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Hertl Helps Hertl, Why Blocking Shots Were Lesser Evil for Sharks



Credit: AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes

“You have to have a short-term memory. You have to be able to just flip a switch.”

That’s what Matt Nieto pointed out after the San Jose Sharks pulled out a 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, after back-to-back dispiriting defeats to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings.

It wasn’t a perfect win by any stretch — the Sharks were outshot 31-10 in the last two periods of the game and 22-5 in the final frame — but there was more positive than negative for a team that was looking simply to get back on track.

On Tuesday, as San Jose was getting clocked by Detroit, I wondered who was going to fill the leadership void left by captain Logan Couture and alternate captain Mario Ferraro, both in COVID protocol.

Ferraro returned tonight and alternate captain Tomas Hertl stepped up to the plate.

“I thought Tommy showed amazing leadership tonight,” San Jose Sharks head coach Bob Boughner shared. “Not just because he scored the game-winner. He was sacrificing, he was blocking shots, smart o-zone changes, pumping guys up. He was very part of the game tonight. He stepped up in Logan’s absence.”

But speaking of the game-winning goal…

There’s a lot to like about the lead-up to Hertl’s strike: Timo Meier (28) backchecks hard and takes away a potential easy Victor Olofsson (71) pass to Tage Thompson (72). This forces Olofsson to shoot, which makes Adin Hill’s job a lot easier because he knows what’s coming. Jaycob Megna’s (24) recovery and Ryan Merkley’s (6) sprawl also limits Olofsson’s options.

Here’s where Hertl helps Hertl: Hill kicks out a rebound up the middle, but Hertl (48) locks sticks with an encroaching Jeff Skinner (53). It’s a one-on-one battle where Hertl simply dominates Skinner.

Alexander Barabanov (94) cleverly passes the loose puck to himself past Ethan Prow (6), Merkley activates to push Colin Miller (33) back, and the trailer Hertl beats every Sabre up the ice.

Compare, if you will, Meier’s backcheck effort in this sequence to say Skinner’s.

This was a good example of something that the San Jose Sharks did well defensively tonight, even when Hill was under fire in the final frame — they protected the house i.e. defended the inner slot with vigor. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Sharks owned a 7-1 High-Danger edge at 5-on-5.

This made life easier for Adin Hill, who stopped 37 of 39 shots. It was his first victory since Dec. 7, his last month marred by poor play and a stint in COVID protocol. But with James Reimer dealing with a lower-body injury — Zachary Sawchenko backed up tonight — the Sharks need Hill to step up.

“We had a conversation this morning,” Boughner disclosed. “And we talked about his good games, the first game of the year, in Calgary, how well he played in Toronto. He just wasn’t thinking [tonight].”

Hill shared Boughner’s advice to him: “Stop thinking about it too much, just play my game.”

“He came into camp very confident. Get back to that, have a little swagger in the net,” Boughner added. “I thought he did that tonight. I think we fed off that. You could tell that he was zoned in and he had that swagger.”

Something else the San Jose Sharks fed off of?

The Andrew Cogliano-Nick Bonino-Matt Nieto line, who also provided the game-opening goal.

“That whole line, it seems to give us some identity,” Boughner said after San Jose’s last win against Philadelphia.

There’s been a lot of talk about the San Jose Sharks’ identity, or lack thereof, in their recent defensive slide. So how does the “O Line” play to the team’s identity?

On the offensive side?

“They got us going on the first goal. It started on the forecheck with Bonesy having a great stick and Cogs making a play to Nieto on a quick strike,” Boughner said. “That’s what we try to do.”

This is what the Sharks have been trying to establish from Day One this season:

Preview/Lines #6: Sharks Are a Dump-And-Chase Team

On the defensive side?

Megna sticks the puck away from Will Butcher (4). For a second, it looks like Merkley will be able to grab it and break out.

But notice all three Sharks forwards, facing the slot, committed to defense until San Jose gains full possession. High forward Cogliano (11) could opt to cheat for offense — he can hope that Merkley wins the puck and flips it out to him for a potential breakaway — but he doesn’t. This is an example of a key Sharks’ tactical change this season:

What’s Defensive System Change That’s Transformed Sharks?

Merkley doesn’t corral the puck and Cogliano is instead, by design, in good defensive position to pressure the point. Thompson fires it off Nick Bonino (13) (00:08).

Here’s another example of protecting the house: Butcher fires it into a wall of Sharks, hitting Megna. The Buffalo blueliner is forced to try to shoot it through basically five San Jose players (00:22) because the Sharks are giving the outside up high and protecting the inside.

Hill ends the sequence by snapping up a soft Thompson shot, the Sabres were essentially frustrated into a harmless shot.

The Bonino line took on a lot of water — per Natural Stat Trick, the center was on the ice for five shots for, 22 shots against at 5-on-5 — but the Nieto goal and this defensive stand were good examples of how the Sharks want to play.

In the end, what’s the best way for a less-skilled NHL team to win games? Can you expect them to run and gun their opposition to submission? No — but they can hustle and play smart and forecheck and defend.

“We’re three guys that work as hard as we can every single night,” Nieto said. “All three of us have been in this league for a long time.”

That’s why I don’t have as much consternation over the fact that the Sharks were outattempted 52-17 in All Situations in the last two periods of a game where they had built a 3-0 lead in the opening frame. You knew the Sabres were going to make a push.

If you’re trying to win with marginal players — especially missing Logan Couture and Erik Karlsson — the smart way to win is to rely on defense and to grind out your opponent.

That’s what we saw tonight as San Jose blocked 21 shots to Buffalo’s seven.

That’s what Boughner figured out going into this season, when he re-fashioned the once high-flying Sharks into a defense-first squad.

Why Sharks Have Bought into Boughner’s Defense-First Approach

And that’s what they’ve strayed from, giving up 23 goals in their previous four contests.

Do Sharks Really Believe in How Boughner Wants Them to Play?

Again, 52-17 isn’t ideal — you’d like a little more offensive pushback — but especially short Couture and Karlsson, this was better than seeing the Sharks open up.

“The thing about our D-zone this game compared to previous games,” Nieto noted, “is we had guys laying it on the line out there, blocking shots, just doing whatever you can to keep the puck out of the net.”

That’s got to be the mindset, with or without Couture and Karlsson, if the Sharks want to stay in the playoff hunt. Over putting the puck in the net — keep the puck out of the net.

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