Three Sharks positives that will be tested on five-game road trip

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Three Sharks positives that will be tested on road trip originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The Sharks are off to a surprising 6-4-1 start.

But they're likely about to face their stiffest test yet. On Tuesday, they open a five-game road trip against the 7-1-3 Calgary Flames.

It doesn't get any easier after the Flames -- the Sharks also will visit the 6-3-2 Winnipeg Jets, the 8-3-0 Minnesota Wild and the 7-2-1 St. Louis Blues on this trip.

The only team that San Jose will square off against on this swing that's not currently in the playoff picture? The 4-5-1 Colorado Avalanche -- preseason Stanley Cup favorite Avalanche, that is.

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They'll also have to face Calgary and Winnipeg short-handed. The Sharks currently have seven players in COVID protocol, and none are currently allowed to enter Canada, despite being on the verge of exiting protocol.

In short, the Sharks' feel-good start to this season could be a distant memory two weeks from now.

But what if the Sharks are for real? These three things have fueled their quick start and could carry them through this upcoming gauntlet.

Special teams

The Sharks, as of Monday, ranked 13th in the NHL with a 22.2 power-play percentage and third in the league with a 89.3 penalty-kill percentage. That 22.2 power-play percentage is a far cry from last season's 14.1, which was "good" for 29th in the NHL.

Entering this season, the Sharks committed to simplifying their power play and emphasizing shot volume.

“If everybody’s thinking shot, everybody’s working downhill towards the net, it gives everybody sort of a guideline to go by,” Sharks coach Bob Boughner said during training camp. “But if one guy starts overhandling it and we start trying to be too pretty up top, you’re sort of freezing out everybody else.

“I think it’s about quick puck movement, shot mentality, and it doesn’t matter if it’s [Karlsson or Labanc] or anybody, we want to get pucks to the net. That’s a buy-in.”

The Sharks have received that "buy-in" so far: According to Evolving Hockey, they're fifth in the NHL with a 111.86 shot-attempts-per-minutes rate on the power play. Essentially, they're firing at will on the man advantage.

It's a good sign that the team is indeed on the same page.

Meanwhile, the Sharks continue to be on the same page on the penalty kill.

Over the last two seasons, they've surprised with an 83.3 penalty kill percentage, fourth in the league. It's a surprise because the Sharks have been the worst 5-on-5 defensive team in that period -- their 2.92 goals against at 5-on-5 was 31st of 31 NHL teams.

"[Penalty-killing coach] John Madden was probably one of the best penalty killers ever to play the game," acting head coach John MacLean said of the 2001 Selke Trophy winner. "He takes great pride in how the penalty kill goes."

Team defense

Speaking of the Sharks' team defense at 5-on-5, this might be the most promising surprise about this group so far. They've gone from an NHL-worst defense at 5-on-5 to 17th in the league at 2.23 goals against. This, despite losing two-thirds of their blueline to COVID protocol on Oct. 30.

In Erik Karlsson, Jake Middleton, Radim Simek and Marc-Edouard Vlasic's stead, the Sharks recalled Jaycob Megna, Nicolas Meloche and Ryan Merkley. Twenty-year-old defensemen Santeri Hatakka and Artemi Kniazev also have been forced to make their NHL debuts. Young forwards such as Nick Merkley and John Leonard, who both started the season with the Barracuda, also have been introduced into the squad's defensive ecosystem.

So maybe, just maybe, the Sharks' apparently much-improved defensive structure is no mirage, if anybody can fit into it.

"It's definitely helpful that [the Sharks and the Barracuda are] playing the same systems, whether it's the PK or 5-on-5," Megna said. "I think throughout the organization, it's been preached from Day 1 this year. Guys are really bought in, so it's been a much easier transition for the guys coming in. We've just tried to do our part, not trying to do too much or get outside of ourselves."

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According to SPORTLOGiQ -- a third-party micro-stats tracking company used by the Sharks and virtually every other NHL team -- the Sharks rank sixth in the league in "quality chances against" at 5-on-5. They're also top-10 in slot shots, inner slot shots, rush chances and offensive zone possession time against.

"We're not going to be a team that's going to trade chances, run up and down the ice. We're going to work the puck out as a five-man unit," MacLean offered. "The guys have done a really good job of coming back and stopping up in the [defensive] zone, not leaving before the puck exits."

If the Sharks' team defense can hold against the likes of Calgary and Winnipeg, even with regulars such as Karlsson and Vlasic and Meier out, San Jose might remain in the playoff picture yet.

Goaltending

If the Sharks can sustain their 5-on-5 team defense, their goaltending should only improve. They're currently just 22nd in the NHL with a 92.13 save percentage at 5-on-5.

But even that figure is a gigantic improvement from the Martin Jones era. The longtime Sharks starter was bought out this past summer, and James Reimer and Adin Hill were added. From 2018 to 2021, Jones was the worst 5-on-5 goalie in the league with an 89.71 save percentage.

Obviously, Jones was victimized by the poor team defense in front of him, but he also didn't do himself any favors. It's worth noting, though, that Jones currently sports a .950 overall save percentage as a backup with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Meanwhile, Reimer has been a revelation -- he's fourth in the NHL with a .950 save percentage at 5-on-5 and second with a .946 overall save percentage. It won't last -- Reimer's season-high save percentage is .924 in 2012-13 -- but he's buying time for Hill to get going. Hill has just an .886 save percentage right now.