Strong defense in first half has San Jose primed for another Cup run

By Daniel Reedy:

Just six months removed from their historic run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the San Jose Sharks remain a top team in the Western Conference and are in an excellent position at the season’s halfway point as they are on pace for 100 points and have eight more than they did at this point last season.

San Jose is tied for first in the Pacific Division and remains tough in the defensive zone, ranking fourth in goals against per game — seven spots better than last season.

Plenty of credit goes to goalie Martin Jones who is tied for third in the league in wins and third in goals against per game in the Western Conference. Still just 27, Jones is developing a reputation for being one of the league’s best goaltenders. Earlier today, Jones was named an All-Star for the first time in his career.

“It’s a great story as far as the way he’s come up and not been handed anything and worked for everything he’s got,” said Sharks’ head coach Peter DeBoer. “Now he’s established himself. I’m very happy for him.”

And yet, Jones is only 22nd in save percentage.

This has less to do with Jones’ play and more to do with the Sharks’ outstanding ability to block shots and prevent opponents from shooting the puck at all.

San Jose ranks second in least shots allowed per game the same ranking San Jose held at the end of last season.

Even when opponents are able to gain the space to take shots, San Jose blocks an incredible amount of attempts. The Sharks rank fifth in the league and second in the conference in blocked shots per game (15.925) despite not having a single player in the top 30 for blocked shots. However, Logan Couture and captain Joe Pavelski rank ninth and eleventh amongst forwards; Pavelski has the fifth most including last season.

Shot-blocking is nothing new for the Sharks who blocked the sixth most shots last season and have finished in the top six in blocked shots in each season since 2011-12. Including this year, the Sharks are fourth in the league during that timespan.

But despite the stout defense, San Jose has only killed off 83 percent of its penalties (eleventh in the league). This is actually an improvement off last season’s 80.5 percent which ranked 21st. The 2015-16 actually got worse in the playoffs, and finished eighth of 16 with a 79.7 success rate. The Sharks only killed 76.9 percent in the final round against Pittsburgh.

So far this season, the biggest factor in the San Jose’s penalty killing has been not taking penalties to begin with. The Sharks are first in the Western Conference and second to only Carolina in the NHL with the least amount of penalties taken (110).

Eleventh certainly isn’t bad and the Sharks actually rank eighth in penalty kill on the road. While the Sharks’ top four blueliners are their predominant penalty killers, some struggle should be expected as San Jose uses several different players when facing man-advantages. Second-line center Couture and third-line center Chris Tierney are staples on the unit and are often each paired utility wingers Joel Ward and Melker Karlsson. Although recently, rookie forwards Kevin LaBanc and Timo Meier have seen more time on the penalty kill, often in place of veterans Patrick Marleau and Mikkel Boedker.

The most significant issue for the Sharks on defense has been winning faceoffs — or lack thereof  — in the defensive zone. San Jose ranks 24th in the league at 47.6 percent, allowing opponents more time on the attack.

This isn’t a new problem.

Although last season’s team finished 7th in total face-off percentage, these Sharks were also 24th ranked in face-off-win percentage in the defensive zone (and were 13th out of 16 in the playoffs). With that said, the Sharks do step it up when they are behind and have won the 10th most face-offs when trailing.

A statistic of concern is the spread of goals against. While the Sharks rank second and third respectively in goals against through periods one and two, but have surrender 44.4 percent of their goals against afterward. This was a similar problem last season as they gave up 39 percent of their goals after the second period.

Stronger play at the end of the game is certainly expected as San Jose begins the second half but the Sharks’ success in their own zone has carried the team as its offense sputters. The Sharks remain in the bottom half of the league in scoring, but the defense has been strong enough thus far to lead them to a division-leading 24 wins.  

The Sharks will face another tough test as they take on the Oilers in Edmonton led by superstar Connor McDavid at 7 p.m.


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