NASHVILLE – It’s a luxury not often provided to NHL coaches.
For the past 23 straight games, the Sharks have dressed the same assemblage of defensemen with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Brent Burns, Paul Martin, Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo skating on a nightly basis. That group, along with solid goaltending, has held the opposition to 2.08 goals-per game during the Sharks’ current 9-1-2 stretch in their last 12.
“Knock on wood, it’s been really fortunate,” Pete DeBoer said on Saturday after the Sharks’ morning skate at Bridgestone Arena. “That, for me, is the backbone of our team. I think all six of them have been outstanding. They have a real good feel with each other, they’re comfortable in the pairs they’re in. Combine that with the goaltending we’ve been getting and the forwards commitment to defend, too. I think we’ve been hard to play against defensively.”
Martin said: “When you find that thing that works it’s pretty common to stay with it, and when guys are staying healthy that helps too.”
The defensemen have stayed healthy virtually all season. Dillon and Burns have played in all 50 games, Martin and Vlasic have missed three, and Braun two.
As the sixth guy, DeMelo has settled in.
“Safe, steady, smart,” DeBoer described the 22-year-old. “If you’re a young guy trying to get into the league and get the coach’s trust, he’s just done that. He doesn’t play outside of himself. … He’s getting better and better. He has a little bit of Vlasic-type intelligence on the ice.”
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At one point during Thursday’s game in St. Louis, Patrick Marleau had one impressive shift where he helped force a turnover in the offensive zone, quickly made a nice pass to Joe Pavelski, and Pavelski drew a hooking minor on Jori Lehtera.
On the ensuing power play, though, Marleau got the puck taken away from him twice and the Blues were able to clear the zone. He slammed his stick in frustration on the boards on the way back to the bench.
“When things like that happen, obviously you want to do better than that,” Marleau said. “You don’t want to be making mistakes out there. I just let it out, and then move on to the next thing.”
The 36-year-old forward has gone 15 straight games without a goal in a manned net, but DeBoer said on Thursday morning before the Blues game that he’s still happy with Marleau’s performance.
“He’s creating chances every night. He gets at least one, two real good looks a night. Early in the season they were going in, now they’re not,” said the coach. “I’m not that concerned about it. I think his effort is in the right place every night. I think his heart is in the right place every night. He’s playing well away from the puck for us. I know that’s going to turn.”
Marleau nearly had a goal with seven minutes to go against the Blues, outracing Robby Fabbri and taking the puck directly to the front of the net, where Brian Elliott got just enough to keep It out.
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The Sharks won’t make any lineup changes for Saturday’s game, so Mike Brown will remain out for the fourth straight game. From the sound of it, Brown could be sitting a little while longer if the team stays healthy.
When asked about not having the energetic pugilist on the bench, DeBoer said:
“It’s a luxury to have one of those guys in the lineup. At the same time, I don’t see us getting pushed out of games or pushed around. I don’t think it’s an issue. It’s the time of year now where points are too valuable, you cant afford to sit in a penalty box unless the game swings one way or another by a few goals. These are all one-goal games. I think it becomes less and less a piece the further into the season you get.”
Brown has not played a shift since the final game before the All-Star break, when his third period roughing penalty on Drew Doughty led to a power play goal by Los Angeles in its 3-2 overtime win over the Sharks.
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Nashville’s Ryan Johansen has been solid since he was acquired for Seth Jones in a trade with Columbus, with 12 points (4g, 8a) in 12 games.
“He’s a legit number one center in the league,” DeBoer said.
In goal, though, expected starter Pekka Rinne is having a rough year. After giving up six goals to the Flyers on Thursday on 19 shots, his save percentage for the year is down to just .903.
In 19 career games against the Sharks, Rinne is 9-5-4 with a 1.79 goals-against average and .946 save percentage.
He’ll face Martin Jones, who is 8-1-1 with a 1.97 GAA and .929 SP in his last 10 starts.