SAN JOSE Its been a long four days since the Sharks last played a game, but its time that could benefit the team down the road.
After a day off immediately following Wednesdays 3-2 overtime home loss to the Canucks, San Jose held three extended yet spirited practices at Sharks Ice as they prepare for a stretch of 13 games in 22 days leading up to the NHL All-Star break. It begins on Monday against Vancouver (5:00 p.m., NBC Sports Network).
The break gave the Sharks a chance to work on their struggling special teams game, which simply put is going to have to improve if the club is going to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup in 2012. The Sharks are 28th in the league in penalty killing (75.2 percent), including the worst in the NHL at home (72.3 percent), and 15th in power play percentage (18.2 percent).
San Joses power play is just 5-for-49 in its last 15 games (10.2 percent).
Its not where we want it to be, said Michal Handzus, who sees time on both units. I think its lost us more than a couple games, for sure.
How do you remedy that?
Just constant work. I think were getting better at it and just working at it with the four days off, he said.
The penalty killing has been a constant Achilles heel for the club since it allowed three goals to Phoenix on opening night. After finishing 24th in the NHL last year, its led to speculation that the Sharks just dont have the personnel on the ice to get the job done.
Thats not something coach Todd McLellan can worry about, though. His challenge is to find a way to make improvements with the players he has, and its something he tried to do for at least a portion of each of the three days this weekend at the teams practice facility.
He was asked if there were any visual improvements from Friday to Sunday.
Small things that we tried to adjust or change a little bit evolve with each of the units. You can see them working on it and you can see them trying things, McLellan said. What you dont want them to do is get into a game like tomorrow and be thinking it all the time. You want them to play it naturally.
Its going to be fresh in everybodys mind, Patrick Marleau said. It should be a lot easier to go out there and execute it.
Thats the biggest challenge of all. Teams can only do so much in practice, and coaches can only ratchet the intensity level up so high, before the fear of hurting a teammate or your own self keeps each player from going full speed.
Every drill you do in practice you try to create game intensity. You do the best you can but you always get to about that 85 percent level, and its hard to push it past there, McLellan said.
Its not because dont want to do it, but you want to avoid injury. When you get on the power play drill youre not always shooting the puck like you would in a game, because of shot blocks and guys getting in the way. That affects things.
The red-hot Canucks are on the other end of the special teams spectrum. Vancouver continues to lead the NHL in power play at 24.2 percent and is seventh in penalty killing at 85.7 percent. The Sharks and Canucks were each 1-for-4 on the power play on Wednesday night.
That will be the big test. Vancouvers got very good special teams, so we know that we play against them that could very well be the difference, said McLellan.