Usually, I’d do this from a play-by-play perspective. Regardless, however, I feel the San Jose Sharks play of late has to be addressed. Yes, I know the coaching staff is well aware of the Sharks’ mistakes. And yes, I’m sure the players themselves know what they have to do to be better when you’re on a losing stretch. Obviously, a team can’t be perfect. It’s not possible. However, it still needs to be discussed.
Hockey is a game of mistakes. You want to do everything you can to wait for the opponents to make the first mistake and you want to capitalize on it. Good hockey players will make smart plays. Dump it into the Neutral Zone when it’s appropriate. Initiate the break outs and the odd-man-rushes when you get the opportunities. The coaches will always preach for their players to get to the net. Attack the net. Get in the eyes of goalies. Get those deflections and get to those second chances. Most importantly of all, simplify.
Not-So-Deadly Power Plays
On the power plays, you have to get as many shots on goal as you can and drive for rebounds. You also need to “get in the eyes of the goalie”, as Sharks Color Analyst Drew Remenda would say. Todd McLellan told Kevin Kurz of CSNCalifornia.com late last month that the Sharks recently “went from a shoot game to a cute game”.
“So how do you define a ‘shoot game’ from a ‘cute game’, Coach McLellan?” I mentioned getting as many shots on goals and driving for rebounds, not being so passive on the PP looking for passing and shooting lanes — and over passing. This is a “shoot first” League. Players and goalies will learn to adapt and read off the puck quickly, so you’ve got to get the shot off quickly. A “cute game” is a player trying to do too much. They try to either make cute little passes in the NZ on the break out or on the entry into the offensive zone, or — again — the team may be passing too much. The cute little plays may have worked before, but it doesn’t work now.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify.
I cannot stress this enough. It doesn’t matter how many aspects and details I point out. The key is always going to be the same thing. The Sharks have to simplify their game. It’s not about the team itself, as the coaching staff has well already implemented the fast North/South system. It’s about the individuals. Hockey may be a team game, but a team still consists of individual hockey players. You’ve got to make smart plays. One mistake could cost you the game. If you can’t make the plays you want, don’t do it. If you don’t have to dangle around a defensemen because you’re going to be out numbered, don’t do it. If you don’t have to go for those long break out passes out of your own Defensive Zone, don’t do it. Doing more than you can and more than you should can often lead to either play going the other way or offside calls, which is especially bad on the power play.
Communication is key.
The coaching staff will always try to help you tweak your game, but in the end it’s up to you and your team mates as individuals and the team effort to win. That’s why communication between players is very important. For defensemen, you have to know who you’re covering on D. You have to tell your team mates who you’re going to cover and what areas you’re going to take. If you’re a goalie and the puck’s in the D-Zone, you’ve got to talk to your D-men and make sure they have the puck and are either able to clear the puck out of the zone or initiate the break outs cleanly. As Brett Hedican would say, you can’t hope the play’s going to happen. You need to make it happen.
Keep Your Feet Moving.
It seems like San Jose, more times than not, have struggled to skate faster. Maybe it’s because they’re the team with the most travel mileage in the NHL. Maybe because with the schedule they have, they’re not getting enough practice. The schedule can be brutal, and I don’t blame them for being lethargic, but if you want to win you’ve got to keep skating hard. Maintain shorter shifts so that the other lines can keep the game rolling along and hopefully generate some momentum. Keep your feet moving because if you get lazy on the play, you force the risk of taking a penalty.
Short shifts & Efficient Line Changes
As I mentioned in the above key, you have to maintain short shifts. It may not seem like much, but given how fast the game of hockey is, one shift means everything. Why? First off, it’s a team game. Unless you’re out defending on the Penalty Kill or hemmed into your own zone 5-on-5, you need to try to keep your shifts short. Long shifts can spell trouble for you, as you need to keep your legs moving and stay active.
Efficient line changes are very important as well as where you place the puck before going off on a change. If you go off on a very undisciplined line change AND you place the puck in a vulnerable area and leave room for a possible odd-man-rush, you leave your goalie out to dry and you’d be lucky if he bails you out. However, if you go on a very short and disciplined line change, you’ll have guys back in position in no time so that even if the puck is accidentally placed in a vulnerable part of the ice, you’ll have numbers back and you’ll be able to defend well.
Outnumbering The Opponent
Outnumbering the opposition is another very important aspect in the game. Say, for example a team mate is trying to grind it out along the boards for the puck against an opposing player. The opposing player has numbers to help him get the puck out, but YOU also have to have numbers to counter. If they’ve got three guys grinding it along the boards, you’ve got three helping out and you’ve ALSO got two more players supporting the pass and supporting the break out. As Drew often notes, this is called “shrinking the zone”. But for any other plays as well, you’ve got to outnumber the opposition and support your team mates.
Keep North/South, Not East/West.
You combine everything that I’ve mentioned, which I’m sure at one point in time have all been keys to a game, and you have yourself the North/South system. The game is going at a faster pace. Players have to be able to skate to catch up. Players have to be able to beat others to the puck. They’ve got to be able to communicate and make things happen. They’ve got to grind it out, and the work ethic’s got to be there. The Sharks cannot hesitate in this League. Once you get the puck, you’ve got to make something happen with it. And the players know that every minute of their shift and every inch of ice will have to be earned.
Upcoming Game vs. the New York Islanders
Either I, or someone else, will be covering the preview for the Sharks-Isles game on Tuesday night. Either way, I hope that the Sharks continue to work on their game, get better at it, and back to the fast pace they were playing at earlier in the season. They need to find energy within the group, and they’ll have a chance to make up for a three-game losing streak when they have their home crowd behind them at SAP Center. They may not be able to directly emulate the fire they had coming out of the gate this season (or they may), but either way a win would be really nice. Hopefully they’ll also finally be able to keep leads again. But if they don’t, it’s nothing new because if they’re not lacking in one aspect of the game they’re lacking in another. At the end of the day, the bottom line is execution and simplifying their game are and will continue to be extremely important keys for them moving forward.