SAN JOSE – No part of the Sharks’ game was more vital to their run to the Stanley Cup Final last season than their team defense, and, more specifically, their ability to nullify the opposition’s top scorers.
In the first round against Los Angeles, it was 31-goal man Tyler Toffoli that was limited to just a single assist in five games. Nashville’s Filip Forsberg, the Predators’ leading scorer with 64 points, posted one point – a goal – in seven games in the second round. Vladimir Tarasenko tallied 40 goals and 74 points in the 2015-16 regular season, but didn’t get on the scoresheet at all in the series until garbage time in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, when the Sharks were already preparing to pose with the Clarence Campbell Bowl.
This season, no one in the NHL had more points than Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, who hit the century mark with a pair of assists in the Oilers’ regular season finale, and whose game is a level above those aforementioned players from last season. Shutting him down is probably a pipe dream, but keeping him under control? The Sharks have shown they have the ability to do it.
“It was by committee, and whoever was on the ice [was] getting the job done,” coach Pete DeBoer said of last season’s playoff success. “We're not changing the formula because we're playing Connor McDavid or the Edmonton Oilers, or this is new. We know how to handle good players, and that's on us to get the job done.”
The Sharks will be at a disadvantage in the first two games, as Edmonton will get the last change at home. Todd McLellan knows just as well as DeBoer that San Jose’s best shutdown pair is Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, so the former Sharks coach will try and keep his top line away from those two defenders, in all likelihood.
Still, Vlasic and Braun will see plenty of McDavid’s loaded up line with Leon Draisaitl and Pat Maroon by the time the series is through. Braun spoke of the challenges of playing against the 20-year-old Hart Trophy favorite, who had eight points (4g, 4a) in five games against San Jose this season.
“He gets his eyes up, he’s going to make plays,” Braun said. “If you can get on him early – good gap in the neutral zone will be huge. Other than that, you’ve just got to play those guys hard.”
According to Logan Couture – who may or may not get a chance to face McDavid, depending on his health – McDavid is most dangerous off the rush. The Sharks saw that recently on March 30, when the Oilers captain set up Maroon on a two-on-one, and later scored a shorthanded goal in which he had plenty of time and space to built up his unparalleled speed in the neutral zone.
Managing the puck with McDavid and his line on the ice will be of utmost importance.
“You can't turn the puck over against him,” Couture said. “Obviously, he had 100 points this year. He's scoring on the power play, scoring even strength. He's finding ways to put the puck in the net."
Jannik Hansen said: “He’s so fast, so skilled. You want to make sure that he doesn’t get easy opportunities, odd man rushes. Make sure he’s coming through three or four guys.”
McDavid is coming into the playoffs hot. In the final 14 games he posted 25 points (7g, 18a), notching at least one point in all 14 for the longest point streak in the NHL this season. The Oilers won 12 of their final 14 to take home ice away from struggling San Jose.
There’s no question who is the head of the snake, and who the Sharks are going to have to keep under control if they have any chance at advancing.
“When you look at the analytics and the percentage of the offense he's involved in with their team, it's something you'd be crazy not to pay attention to,” DeBoer said.