Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Sharks' Key to Game Two: Adaptation

We saw this play out on May 15th, the first game of the Western Conference Finals.  The Sharks, playing an opponent on the road, faced a team that appeared stronger and faster, tested goaltender Martin Jones early, scored the first goal, and handed the Sharks a first game loss by a one goal margin.  On May 30th, we saw a similar series starting game.  If recent history is to repeat itself, the Sharks’ penchant this season for adapting to their opponent’s style will be key in taking advantage this series.

Arguably, the Sharks have faced stronger opposition in reaching the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals than the Pittsburgh Penguins did, eliminating the playoff powerhouse Los Angeles Kings, a gritty Nashville Predators that had beaten a strong Anaheim Ducks team, and the resilient St. Louis Blues, who had eliminated the defending Stanley Cup Champions and a fast Dallas Stars team.  While the Penguins did best the Presidents Trophy winning Washington Capitals, the Capitals’ fortunes had been on the decline in the latter half of the season and had to rely on early season success to maintain their regular season point total.

Any serious analyst would tell you that both the Sharks and the Penguins are equally capable of winning with no team having any significant advantage from the get-go, but what makes the Sharks so particularly deadly this post-season, as mentioned earlier, is their ability to adapt.  While much can be made of the amazing offense and shut-down defense of the Sharks this year, the key ingredient the team has now that was missing in prior seasons is the “adaptation angle” Todd McLellan’s system never could learn.  During the Sharks’ last trip to the post-season, it was evident the team’s strategy stayed the same as the ever-adapting Kings learned the Sharks’ system to take advantage and execute a successful reverse sweep to win the first round series, eventually winning the Stanley Cup.

Even during the Penguins’ dominant first period during Game 1, the Sharks countered in the second period, evening up the score, and turning the third period into a toss-up into who would score the next game-winning goal.  The more the Sharks play against a team, the more they can learn and understand the opposing team’s habits.  (How will the Penguins set up in the opposing zone so that I can eliminate shots to the net?  Is it necessary to forecheck Kris Letang if he has Sidney Crosby zipping up the middle?  Should I be hesitant to pinch in on Phil Kessel if I know he is always going to shoot a low blocker wrist shot from the top right circle?)

“Old habits die hard,” as it is always said.  That is why adaptation works.

The Sharks, as demonstrated this post-season, has continually dominated with puck possession abilities, something that has continued from season’s past.  What makes this season different, however, is the team’s ability to overcome one of my greatest criticisms: the penchant to be “too cute” with the puck with too much passing in the offensive zone, allowing the other team to gain the zone and set up a fortified defense before lethal scoring opportunities could be executed.  Likely spurred on by new head coach Peter DeBoer, we are seeing a far more aggressive offense, which even includes shots on net by perpetual assist maker Joe Thornton, who many felt would score more if he was less hesitant to shoot pucks.  While Thornton’s scoring still has a roughly 3:1 assist-to-goal ratio, many of those came from shots on net with favorable rebounds instead of attempted passes.

Clearly, the more aggressive solution has worked, but in order to beat the Penguins, adapting to their setup strategies to fortify the defense, and to gain the zone aggressively on the offense, is what it will take.  We saw how the Sharks responded after the first period in Game 1, and we saw how the Sharks responded after losing in all games from earlier series.  It is in these responses where we saw the team was willing to take the time to learn and successfully counter.

We are going to see more of that in Game 2, tonight, at 5:00PM PST.

(I will go more into the art of adaptation in my next piece, rather than generalize like I have done here, which will include bits from Game 2.)


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