Sharks expecting to play more physical series in West final vs. Blues


Sharks expecting to play more physical series in West final vs. Blues

SAN JOSE – In the few days leading up to the Western Conference final between the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues, it may seem easy to compare this battle to the when the two teams faced off under similar circumstances in 2016. 

But while there are some similar players in both lineups, we probably shouldn’t expect a repeat of that conference final battle from a few years ago.

“It’s tough to compare teams two years later, or three years later,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer told the media after Friday’s morning skate. “I know the core of both teams is probably the same. But you’ve got a different coach on the other side.”

Sure, personnel changes mean we won't see the war of words between coaches like in 2016 between DeBoer and Ken Hitchcock. Or get an encore of former Blues captain David Backes tugging on Joe Thornton’s beard – although another player could try.

But there is one thing the Sharks are definitely anticipating from their third-round opponent – a much more physical series than the one they just played against the speedy Colorado Avalanche.

“I think with St. Louis, it’s going to be a little more like the Vegas series,” Sharks’ winger Kevin Labanc admitted. “More grit, fighting, kind of a harder, heavier game. But we know how to play them, we know how to handle them. We’ve just got to make sure we’re not giving them anything in our own end.”

San Jose is already familiar with the task of getting around St. Louis’ heavy offense and two-way defense. (Blueliner and captain Alex Pietrangelo is tied for first on the team with 11 points through the Blues’ first two playoff series.) The Sharks will have a new challenge, however, facing rookie netminder Jordan Binnington, who matches Sharks goalie Martin Jones with eight wins through these playoffs.

“I think ever since he was called up he’s been a real key factor for them,” Labanc said. “We just have to make sure we’re in his eyes and doing the little things right. The goals will come, we just have to be good defensively and make sure we’re not turning the puck over.”

DeBoer said it isn’t just Binnington making an impact for the Blues, but other young players such as forward Robert Thomas who have positively contributed to St. Louis arsenal.

“I think they’ve done a really good job integrating some of their young guys – impact young guys into their lineup,” DeBoer said. 

Even with some new players in the fold, San Jose remains ready for a more physical matchup and takes pride in being able to pivot from playing a more speed-and-skill oriented Colorado team.

“Our team is built where we have many layers, where we can play a physical series or we can play a more skilled series as well,” Joe Pavelski said. “But there is a certain way we want to play the game and we want to dictate the game in certain areas. St. Louis is a good team and they are physical.”

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There is one element San Jose feels will work in its favor in the upcoming best-of-seven series. Unlike the 2016 series which started in St. Louis, San Jose has home-ice advantage and didn’t have to do any traveling after finishing up its seven-game stint against Colorado on Wednesday.

“That’s huge,” Labanc said about starting the series in San Jose. “Home-ice advantage, it’s awesome here. We just worked so hard all season to obtain that. It just makes the biggest difference. The past two Game 7 games in each series were unbelievable for us, and just having your home crowd cheering for you gives us that little bit of extra energy and that extra momentum.”

Sharks' tough tests continue as team faces East-commanding Sabres


Sharks' tough tests continue as team faces East-commanding Sabres

SAN JOSE -- The Sharks might've tallied their third straight win on Wednesday night by beating a tough Carolina Hurricanes team. But their work against tough Eastern Conference competition has only begun.

Saturday night's contest marks the start of a six-game stretch against teams from the other side of the country, which starts with a home-and-home the Sharks will play against the conference-leading Buffalo Sabres.

That's right. The Sabres have command of the east at the moment. And the offensive weapons they'll bring to the next two games are sure to challenge some areas where San Jose has been at its weakest -- getting hemmed in their own zone and giving opponents too many chances.

Buffalo isn't leading the entire league with 13 points by accident. Through their first eight games of the 2019-20 season, they've outscored their opponents 29-18 and have a power play that has found the back of the net 11 times in 31 attempts so far.

Part of that success is because Victor Olofsson is tied for first in the league with six points per game on the young season. But the Sabres are also getting set-up help from Rasmus Dahlin, a ten-goal boost from captain Jack Eichel, and an offensive jolt from winger Jeff Skinner who continues to roll after posting a career-best 40 goals last season.

Add to it that netminder Carter Hutton is leading the league with a 1.39 goals-against average and .953 save percentage and you have the makings of a team on a red-hot start.

Not to mention one that will put the Sharks to the test.

The Sharks weren't completely satisfied with the effort they put on the ice last Wednesday against Carolina, especially in the first period when they were heavily pinned into their own end of the ice and got outshot 16-7. Despite scoring two power-play goals in that first frame San Jose knew that their penalty kill was the reason the Hurricanes weren't able to take the game over in the second stanza when the score was just 3-1. 

After the win, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer gave a lot of credit to Martin Jones in helping keep the Canes from taking the game over, especially with their power play. "Your goalie's always your best penalty killer," he said. "(Jones) was really solid. I thought in that first period [the score] could've been 3-3."

But the Sharks don't just need another big performance in the net on Saturday. They'll need to find a way to take the ice away from the Sabres and minimize their chances.

Needless to say, San Jose has to find a way to get more zone time against in their first period against the Sabres than they did in their first 20 against the Hurricanes. With an average 30.6 shots per game, Buffalo is winning games whether they outshoot their opponents or not -- not to mention being 6-1-0 when they score the first goal. San Jose might've caught a break in their last game by having a rough first period overshadowed by Evander Kane's hat trick and some killer saves on Jones' end, but they'll have to work harder to get out of their zone against a Buffalo team that's finding the back of the net early and often.

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This isn't to say it's all doom and gloom for the Sharks. They've cleaned a lot of things up over their last three games, getting big contributions from their special teams as well as from their goaltending. 

Getting positive contributions from all of those areas when they face off against the red-hot Sabres is really going to be the key.

Sharks' Brent Burns appreciates connection to STEM programs in schools

Sharks' Brent Burns appreciates connection to STEM programs in schools

SAN JOSE — When the average 5th-grade Sharks fan watches a Brent Burns’ slap shot beeline towards the goal, he or she is probably just worried about whether the puck hits the back of the net or not. The angle of Burns’ shot or the goalie’s save percentage probably isn’t even a blip on their radar.

But SAP’s “Digital Scholars” program is aiming to show students there are math and technology-based jobs in sports too -- ones that look at things like how many goals-against can hurt a netminder's average or how changing the price of merchandise in a team's store can impact sales.

In a hands-on session with students at Baldwin Elementary School in the South Bay, Burns himself had the opportunity to interact with students who are using the program to learn about the different sides of the sports industry, from analytics to jersey sales and more. 

The Norris Trophy winner told NBC Sports California he was impressed -- especially with how quickly the students could make their way through the math-based tasks the program sets up for them.

"It wouldn't be easy for me to do that stuff," Burns laughed after he had watched several students maneuver through the program. 

The initiative's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education platform features a hands-on way of learning, with it's "Data Champions" module that has a focus on football, basketball, and, of course, hockey. Plans for the STEM program to be used in schools emerged in the spring of 2019, with hopes to use the "gamified" program in select schools in seven U.S. states along with Ontario and British Columbia in Canada.

But the laptop-compatible program is more than a video game with a few math-based trivia questions popping up along the way. Although, to be fair, a few questions from the program posed at Thursday's event were hard for even the adults in the room to answer. All in all, it teaches students about some of the detail that goes into jobs surrounding a team -- not just being the star athlete,

So while one task includes moving a puck-scorer to different areas of the offensive zone to get the best shot at a goal, it's also teaching students about turning their interests in this program into future jobs thanks to its "career-pathing" focus, which makes the program more of a job-creating tool and less of a video game.

Something Burns, who spent nearly an hour talking to students about what they were learning from the program, liked about the STEM education overall.

"It was pretty cool to see how it was steering them based on their interests and what they're doing on certain things and what they can look into doing later in life," Burns said. "It's really cool to see that these programs can start tracking based on their interests and what they're clicking on. Just to let them know 'Hey, you might want to look into this.'"

That's high praise from a father of three.

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Burns' biggest takeaway was that the program made learning about the different aspects of sports accessible to any student -- whether they're a future athlete or bound to be a stellar statistician. 

"It's all relatable and that's the biggest thing with school," Burns said. "All of this was relatable and it was helping them steer to the future."