When Marc-Edouard Vlasic was 10, he’d watch Rob Blake play on TV.
Now, as a 21-year-old, Vlasic plays alongside the future Hockey Hall of Famer on the Sharks blue line.
The pair make an unlikely duo -- a decorated veteran and a fresh-faced youngster -- but have helped San Jose’s penalty kill rank among the National Hockey League’s top four.
Over the first half of the season, San Jose has posted an 85.7 penalty-killing percentage, good for best in the Western Conference. Although the Sharks have been put in shorthanded situations 182 times, they have only allowed 27 goals. Blake and Vlasic have been a big part of that success rate. The pair lead all Sharks defensemen in total shorthanded ice time and Vlasic (2:33) just edged out Blake (2:23) in average shorthanded ice time per game.
Although 18 years separates the pair, the two defensemen joke around like buddies. When asked about how he works with Vlasic on the penalty kill, Blake made light of their relationship.
“I let him go corner-to-corner so I can stay in front,” Blake said with Vlasic sitting within earshot.
Later, Vlasic came right back at Blake. “That’s true,” he said with a smile. “The truth is he likes to conserve his energy at an older age.”
All kidding aside, the two have a system that works.
“It’s similar to when we play five-on-five together,” Blake said. “We kind of know each other’s styles and a lot of penalty killing is about anticipation. So the way he goes at a person, I know where the puck’s going to go.”
“He has a lot of experience and he knows what it takes to win,” Vlasic said about Blake. “Watching him play as a kid growing up was great. It’s great playing with a guy who was a superstar when I was growing up.”
Both defensemen carry a strong and quiet demeanor, but according to Head Coach Todd McLellan, they aren’t always that way in the locker room.
“I think both of them are sneaky quiet. They’ve got you fooled,” McLellan said. “They speak when they have to in the locker room. When Rob Blake stands up in the locker room and he has something to say, it gets quiet. People listen.”
|Tampa Bay Lightning's Vaclav Prospal (20) and Martin St. Louis (26) try to score against San Jose Sharks' goalie Evgeni Nabokov, left, Mike Grier (25), and Rob Blake (4) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot) |
Another key element of the Sharks penalty kill has been goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. Some people might say the goaltender is the most important part of the penalty kill. But according to Nabokov, killing the power play isn’t about an individual, but the sum of all the parts.
“The most important part is probably how we play on the fore check on the penalty kill and then how we clear the rebounds,” Nabokov said. “We have to do exactly what the coaches ask us to do and plus a little bit of sacrificing the bodies in front of the net. Mike Grier, Joe Pavelski and Marcel Goc have blocked a lot of shots. Those guys are important. The goalie is probably the main piece, but without those four guys, trust me, the goalie can’t do anything.”
On the opposite side of the Sharks special teams, the power play ranks fifth in the NHL and leads the Pacific Division. San Jose’s 23.4 success percentage ranks second to Detroit in the Western Conference. Over 226 power play opportunities, the Sharks have been able to score 53 times.
When McLellan implemented his power play system and got shots coming from the blueline, there were rebounds galore. Which forward has been reaping the most benefits from this new style of play? Left wing Ryane Clowe.
“The fact that we have the defensemen shooting makes a big difference,” Clowe said. “This year, a lot of my goals have come from rebounds in front of the net. A couple have been ugly, but they all count.”
|San Jose Sharks left wing Ryane Clowe celebrates after scoring a goal against the Calgary Flames in the first period of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar) |
Clowe leads the Sharks in power play points. He has 11 goals and 11 assists for 22 points in 48 games. Behind him are defenseman Dan Boyle (19, six goals and 13 assists) and center Joe Thornton (19, five and 14).
But Clowe’s man-advantage goals make him standout. Only Boyle and Patrick Marleau (each with six) come close. On top of that, Clowe’s 11 goals are eighth in the NHL.
“He has a knack for being at the right place at the right time,” McLellan said. “A lot of pucks come to him and he’s been able to capitalize. That’s been a positive for him and for us as coaches.”
The Sharks have been able to climb into the top-five ranking on the power play and the penalty kill, a stat no other team in the NHL can match. And according to McLellan, all the credit goes back to his team.
“They bought into how we want to do it,” McLellan said. “I think it’s fairly clear what’s expected of them. When they’re on the ice, they rely on that and then on each other to get the job done. It can change in a snap. So everyday, we try to work on some part of it.”
According to McLellan, Sharks fans could see Boyle back in the lineup as soon as Thursday for San Jose’s game vs. Carolina.
“He had a good skate today,” McLellan said. “A lot will depend on how he feels tomorrow. Everything is just day-to-day now. He’s real close.”
As for Jeremy Roenick, Torrey Mitchell and Brad Lukowich, the first player back will most likely be Lukowich.
“J.R. is getting closer everyday and he’s actually started some physical contact,” McLellan said. “Torrey still hasn’t skated again since his setback so obviously we don’t have a definitive date. Lukowich will probably be active in the lineup within the next week, barring any setbacks. But he’s skating more and more and he looks good.”
The Sharks will play hosts to the Carolina Hurricanes tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. (Pacific) at HP Pavilion. The game will be broadcast on CSN Bay Area in High Definition, 98.5 KFOX FM and SJSHARKS.com.