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Team Defense A Key For San Jose

by San Jose Sharks Staff / San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks have played four games to date, but have allowed just four goals. That has Team Teal sitting tied for first in goals-against average with a nice and tidy 1.00. Only five clubs are even under 2.00 at this point.

It’s still very early, but a good trend for the Sharks.

Everything begins in the nets and the Sharks have arguably the NHL’s best starter in Vezina Trophy finalist Evgeni Nabokov. Plus, backup Brian Boucher picked up a shutout in his lone start.

“The goaltending, both ‘Nabby’ and ‘Bouch,’ have come in and answered the call,” defenseman Rob Blake said.

“He’s got a different style than everybody else,” defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said of Nabokov. “He’s a wall back there when we need him to be and he also makes our job a lot easier. You can always hear him out there. He communicates well with the D so that helps us out. He does a great job back there.”

Stopping the puck is one thing, but the way San Jose’s netminders play the puck is just as important.

“Either they suck it right up or they push it to the corner,” Blake said of their style. “Once in the corner, you can regroup and you can get back in your D-zone coverage.”

“They play and handle the pucks as any player would on the team,” Vlasic said.

The blueline in front of Nabokov may be the NHL’s best with Blake, Vlasic, Dan Boyle, Christian Ehrhoff, Douglas Murray, Brad Lukowich and Alexei Semenov.

“We’ve got some different personnel in the backend and that seems to help out quite a bit and there are some certain things we’re doing,” center Patrick Marleau said. “We support each other a lot better and that way we spend less time in our zone. But definitely the defense has played very well and it helps having some goalies back there that can stop the puck.”

When opposing clubs enter their offensive zone, the Sharks blueliners aim to eliminate the top scoring opportunity.

“Just take away the best possible shot,” Blake said. “You don’t allow them the best possible shot and you try to control any kind rebound. There aren’t too many with our goalies, but you want to make sure there aren’t any second opportunities.”

“You’ve got to read every rush individually, but we want to keep the pucks to the outside and don’t give them any prime scoring chances from the slot,” Ehrhoff said. “Then we try to clear out rebounds and block as many shots as we can.”

In the end, a great goals-against-average takes contributions from every skater.

“The commitment is from everyone,” Vlasic said. “Everyone’s committed to work defensively and offensively, so in the end it works out. But I think everybody’s more committed in the defensive zone. It takes all six guys on the ice to prevent the goals. When you have a shutout, or you allow an average of a goal a game, it’s pretty good.”

“The forwards have to come back and play defense to help out our D,” Marleau said. “We can’t leave our D hanging out to dry. When forwards pressure back, it allows our D to stand up and do the things they’re good at. That way, we don’t play in our end as much.”

Then there’s the Sharks skill at holding the puck in their own offensive zone.

“We own the offense most of the time,” Ehrhoff said. “We don’t have to defend a lot and our forwards help us out. We try to block a lot of shots and obviously, Nabby and Bouch do a fantastic job.”

Puck possession and having the defense step up on offense is part of Head Coach Todd McLellan’s game plan. While those things are important, playing solid defense is still part of San Jose’s M.O.

“There’s a new system,” Vlasic said. “I’ve been more active in the new system than in the previous one, but the way it is right now, he’s got the D men always being involved in the play. He wants all five guys involved —offense and defense -- so as long as everybody’s committed on both ends, things will go well.”

“Team defense is important,” McLellan said. “We want our team to play on offense, that’s where the rewards are. It’s fun to be on offense. It’s work to play defense and we have to have that in our game. I know for sure that only one guy is going to lead our team in scoring this year. But a whole bunch of our players can lead our team defensively and that’s real important to the success of our team.”

Again, it’s early and the Sharks new coach sees where adjustments can be made.

“It varies from night to night,” McLellan said. “It’s just like your power play and penalty kill. Offensively you’re there one night, then you take a step back a little in a certain area. It’s getting better. Giving up 19 shots to Rick Nash’s line wasn’t a positive sign for us the other night. A number of them came on the power play. I understand that, but defensively, we turned the puck over too many times and allowed some very good players opportunities to score against Nabby.”

Nabokov has been a prime reason for the early team success, yet he’s quick to note the season is still young.

“I don’t think anything is a foregone conclusion,” Nabokov said. “I want to see more of the same.”

As does the entire team.

Forward Tomas Plihal was skating on the ice on Thursday, but is still sore. Defenseman Douglas Murray was out with an upper body injury and will be replaced by Alexei Semenov on Friday.

The Sharks will visit Anaheim on Friday and the contest will be on CSN Bay Area in HD, 98.5 KFOX and The 7 p.m. game will also be carried over the Armed Forces Television Network.

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