Johnson: These Sharks keep moving ... fast
Flames will have to work to keep pace in San Jose
They’ve got a lot of sailfish in them, these new, sleeker, more aerodynamic Sharks. The sailfish — ahoy, all you landlubbers — happens to be the fastest fish found in water, generating speeds of up to 112 km/h.
“That is the biggest difference,” reckons San Jose coach Todd McLellan. “I think the pace we’ve been able to play at is what’s pleased us the most so far.
“(Thursday) night (in Dallas) it wasn’t as evident, wasn’t there when we needed it. But up until then we’d played a fast game. That’s the type of team we wanted to transform ourselves into beginning with the deadline last year.
“We just looked at our group and felt we were stuck in third gear, rather than getting up to fourth or fifth. And the game moves at such speed now that if you’re not careful you’ll be left behind.”
The Calgary Flames, interlopers to the SAP Center on Saturday, can relate. Their mandate, too, is to push the tempo,
No team at the moment is ramping up the RPM better then the San Jose Sharks.
“We know that it can go the other way, quickly,” cautioned McLellan. “That’s why we had a good gathering (at practice) today. Because I didn’t think we were as sharp in Dallas” — a 4-3 shootout loss — “as we needed to be.
“Hopefully we’ve addressed that and we play the way we can.”
Perched atop the over-ll standings at 13 points out of a possible 14, they are NHL.com’s No.1-ranked for the week. The only entry left without a regulation blemish (6-0-1). Most goals scored (33). Tied for second fewest allowed (13). Nudging the 40-shots-per-game mark. Absolutely dynamite on home ice.
From Brad Stuart’s suspendable headshot on Rick Nash to the frightening sight of Dan Boyle crumpled on the ice after being run from behind into the woodwork by the St. Louis Blues’ Ian Lapierre. From Czech rookie Tomas Hertl’s four-goal binge to Jumbo Joe Thornton’s off-color, off-the-cuff, so-obviously-off-the-record comment in Vancouver. From the six-game winning streak off the hop to Brent Burns’ Chewbacca-inspired visage, the Sharks have been at the heart of headline-making in the early going.
“How would I describe the Brent Burns look?” laughs McLellan. “Scary. He played in the league, at 18 as an underage, I believe. Then at 19 he played for me in Houston during the lockout in ’05. Back then he couldn’t even grow hair on his face. He was 35 pounds lighter. Now he’s packed on some beef and he’s loaded with air.
“He’s a free spirit. His look matches his personality.”
Personality, from a collective perspective, is something San Jose management obviously felt needed tinkering with.
When GM Doug Wilson off-loaded 225-pound Ryane Clowe to the Rangers and 245-pound Douglas Murray to the Penguins around the deadline last year, worrywarts wondered if the Sharks mightn’t have gotten too small, too soft. In fact, they’d only begun modernizing, sweeping Vancouver and then taking the reigning Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings to seven torture-test wars in Round Two of the post-season.
The re-shaping has continued into this season. Inserting freshman Hertl and bushy-bearded defenceman-turned-winger Burns onto Thornton’s line and adding another winger with some licketysplit, Tyler Kennedy, late of the Penguins, to a Logan Couture-Patrick Marleau partnership has provided depth on the top six up front, and allowed ‘Little Joe’ Pavelski to return to his natural position, centre, on the third line.
McLellan’s top guys are performing on demand — Thornton, Marleau, Couture and the Hertl each have nine points, Pavelski’s at eight. Antti Niemi’s goals-against-average (1.70) and save percentage (.930) are both exemplary. They’re getting rock-solid mileage out of the Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Justin Braun defence tandem, each at plus-9, helping ease the loss of Stuart to injury and then suspension, and now the irreplaceable Boyle.
The Sharks, remember, reeled off seven wins in a row to open last season. And wound up having to wait until the final regular-season home game to clinch a playoff spot. So no one’s getting out the helium to fill any Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade floats just yet.
“The differences in us, from the beginning of last season to now are enormous,” judges McLellan “A lot due to circumstances. Last year with the lockout and the very short training camp — basically four days — we were a veteran group, maybe especially in the specialty-team department. So our powerplay got off to a quicker start than other teams and we relied on it. A lot.
“Last year, we also had a small group — maybe three or four guys — contributing up front. They did all the scoring. This year we had a full training camp. We’ve tried to turn over the way we play, transition to being a quicker team. The special teams have been … OK, but we haven’t had to rely so much on them. Our offence now comes from a lot of areas.
“So there’s a totally different feel to last year.”
The rise of Hertl, exploding into the hockey conciousness with his four-goal night in a 9-2 rout of the New York Rangers, has been one of the great stories of the early-going.
“He’s very … I use the word ‘innocent’ with him because he’s such a new player, not only to San Jose and the NHL but to North America and the language,” McLellan said. “He’s been blessed with a couple really good linemates who’ve helped him along, shown him the ropes. There hasn’t been a fear in his game of the NHL … and by that I don’t mean afraid to go in corners or anything like that. But intimidated by the league. That hasn’t existed. He knows where he is but he’s not over-awed by his surroundings, maybe because he doesn’t know any better.
“He’s really just playing hockey right now. And it’s great to see.”
Saturday, the Flames get their first chance to see what all the early-season fuss has been about. The Sharks, in a sense, too.
“From what we’ve seen on tape, and in pre-scouting, they have real good qualities,” McLellan said. “They’re hounding pucks, they’re relentless and you can tell they’re a unified group. They know they’re going into a game together and they know they’re coming out of a game together. They usual the tools they have and everybody gives whatever they’ve got.
“We’re under no illusions that it’s going to be easy.”
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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