SAN JOSE – It was January 5, and the Sharks were coming off of their worst defeat of the season, 7-2 to the St. Louis Blues two nights earlier.
Changes to the team’s look on defense were deemed necessary by coach Todd McLellan, who split up Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, despite that pair being the best shutdown duo for the past season-and-a-half. Vlasic was instead partnered with Brent Burns, and that’s where he remained up until Monday’s meeting with Montreal.
For the last two games, the reunited Vlasic and Braun have led the Sharks in ice time, while Burns and Matt Irwin have played together, as have Brenden Dillon and Mirco Mueller.
The results have been positive. The Sharks played their strongest defensive game in weeks on Monday, holding the Canadiens to just 20 shots on goal in a 4-0 win. It was the fewest number of shots they had allowed in nearly two months.
On Tuesday in Vancouver, the Sharks won their second straight game for the first time since the end of January, 6-2 at Rogers Arena.
As a pair, Vlasic and Braun are a combined +7 (not including the two empty net goals against the Canucks) against some pretty difficult opposition.
“I’ve played a lot of games with Justin, so it’s pretty easy,” said Vlasic, about being paired again with Braun.
“He’s quick, he can move pucks, he can take the hit, he’s strong on his feet. The thing I like is when he takes a hit he’ll do the same play again. Some guys will be a little timid and won’t go back to get pucks, but he can skate himself out of trouble. … I like playing with him. I like playing with all the guys, though.”
On January 5, when Vlasic and Braun were split up before a game in Winnipeg, the Sharks sat 14th in the NHL with a 2.54 goals-against average – a worse mark when compared to previous seasons, but still in the top half of the league. In the 23 games after that, the Sharks surrendered 74 goals for a GAA of 3.22, falling to 23rd in the league (2.79) before Monday’s win over Montreal.
Complicating the situation was both Vlasic and Braun missed time due to injury, but even before Braun hurt his hand on Jan. 19, keeping him out for nearly a month, he didn’t look as comfortable as he had during his breakthrough year of 2013-14. Perhaps now he’ll find that groove again with the season on the line.
Also of note is that Burns’ ice time has been reduced over the last two games. On Monday against Montreal, Burns played 19:50, followed by 20:36 against the Canucks. That’s down more than four minutes from his average, as Burns hadn’t played fewer than 21 minutes since Dec. 6.
McLellan said that Burns’ reduced five-on-five role – he played less at even strength than any Sharks defenseman at home on Monday, where the Sharks can dictate matchups – is only a function of Vlasic and Braun playing more. Still, it’s been well documented that Burns’ defensive miscues have been costing the Sharks on the scoreboard all season, including another error on Tuesday that allowed Henrik Sedin a tap-in goal in the second period.
Keeping Burns off of the ice against the opposition’s best players, while continuing to give him big minutes on the power play where he contributes the most, could be an effective strategy for the final stretch. It also gives the Sharks a more offensively gifted pair of Burns and Irwin – who has been arguably San Jose’s most improved player since the All-Star break – against potentially easier competition.
“He’s big and strong, I’m big and strong,” Irwin said. “We move the puck, and we can hop into spots and get it up to our forwards as quickly as possible. We both have a shot. They can’t cover us both at the same time, so if we can get some motion, get a little confusion for their forwards up top, it creates opportunities for us.”
All three of the team’s pairs will have to play well in their own end, of course, for the Sharks to get back into playoff position. This homestand will be challenging, as the Canucks, Penguins, Predators and Blackhawks all visit SAP Center over the next 10 days.
“You can’t protect and get every match you want, especially on the road,” McLellan said. “It can’t just be Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard [Vlasic]. The other four have to be able to play against the other team’s best players, as well.”