SAN JOSE -- Remember way back in September, when the Sharks’ defense was the talk of the town?
It wasn’t that long ago they had a whole season ahead of them, and talking heads were calling them Cup contenders before a single puck had dropped -- and a lot of that hype was geared toward the Sharks' blue line. The trade for Erik Karlsson sent expectations into the stratosphere, as if it guaranteed San Jose’s blue line wouldn’t ever lose a puck battle.
With 33 games in the bag, it’s pretty safe to say that bar was set unrealistically high. But after a much-needed win over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, it became clear: As the Sharks' collective game moves in the right direction, their D-corps is following suit and trending in a positive way. Now, it’s just a matter of building on that.
When the Sharks had trouble getting in the win column earlier this season, they struggled to defend chances in five-on-five situations and committed defensive turnovers, losing battles and having trouble helping their out goaltender. The result? Three or more goals finding the back of San Jose’s net on a regular basis. After a particularly difficult 4-1 loss to Ottawa Senators, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic stated: “If you’re letting in six goals, we better score seven.”
To a degree, the Sharks' defense has done that, whether it’s by tightening up in their own zone or capitalizing on more offensive chances. As San Jose tries to string more wins together before the Christmas break, it has cut back on the number of goals that get by, minimizing turnovers and odd-man rushes. The Sharks now are ranked 11th in the NHL in goals against with 98 allowed, an average 2.97 goals per game -- which is an improvement over their previous 3.0-plus mark.
It doesn’t hurt that, in addition to tightening up in their own zone, the Sharks’ defense also is contributing to the offense.
Brent Burns, who's only one off the team lead with 31 points, is leading the charge with 27 assists on the season. While fans might view him as a goal scorer, Burns' abilities as a set-up guy -- especially on a few of Joe Pavelski’s big goals --- have been big for Team Teal. (It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that Pavelski and some of San Jose’s other dynamic forwards have no problem posting up at the doorstep in an attempt to redirect one of Burns’ lethal one-timers into the back of the net.)
No. 88 has helped generate offense on the back end as well, ranking fourth among NHL defensemen with 32 takeaways.
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Burns isn’t the only Norris Trophy winner who's contributing. Karlsson’s level of play has been trending upward, particularly in the Sharks' most recent stretch of games. After tallying an assist in the win over the Stars, EK65 has six assists through seven games and a plus-4 rating in the month of December.
In fact, Karlsson and linemate Brenden Dillon have joined forces to set up a couple goals over the last stretch of games. The duo set up Pavelski in back-to-back games, with the opening goal in last Saturday’s 5-3 win over the Arizona Coyotes and the first-period marker in Monday’s 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils. Dillon also led the Sharks’ physical game Monday, leading all skaters that evening with four hits.
San Jose's blue line recently has added a little punch with Radim Simek recalled from the AHL. The Czech product has found almost instant chemistry with Burns and so far has successfully used his heavy game to slow down the opposition. It doesn’t hurt that Simek also has gotten on the scoreboard, tallying three points (one goal, two assists) in six NHL games played.
All in all, it’s forward motion that looks very position for the Sharks’ blue line. While there still are aspects of its game the team no doubt wants to improve on, things are trending in the right direction.