Sharks

Penalty kill's surprising turnaround vital to Sharks' early-season success

Sharks

Joel Ward’s game-tying goal late in the third period of the Sharks’ shootout win over the Ducks on Saturday night was a second shy of counting as San Jose’s first shorthanded goal of the season.

The Sharks pressured the Ducks below their own goal line, forcing Antoine Vermette to rim it around the boards. Barclay Goodrow took advantage of a fortuitous bounce, a bad pinch, and another good bounce to get the puck to Ward and give San Jose a two-on-one rush.

A shorthanded goal would have been a fitting reward for the Sharks’ revamped penalty kill, which was the NHL’s second-best entering Sunday.

San Jose has killed off a remarkable 89.6 percent of their shorthanded opportunities, and has only allowed two power play goals in their last 12 games.

It’s a remarkable turnaround from last season, when the Sharks over-performed with a man in the penalty box. They ranked 18th in penalty kill percentage (80.7 percent), but were one of the league’s worst at limiting scoring chances.

Only nine teams allowed scoring chances on the penalty kill at a higher rate than the Sharks last season, according to Natural Stat Trick. This season, San Jose is allowing almost eight fewer scoring chances per hour of penalty kill time than last year (49.63 vs 57.17, via Natural Stat Trick).

 

That’s the seventh-lowest rate in the league, and a big reason why goaltender Martin Jones has posted a career-high shorthanded save percentage. He’s stood tall when called upon, but the Sharks aren’t asking nearly as much of him as they did last season.

San Jose’s penalty kill has not only helped its goaltender, but the rest of the team as well. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Sharks boast one of the league’s least-potent offenses, sitting 23rd in goals per game. Simply put, the penalty kill’s kept them in games.

The same could not be said of the penalty kill down the stretch last season. San Jose killed off 9 of their 34 shorthanded opportunities, or 73.53 percent, in the final 13 games of 2016-17, while the offense mired in an extended slump.

It’s not a perfect comparison, as they’ve scored more in this season’s first 13 games (35) than last season’s final 13 (27). Plus, the Sharks have been a much better possession team in that calamitous stretch.

But, the penalty kill’s turnaround has still offset a somewhat inert offensive start. It’s not only been a pleasant surprise for the Sharks, but one of the most important.