Sharks

Defense at heart of Sharks' problems

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Defense at heart of Sharks' problems

Its pretty simple sometimes, this game of hockey.

The Sharks are losing games at an alarming pace for a number of reasons, but what it boils down to is quite elementary the team simply cant keep the puck out of its own net.

On its just-completed road trip, in which the Sharks stumbled and bumbled their way to just two wins in nine games (2-6-1) and lost to some downright lousy teams in the process, the club surrendered 35 goals. That averages out to 3.89 per game. To put that number in perspective, the Sharks allowed just 27 goals in 13 games during a 10-1-2 stretch from mid-December to mid-January, or 2.08 per game.

Five-on-five play, which had been so strong all year, also took a step backwards. The Sharks were outscored 30-18 at even strength over the nine games.

Defensively we had a horrible trip, so thats where it starts, Dan Boyle said.

Ive said this all along, if were going to give up four and five a night and think were winning, were dreaming, Todd McLellan said after the 6-2 loss in Nashville on Saturday. We have to keep pounding and pounding and pounding that into their heads until they absolutely believe it.

Complicating matters has been the subpar play of starter Antti Niemi. It certainly hasnt been all Niemis fault, as hes faced a multitude of odd-man rushes and prime scoring chances, but he hasnt made the big stop, either.

RELATED: Antti Niemi game logs

On the road trip, Niemis numbers were horrible. He was 1-3-1 with a 3.94 goals-against average and .859 save percentage, and was pulled twice in the first period.

Since a win on Jan. 15 at Chicago, Niemi is 5-8-1 with a 3.10 GAA and .893 save percentage, and there was even a reported rumor from TSN that the Sharks offered him up to Philadelphia as part of a potential trade for winger James van Riemsdyk before Mondays deadline came and went.

Niemis confidence is shaken, too, as he basically admitted after Saturdays game when he allowed a pair of goals on odd-man rushes on the first two shots of the game to the Predators. After a stoppable one-timer by Kevin Klein got by him later in the first, Niemi was replaced by Thomas Greiss for the second time in three games.

After giving up two goals early, its not the easiest to continue, Niemi said after that game, adding that he felt good at the morning skate and in warm-ups.

There have been calls for Greiss to get more starts moving forward, and it will be interesting to see who mans the crease against Philadelphia on Tuesday. Greiss allowed four goals to the Wild on Sunday, but three came on a deflection in which he had no chance.

RELATED: Thomas Greiss game logs

That would certainly be a statement by the coaching staff, and could fuel a goalie controversy at a crucial time of the year.

Regardless of who it is, though, the Sharks know they have to button up their defensive game if the fading club is even going to make it into the postseason. Complicating matters is the fact that the Sharks have 17 games in the month of March, including another weeklong road trip, leaving little time for practice.

Assistant coach Matt Shaw, who spoke to the media on Sunday after McLellan was unavailable, explained.

We dont have any time to go back and think were going to get some good days of practice. Its just not in the cards, said Shaw. Its going to be a mental strength issue. Were going to become a little bit resolved and determined to right the way the road trip went. We fully expect everybody to do that.

The coaching staff, the players, everybodys involved in that process. We expect that to happen.

It has to. Quickly.

Sharks headed in right direction, road trip to reveal who they really are

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USATSI

Sharks headed in right direction, road trip to reveal who they really are

The difference between a 2-3-0 start and a 1-4-0 start is bigger than two standings points.

The former is far from ideal, but if you squint hard enough, there's enough wiggle room to improve. There's still time with the latter, too, but the margin for error is much thinner moving forward.

The Sharks experienced that difference firsthand after Tuesday’s 5-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens. It's not an ideal record, but they’ve managed to salvage a poor start. 

There are still some flaws, to be sure. The power play isn't just the Kevin Labanc show after the top unit scored all three power play goals Tuesday, but is still carrying a disproportionate offensive load. The penalty kill’s scoreless streak came to an end, but they were called into action six times.

Despite all that, Tuesday's win was San Jose’s best effort this season. Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Joe Thornton all had multi-point games for the first time this year. Martin Jones had another strong game, and appears to have shaken off his slow start.

In short, San Jose’s game is headed in the right direction. It needs to be, with a five-game road trip beginning on Friday. 

Now comes the hard part.

It's on the road where we’ll get our best sense of who this team really is. Peter DeBoer won’t have the benefit of last change, and won't be able to dictate matchups. 

Under these circumstances, we’ll begin to really see if Joakim Ryan is ready for a top-four role, whether Kevin Labanc is a viable first-line winger, and how the rest of the young reinforcements stack up. They will have less time off, too, as all but one game occurs after one day (or less) of rest and travel. That missed practice time isn't ideal for any team, let alone one still trying to work out the kinks.

Fortunately, the competition is forgiving, at least on paper. Other than the Devils, none of the Sharks’ four other road trip opponents have winning records as of this writing. The topsy turvy nature of the standings, though, show how little “on paper” means this early in the season.

We’ll know a lot more about who these San Jose Sharks are by the time their road trip ends. Their record still won't tell the whole story, but by then, they'll have played about an eighth of the season. 

And by then, we’ll have a much better idea of how good this team really is.

Sharks' offense comes alive, leads charge in win over Canadiens

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AP

Sharks' offense comes alive, leads charge in win over Canadiens

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE — Logan Couture credited a teammate for scoring his second goal. He took credit for the first one.

Couture scored a pair of goals and the San Jose Sharks extended their dominance of the Montreal Canadiens with a 5-2 victory on Tuesday night.

Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl also scored for the Sharks, who have won the past 11 home games against the Canadiens, a streak that dates to Nov. 23, 1999.

On a power play late in the third period, rookie Tim Heed took a shot off a face-off that bounced free in front of the net. Pavelski couldn't get his stick on it but managed to kick it across the net for Couture, who found a huge opening.

"That was pretty special," Couture said. "I don't know if he knew I was there but he kept his balance and kicked it over."

Couture opened the scoring 3:30 into the first period, grabbing a rebound off the back board, skating across the front of the net to get Price to commit and then firing into an open net.

Jonathan Drouin and Shea Weber scored for the Canadiens, who are winless since an opening night victory at the Buffalo Sabres.

"It's a very poor start from our team, from myself, from a lot of individuals," Canadiens' Max Pacioretty said. "It's a good time to look in the mirror and see what we're made of because a lot of people are probably doubting this team right now."

Martin Jones stopped 28 of 30 shots for the Sharks, who finish their season-opening homestand with a 2-3 record.

"The biggest thing is finding that energy for the whole game," Jones said. "We started OK and then we got better as the night went on."

Carey Price, who stopped 31 of 35 shots, fell to 2-7-1 in 10 games against the Sharks.

The Canadiens responded 36 seconds later when Drouin picked up a pass from Artturi Lehkonen close in and fired it over Jones' left shoulder and into the net.

Pavelski gave the Sharks the lead for good when he redirected Kevin Labanc's shot just under a minute into the second period. The shot hit Weber's left shin pad and bounced into the net.

"There were a lot of good things out there," Pavelski said. "We didn't have the homestand we wanted but we can leave on a positive note to take on the road."

Hertl padded the lead midway through the second on a power play. Standing on the right side of the net, he was trying to control a pass from Joe Thornton but the puck fluttered off his stick and got behind Price.

"I'll take it any way I can get it," Hertl said. "There are times I've had great shots that just bounced off the post."

Weber's power-play goal two minutes later kicked off Jones' skates for the score.

The Sharks needed five seconds to score on a power play late in the second period. Tim Heed shot on goal and it bounced off Pavelski's skate. Couture picked it up and found a huge opening.

NOTES: After allowing three power play goals over their first five penalty kills, the Sharks killed off 14 straight until Weber scored in the second period. ... Couture recorded his 24th career multi-goal game. ... Sharks D Tim Heed recorded his first NHL point with an assist on Couture's power-play goal. ... Brendan Gallagher needs one assist for 100 with the Canadiens.

UP NEXT:

Canadiens: plays at the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday in their second back-to-back of the season.

Sharks: open a five-game road trip on the east coast with a game at the New Jersey Devils on Friday.