SAN JOSE — Over the last decade, Sharks hockey has been synonymous with high-end skill, tic-tac-toe plays and a lot of offense.
But the Sharks are finding success under a different formula this season, and with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture battling injuries, it has allowed them to hang in their first round Stanley Cup playoffs series with the Edmonton Oilers, which is tied at 2-2 heading into Thursday’s Game 5.
“When I got here over a year ago, I really felt that this was a team that talked a lot about offense, talked a lot about power play, and as we’ve seen, that stuff can go cold on you,” head coach Pete DeBoer said. “I really felt that if we put a defensive foundation into our game that we’d be able to survive guys in and out of the lineup or dry spells or power plays going cold — that’s given us a chance.”
The Sharks defense-first identity is certainly giving the team a chance to advance past the Oilers even though they entered the series with their top two centers hobbled by injuries, the power play went 1-for-14 over the first three games and the offense got shut out in Game 2 and Game 3.
As the series moves back to Edmonton, the high-flying Oilers, who ranked eighth in goals per game (2.96) this season, are finding out just how stingy the Sharks team defense can be when it’s on top of its game .
The Oilers are averaging just 1.25 goals per game in the series, they’ve scored only twice in even-strength situations and the league’s top point producer during the regular season, Connor McDavid, has yet to record a point in five-on-five play.
McDavid’s inability to generate offense in even-strength situations is a reflection of the five-man approach the Sharks are taking to defend him. Without a shutdown center who can shadow McDavid inside the blue line, the Sharks are relying heavily on the defensive pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, who match up against the NHL’s top forwards on a nightly basis. But they’re also getting support from the forwards, who are buying into DeBoer’s mantra that it’s worth it to sacrifice offense to play better team defense, a point he drove home when he took over for Todd McLellan last season.
“To contain a guy like that is pretty tough to do,” Couture said, referring to McDavid, who earned a point in 41.2 percent of the Oilers goals this season.
“For a centerman, if you’re playing against him, you’re part of the three-on-three down low, you’re defending all the time. You’re trying to be above (him) in the neutral zone, so he doesn’t generate that speed. You’re putting yourself in defensive spots first, even if it’s in the ozone.”
The Sharks defensive identity also compensates for the team’s lack of foot speed in an era when the league is getting younger and faster every season. Unlike the top scoring teams, like the Oilers, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, the Sharks don’t create a lot of offense off the rush. Instead, they go to work in the half court, wearing teams down on the forecheck with the cycle game, scoring goals on low-to-high plays off deflections and second-chance opportunities.
As a result, they ranked 19th in goals per game this season (2.67), but they spent the majority of the year atop the Pacific Division because they finished fifth in goals-against average (2.44), third in shots against per game (27.7) and sixth in shot attempts percentage in close game situations (51.92), an advanced stat that measures puck possession.
The Sharks style of play is paying dividends against the Oilers as playoff hockey tends to be more defensive.
“I do think that we’re built for playoff hockey,” DeBoer said. “A lot of the rush stuff gets shut down. The game gets tighter, there’s less room out there, you have to find other ways.”
The team’s commitment to the defensive side of the puck is what allowed the Sharks to hang with the Oilers over the first four games of the series when one of their top centers, Thornton, was sidelined for Game 1 and Game 2, and the other, Couture, was struggling to find his game after missing the last two weeks of the regular season.
“100 percent,” DeBoer said. “Even the games they’ve played, they haven’t been at 100 percent, at least early in the series. It’s given us a chance to hang around in the games we’ve lost even when we haven’t played well.”
“Our commitment in that area gives us a chance.”