharks allow a power-play goal during a victory. The Ducks converted 21 seconds into a Brent Burns tripping penalty, but the Sharks went 3-for-4 on the kill for a key 5-3 win on the road. 

While the team would prefer to stay out of the box, the Sharks needed all six kills against the Islanders for a 2-1 win on Nov. 23 and followed two nights later on the road with a 5-for-5 showing against Pacific Division rival Los Angeles for another one-goal victory, 4-3 on Nov. 25.

While not at liberty to divulge the penalty kill's "special sauce," but it's pretty easy to paint the broad strokes and see why the unit is effective simply by watching how they go about the task of surviving unscathed two minutes at a time.

The Sharks employ an aggressive kill, they use their feet and reach with sticks to limit time and space. The shifts are short. Blocking shots are a part of it, but not to the extent a goalie gets screened.

The penalty-killing box is always moving, always active, never stagnant. Stand up at the blue line as long as possible to make teams earn entries or win races to retrieve pucks if teams opt to dump it in. Win a draw, clear the puck and don't be surprised if half if not all four killers make a quick change.

 "We have good penalty killers who are smart players, not necessarily the biggest or the toughest, but think the game the right way," Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson added.

There was a time coaches would employ only third- and fourth-line forwards and non-offensive minded defensemen to play short-handed. That was their role. And that allowed top skill players to rest and be available to push back when a penalty expired. 

But that thinking has changed across the board. Coaches realize they have better success if more of their better players are involved in the kill, and it gives them a chance to score short-handed. For example, San Jose used 10 different skaters - including all six defensemen - to successfully kill two penalties (a major and a minor) against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals on Dec. 3. 

"Special teams is always something we've had a lot of pride in, especially the penalty kill," forward Barclay Goodrow said. "Any time we take a penalty we take it as a challenge to kill it off, and create some momentum for the team." 

Goodrow has emerged as a key member of the kill in his sixth season with the Sharks. He's improved his faceoff skills too - along with Hertl - give San Jose a strong 1-2 punch in the circle. Hertl won more than 56 percent of his draws in the first two months of the season while Goodrow was close behind at 53 percent. 

"It's huge to get faceoff wins, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get those wins," Goodrow said. "When ever you can start out the kill by wasting 20 seconds - get a faceoff win and a clear - it all starts with that. And you force them to start off the kill with an entry instead of a set play off the faceoff." 

If and when an opponent gets set up in the Sharks' zone, San Jose walks the fine line of applying pressure where the puck is, or where it's going, while not over-exposing itself by opening passing or shooting lanes. 

"We are an aggressive penalty-kill team, we play with a lot of pace and try to make their skill guys uncomfortable when they get the puck," Goodrow said. "When you do that, you do force them to make plays that they're not ready to make." 

"We have a good system in place that's really detailed," Erik Karlsson added. "The coaches are good at acknowledging small changes and when you get away from things that make you successful. They help guys take a lot of pride in that aspect of our game." 

And that's the final key. Boughner & Co. want the special teams' unit not to hope they can kill a penalty, rather jump over the boards with the intention of preventing the other team from converting and give the Sharks momentum with a solid two minutes. 

Erik Karlsson said: "And it's fun. He makes it fun to play the PK. It's maybe not as structured as people might think from the outside." 

"You get to a point where you look at the penalty kill and make sure it's helping us to win games," Goodrow said. "Especially so far this season it has helped us win a lot of hockey games." 

Ross McKeon has covered the San Jose Sharks and the National Hockey League for 29 years at the San Francisco Chronicle, S.F. Examiner and Yahoo! Sports & authored "100 Things Sharks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" and, with Dan Rusanowsky, co-authored "If These Walls Could Talk/Sharks." Follow on Twitter: @rossmckeon

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