SAN JOSE, Calif. – The San Jose Sharks have searched for an identity on their journey through this lockout-shortened season.
There was the high-powered power play that helped them get off to a record-setting start. Then came an offensively challenged seven-week stretch that jeopardized their playoff chances, followed by a strong closing stretch that has the team brimming with confidence heading into the post-season.
With three potent scoring lines, a goaltender playing at the top of his game and more speed throughout the lineup, the Sharks head into the playoffs starting Wednesday night in Vancouver with the roster and style of play they hope can succeed in the post-season.
“I think we’ve got more of an identity right now,” forward Tommy Wingels said. “We really do. In the past 15, 20 games we found what really made us successful and that’s playing the north-south game. At times you can make great plays but at other times you just have to advance the puck. If a team is swarming and constantly hounding the puck you have to move forward.”
This has been a rollercoaster season for San Jose. With the benefit of continuity in a season without a real training camp or preseason, the Sharks started fast by winning a franchise-record seven straight games to open the season that featured a 4-1 home win against the Canucks.
Then the wheels fell off for San Jose during a stretch when the team lost 17 of 23 games to fall out of playoff position with just over a month left in the regular season.
The team then turned its fortunes during an impressive closing stretch to the season that was fueled by strong goaltending from Antti Niemi, a few under-the-radar trades before the deadline and the move of defenceman Brent Burns to forward.
“We feel great going into the playoffs,” forward TJ Galiardi said. “We’ve had some time to play with our linemates the way the lines are right now. Guys are starting to get good chemistry. We have a pretty balanced attack. Guys can’t wait to get it started.”
The Sharks went 12-3-1 to clinch their ninth straight post-season berth—the second longest current run in the NHL—before losing the final two games.
The Sharks became a much faster skating team with pre-deadline deals that sent impending free agents Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus and Ryane Clowe out. Raffi Torres was brought in to add speed and an imposing physical player to the third line and players like Galiardi, Justin Braun and Matt Irwin got more consistent playing time.
“Playing fast is just getting the puck out of our end quick and getting into the other zone quicker,” defenceman Dan Boyle said. “Today’s game there’s not so much pretty plays passing up and down the ice as much as they used to be. Playing quick is getting it out as quick as you can and playing in their zone. The last 15 games we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
The move of Burns to forward helped add depth to San Jose’s front line as he scored nine goals and 20 points in 24 games as a forward. He helped form an imposing line with Joe Thornton and Galiardi and also allowed Joe Pavelski to drop to the third line, where he excelled with nine goals and five assists in his final 18 games.
Niemi started every game during that run to the playoffs, posting three shutouts, a 1.93 goals against average and a .931 save percentage as he showed off the form he had in helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010.
“He’s a different player this year than last year,” Galiardi said. “The thing with Nemo is he wants a lot of shots and he wants those guys getting breakaways. It’s such a crazy mindset. … He’s the reason we’re here in the playoffs and he’s been doing it all year. It’s a calming effect having him back there.”
The Sharks are also a very different team than the one that made an early exit a year ago when they lost the final four games of a five-game first-round series against St. Louis.
San Jose had been to the conference final the previous two years before falling flat against a faster, more disciplined Blues team. The Sharks had the second-worst penalty-kill unit during the regular season a year ago and then allowed six goals in 18 power-play chances over five games against the Blues.
This year, the Sharks had the sixth best penalty kill unit in the regular season in a trend they hope carries over to the playoffs.
“We’re playing a bit of a different game than we did back then, a game that is more suited to the type of lineup we have,” coach Todd McLellan said. “The confidence level is better than it was last year at this time. Last year we had to do the same thing, we really had to play well down the stretch. But we’ve been playing a better game for a longer period now. We’ve had more unity for our team as far as lines and pairings than last year.”
NOTES: D Jason Demers will miss the opener with a lower-body injury but could return later in the series. McLellan would not say whether veteran Scott Hannan or rookie Matt Tennyson would take his place. … The Sharks have eight players left on the team who played for them in the conference final two years ago while the Canucks have 15.