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Inside the Cage: Five Keys for the Long Haul

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

The Sharks' five-day break probably couldn't have come at a better time. Rest, relaxation and - eventually - hitting the reset button by Saturday when San Jose next hosts Arizona will springboard the team into the second half of a season that features more positives than negatives.

"Overall, we're OK," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer assessed Sunday following a 1-2-2 grueling slog through the frigid ice and snow of Eastern Canada that left the Sharks with a 21-13-6 mark after 40 games. "We're not perfect. We're not exactly where we want to be, but it could be worse."

With 48 points in 40 games, the Sharks are on pace for a season's total of 98 after 82 games. And while nothing is assured in what will be a nip-and-tuck race to the end, any team that can eclipse the 95-point plateau should be in position to secure one of the conference's eight playoff spots.

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Inside the Cage: Power Play Mojo

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

The Sharks power play has rediscovered its mojo, and just in the nick of time.

At a point in the season when the team's defensive posture slipped just a bit, the reunion of San Jose's top skilled skaters - and with the addition of one new piece - has helped pick up the scoring slack, and enabled the Sharks to go 8-3-2 since Thanksgiving.

In fact, after struggling mightily to convert with the man advantage in early-to-mid November - a drought that led to breaking up the group that had enjoyed much success in the recent past - the reunited special teams' unit is clicking at a rate that threatens the club's record book.

The Sharks come into Thursday's game against visiting Calgary with at least one power-play goal in eight straight contests. The team is 13-for-37 (35 percent) during the run that started on December 7 against Carolina, and has enjoyed converting multiple times in half of those games. That has shot the Sharks to eighth in the league at 22.1 percent in a category they finished a disappointing 25th last season.

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Inside The Cage: Tierney Turns It Up

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

It's amazing what difference it can make when a player truly feels good about himself.

Chris Tierney is living proof of the power of mental well being. Of course, that transformation doesn't just happen because a player wants to carry himself with more confidence. It all starts with hard work.

And for Tierney, that meant getting to work long before the current season started.

No more than a couple weeks of rest and time for a short vacation passed after the Sharks' opening-round playoff loss to Edmonton did Tierney find himself back in the gym with renewed vigor if not a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

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Inside the Cage: The Comeback Kids

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

And on the 11th day, the Sharks took a deep breath and a long rest.

Much deserved.

As the ice chips settled following a stretch of six games in 10 nights - along with East Coast travel thrown in if the schedule wasn't challenging enough - the Sharks came out of it in pretty good shape.

Going 6-5 during its 11 games in October, San Jose since has battled injury, a goal drought, and experienced power outages on the power play while just starting to get into the guts of its winter travel schedule. With all of those obstacles that could derail a less experienced team, the Sharks have earned points in 13 of 18 games going 10-5-3.

That stretch translates into a 105-point season pace. And added to their first month, the Sharks are safely above the postseason cutoff line with a projected 99 points.

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Inside the Cage: Timo Time

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

A player drafted in the top 10 carries expectations in his hockey bag right along with gloves, skates and other hockey gear. Everywhere he goes they go, too.

Timo Meier is learning that fact the hard way while living in these demanding, we-want-it-all-yesterday times. Funny thing, though. Those expectations aren't only felt from the outside. The Sharks first-round pick (9th overall) in 2015 has them of himself as well.

"I have high expectations for myself," Meier said. "I think that's the most pressure. I want to work hard and have success. But I want to play for the team. Being a high pick, it doesn't really matter once you're in here. You want to earn your spot if you're a first-round pick or a seventh-round pick. I want to go out there and compete."

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Inside the Cage: Return of Road Ice Advantage

Sharks Hit the Road After Uncharacteristically Few Number of Away Games Thus Far This Season

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

Time for the Sharks to spend some time on the road less traveled.

San Jose has enjoyed an uncharacteristic early-season stretch at home thus far, so much so that the usually frequent-flying Sharks will have played the fewest number of away games by a Western Conference team by the time they face off Tuesday against the Flyers in Philadelphia.

The Sharks look to avenge a 5-3 Opening Night home loss to the Flyers, who will have played at Pittsburgh against their intrastate rivals and defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins the night before. San Jose also hopes to cap a winning month of November (6-3-2) with points in a fifth successive game to eclipse its season-best run from Oct. 28-Nov. 11 with points earned in four straight.

The Sharks played only eight of their first 22 games on foreign ice, and earned points on all but two stops while posting a 5-2-1 record. The division-rival Ducks were scheduled to play their ninth road game on Monday, leaving only the East's Senators and Rangers with as few away contests as the Sharks.

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Inside the Cage: Sharks Defense is Buying Time

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

It's easy to see the Sharks are searching for consistency in their forward lines and reconfigured power-play units in the hopes to produce more goals.

What's easy to overlook is the fact the Sharks defense, staunch goaltending and attention to detail on the penalty kill is buying the team time to solve it's challenges at the other end of the ice.

The netminding duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have combined to amass a league-low 2.24 goals-against average through 19 games. After his first two starts of the season, Jones has allowed more than two goals in a game only once. That's two or fewer permitted in 11 of his last 12. His back-up Dell had produced similar numbers.

Here's Jones: 2.11 GAA and .926 save percentage. Here's Dell: 2.14 GAA and .923 save percentage. Each has posted a shutout, too. And Jones, well established as a No. 1 goalie in his third full season in that role, has posted a save percentage of .920 or better in 10 of his last 12 games.

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Inside the Cage: More Than Okay

Goaltender Aaron Dell has established himself in the NHL

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

Let's start with the nickname: 'World's Okayest Goalie'.

The moniker is a good match when you consider the source - Aaron Dell - has that self-deprecating sense of humor that just seems to always work in the hockey locker room.

But, frankly, it doesn't fit anymore.

Others have tried. Dell arrived with the predictable nicknames of 'Deller' and 'Dellsie'. Joe Thornton got on a roll early last season when Dell won the team's back-up goalie battle, but had yet to really establish himself in the league.

Apparently the self-appointed arbiter of substitute names for teammates, Jumbo Joe first hung 'Dellicious' on Dell. Then he followed up with 'Licious', 'Lish', 'Bubbalicious' and … well, you get the idea. Clearly Thornton was getting off track.

In reality, the 28-year-old native of Airdrie, Canada, is making a name for himself with his ability and results. He doesn't need any clever label or pet name attached at this point - Aaron Dell the reliable NHL goaltender will do just fine.

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Inside the Cage: Back On Track

After last season's down year, Joonas Donskoi is feeling confident again

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

One game at a time, little by little - a juke here, a poke check there - Joonas Donskoi is starting to resemble the rookie who burst on the scene two years ago.

Twenty-three years old at the time, the native of Raahe, Finland validated the Sharks' decision to take a chance on a free agent who was originally drafted by Florida in 2010, but never pursued a pro career with the Panthers.

Donskoi produced 11 goals and 36 points in 76 regular-season in 2015-16, and made an impressive impact in San Jose's long run to the Stanley Cup Final by punching home another six goals and 12 points in the 24 postseason contests. He was responsible, too, for probably the single greatest highlight at SAP Center when he scored the game-ending overtime goal in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh 12:18 into sudden death. 

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Inside the Cage: Working Towards the Big Picture

After a slow start, the Sharks are getting close to where they need to be

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

The Sharks just might be on to something here.

Frustrated they didn't take better advantage of a season-opening five-game homestand, the Sharks have since stayed the course, used a road trip to minimize distraction while honing their game and now are starting to look more like their familiar selves again. 

Monday night's grind-'em-out 3-2 win over the dangerously legitimate Toronto Maple Leafs fortified the team's belief that things are back on track to match the expectations everyone had during training camp.

San Jose does not view this 2017-18 season as anything other than an opportunity to put itself in the best possible position come spring time when health and how a team is playing after 82 games goes a long way toward a chance for postseason success. 

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