COMMENTARY | With the season less six weeks old, the San Jose Sharks' stunning 8-0-1 start is showing signs of being ancient history. Not convinced the Sharks are in a slump? Take a look at the calendar - it's been over two weeks since the Sharks have won a hockey game (an October 27 victory at Ottawa).
The NHL season is long and every team will have its peaks and valleys. But, as the Sharks try to skate their way out of this particular valley, they are finding themselves falling behind in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division. Tuesday's night game at Calgary gives the Sharks their next chance to break out of the slump and start another streak.
It's not a coincidence the Sharks' struggles parallel the time forward and 'human wrecking ball' Brent Burns has missed with injury. Burns provides a spark felt throughout the dressing room, and his heavy play in the offensive zone has been sorely missed. The Sharks compensated and were able to overcome the loss of defenseman Dan Boyle during his injury recovery. Burns, however, can't return quick enough for the Sharks' fortunes.
Shoot out struggles
The Sharks apparently don't like working for free in extra time, having lost one game in OT (against the division rival Kings), and struggled mightily in shootouts, going 1-4. In the shootouts, the Sharks have had absolutely horrible execution, with shooters going a combined 3-for-17. The only Shark to have scored in a shootout is forward Logan Couture; every single other shooter has failed to convert. The shooting struggles simply put too much pressure on goaltender Antti Niemi, and have proven next to impossible to overcome.
First to three isn't always winning
Last season, with Niemi playing like the Vezina Trophy finalist he eventually became, the Sharks knew they usually had to score only three goals to secure a win. This year has been a little different. Niemi was his typical stellar stopper self the first month. However, since the slump started, Niemi has been victimized by several defensive zone turnovers that have ended up in the back of his net. While his season stats still look great - a .951 save percentage and 2.21 goals allowed per game - Niemi is looking to get back on track after allowing 16 goals over the past five games.
50/50 pucks are no longer 50/50
The Sharks just haven't played well enough over the past couple of weeks. They have had leads and have been in games until the very end, but haven't found a way to punch through with a victory. Sometimes a hockey team will run into a hot goaltender who is "standing on his head" - it's an inevitability in the sport. A team will go through a streak where the puck just doesn't seem to go into the opponent's net.
It's during those times a team has to focus on what it can control - namely its effort in chasing down 50/50 pucks and winning the majority of one-one-one battles. It's about falling back to the basics of hustle and playing with passion and heart.
Look for the Sharks to focus on fundamentals when they face-off with the Flames on Tuesday. They better get it straightened out quickly, as games with Vancouver and Chicago loom later this week.
@RayHartjen is a longtime rink rat who firmly believes both the "face wash" and the "scrum" should be accepted societal norms, from sidewalks to boardrooms.
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