SAN JOSE -- Don't overlook an improved penalty kill as part of the reason the Sharks are off to the league-best 7-0-0 start they hope to build on Saturday night against the Nashville Predators.
After finishing 29th in the NHL last season, San Jose knew it had to do significantly better short-handed. It took a few games to get familiar with system changes brought in by associate coach Larry Robinson and assistant coach Jim Johnson, but the Sharks entered Friday's play tied for ninth in the NHL with an 83.3 percent success rate.
"We're starting to move together and read off each other and understand what our responsibilities are. That's the biggest thing," Johnson said, adding that goalie Antti Niemi also has done well when breakdowns did occur.
After giving up five power-play goals in the first three games, the Sharks were 16 for 16 on the penalty kill in their next four games.
"Once you get on a little bit of a roll, you get confidence, and that's why we're having a little bit of success right now," Johnson said. "But we've got to keep moving up."
Coaches and players both cite improved play in front of the net as one reason for the improvement, as power plays aren't getting easy second and third chances. But the Sharks also are doing a better job of simply getting the puck out of their own zone, something that keeps shifts short and legs fresh.
Increasing the number of clears was part of the plan.
"That's one of
Center Michal Handzus said many of the clears are a result of players picking up on the need to play as a unit.
"If we don't support each other as well, those clears don't come, because it's not always the first guy to the puck who gets the clear," Handzus said. "Maybe the second guy gets it because there is so much pressure in the zone."
Joe Pavelski, another penalty killer, said that the improvement has taken a lot of hard work and sacrificing the body as far as blocking shots. But avoiding penalties in the first place goes a long way, too.
"We don't have to give them five, six, seven opportunities," Pavelski said. "You want to stay out of the box, but when you do get that opportunity, everyone has to step up."
Coaches generally don't tinker with the lineup when a team is 7-0, but McLellan cited the progress being made by Burns as part of his rationale.
"What you don't want is both of them without any exhibition or game experience coming back in the middle of February," McLellan said.
Demers, he added, also deserves the opportunity to play regardless of the team's record.