Sharks

Patriots far from one-dimensional

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Patriots far from one-dimensional

SANTA CLARA – When it comes to the New England Patriots’ offense, there’s little question that quarterback Tom Brady is the proverbial head of the snake.

But this season, there’s much more than the 35-year-old San Mateo native and his impressive corps of receivers. The New England running game in amongst the best in the NFL, and brings another dimension to an already explosive group that can put up points in a hurry.

Stevan Ridley, a 23-year-old second year pro out of LSU, leads the way. A third round pick of the Patriots in 2011, Ridley has already accumulated 1,082 yards on the ground, the most for a Patriots running back since Corey Dillon scampered for more than 1600 yards in 2004. In fact, Ridley is just the second New Englander to surpass the thousand-yard plateau in the last nine seasons.

It’s just another weapon that Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s group must prepare for, as it gets set for the Patriots on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.

“Every week in this league is a challenge. This week it’s more of a challenge, obviously because of Brady and their offense and they do a great job, but they do a great job of running the ball, too,” Fangio said. “They are way up there in the running stats.”

He’s right. The Patriots lead the league in total offense (425.7 yards per game, and 36.3 points per game), including the seventh-ranked rushing attack (139.9 yards per game).

They have a league-leading 20 rushing touchdowns, 10 by Ridley. Brady and Shane Vereen have three apiece, while Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden each have a pair.

“I just think their running game as a whole has really complimented their passing game and their overall offensive production,” Fangio said.

Linebacker NaVorro Bowman credits the Pats’ success on the ground to a scheming offense, which at times relies heavily on the no-huddle.

“They do a good job of play-faking off of the same type of run scheme, so we definitely have to have big eyes out there and make you’re seeing everything you need to see to have a good read,” Bowman said.

As for the no-huddle, Bowman said: “It speeds up the pace of the game. You have to really be on it, and be able to think fast out there. Having a good quarterback like Tom Brady, it makes it more difficult. We’ve been gearing up for it, we know that they like to do it, and I think we’ll handle it well.”

The Patriots’ rushers have also done a more-than-admirable job of protecting the football after the handoff. Ridley has lost just one fumble on 243 carries, while wide receiver Julian Edelman also lost one on a rushing attempt. That’s it.

“That’s, to me, one of the amazing things they’re doing well, too,” Fangio said. “They are a high-octane offense yet they haven’t turned the ball over hardly at all this year. When you put those two things together, that’s why they’re a tough assignment.”

Bowman would like to see the 49ers force more turnovers, especially in terms of fumble recoveries. San Francisco has just one of those in its last four games.

In fact, the recently extended linebacker was sporting a new fashion accessory on Thursday, in the form of a wristband. The slogan wrapped around the band had the phrase “To It, See It, Get It.” It, of course, being the football.

According to Bowman, he came up with the phrase with secondary coach Ed Donatell, and the bands will soon be passed out to other members of the defense. They arrived yesterday and are still in a big bag, and only Bowman had one on so far.

“We’ve got to get to it, we’ve got to see it, and we’ve got to get it,” explained Bowman. “We try to pride ourselves on defense with turnovers and going after turnovers, and I think if you do that you give your team a better chance to win the game.”

It won’t be easy, but playing the Patriots rarely is.

Sharks face surprisingly tough test in Avalanche

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Sharks face surprisingly tough test in Avalanche

On a night when Eric Lindros is getting his number retired, who would have thought one of the NHL's best games involves a team that was the worst a season ago, and another features a team that didn't even exist last year?

Okay, most of the hockey world's eyes will be glued to tonight's Golden Knights-Lightning tilt in Tampa, which surely felt just as weird to write as it did for you to read. But Sharks-Avalanche could have that game beat, and not just because Long Beach native Matt Nieto will play against his former team.

No, the Sharks and Avalanche just happen to be two of the hottest teams in the league.

San Jose has won three in a row, and along with Nashville, holds the league's third-longest active winning streak. Colorado, meanwhile, has won seven in a row, and along with Calgary, holds the league's longest streak.

The Avalanche have not lost in 2018, and since their streak began on Dec. 29, have scored the third-most goals and allowed the fewest. With starter Semyon Varlamov out with a groin strain, backup netminder Jonathan Bernier has stopped all but seven of the shots he's seen, good for a .962 save percentage.

Nathan Mackinnon has emerged as an under-the-radar Hart Trophy candidate, or at least he would have been under-the-radar if seemingly the entire hockey world hadn't made the same observation. He's no longer a dark horse, though, and may be the frontrunner if Colorado is even sniffing the postseason at the end of the year.

After all, the Avalanche were far closer to the 1992-93 Sharks than Colorado's glory days last season, losing the ninth-most games in a single season in NHL history. Entering Thursday, the Avalanche are just two points out of the final wild card spot.

To further drive home just how remarkable the turnaround's been, the Avalanche already have three more points than last season. In 39 fewer games.

Colorado may not be as good as they've been over the last seven games, when they've also led the league in PDO, the sum of save percentage and shooting percentage often used as a shorthand for luck. But during the stretch, the Avalanche are also a positive puck possession team when adjusting for score and venue, according to Natural Stat Trick, and eighth in adjusted corsi-for percentage during the win streak, per Corsica Hockey.

The Sharks, too, have been playing much better than before the bye. Two of the wins on their three-game streak have come against the cellar-dwelling Coyotes, though, and they needed overtime and a shootout to beat them.

The Avalanche will then represent the toughest test for the Sharks following the week off, and a potentially thorny end to their three-game road trip. Who would have thought? 

Pavelski a shootout hero in midst of a career-worst cold streak

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Pavelski a shootout hero in midst of a career-worst cold streak

The shootout has been kind to Joe Pavelski all season.

After scoring the shootout winner in Tuesday night’s win over the Coyotes, Pavelski has now scored the fourth-most shootout goals in a single season of his career, and there’s still 39 games left in the season. Only Artemi Panarin has scored more shootout goals (four) than the Sharks captain (three) on the year.

The Sharks have needed Pavelski more than they have after 65 minutes far more than in recent memory. San Jose’s won three games in the shootout this season, one more than last year and one shy from matching their total from the prior two seasons.

Again, there’s still 39 games to go.

San Jose is on pace to win their most games in the shootout since the Todd McLellan era, when they picked up no fewer than five shootout wins each season. This season, those wins are currently the difference between home ice advantage in the first round, as the Sharks are tied for second in the Pacific with two games in hand, and missing the playoffs.

They’ve needed every one of Pavelski’s shootout goals, too. File this under “statistics that are too good to be true,” but the proven postseason performer has scored each of his three shootout goals in San Jose’s three shootout wins, while failing to score in both of their losses.

Pavelski’s needed to deliver in the shootout at least in part because he often has not delivered when actual hockey’s been played. Injuries, age, and an at-times unfathomable lack of luck have all contributed, but the Wisconsin product is in the midst of one of the longest scoring droughts of his career.

He’s not scored an even strength goal since Dec. 1 against Florida. For those keeping score at home, that’s 19 games, a month, and a calendar change ago.

If Pavelski doesn’t score at even strength on Thursday against Colorado, he’ll have matched the longest even strength goal-scoring drought of his career. In 2010-11 and the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Pavelski went 20 games without an even strength tally.

To further put things into perspective, is tied with Joe Thornton and Melker Karlsson for sixth on the team in even strength goals. Thornton’s enjoyed a nice shooting resurgence, but this is an instance where the setup man scoring as much as the sniper is not a positive development.

You can’t only fault for Pavelski for struggling so much, of course, as his team has scored the second-fewest even strength goals in the league this year. He’s also a victim of his own success, and subject to further outsized expectations because of the letter on his chest.

Tuesday showed Pavelski’s still found ways to contribute, even if he hasn’t found the back of the net at even strength. But if Pavelski’s drought lasts beyond Thursday, he’ll be on an unprecedented schnide as far as his career is concerned.

More performances like the former may ultimately be enough to get the Sharks into the postseason. More like the latter won’t get them much farther than that.