January 29, 2015 By Paul Gackle

Defense Will Be Key In Sharks’ Final Meeting With Ducks

SAN JOSE — When the San Jose Sharks hook up with the Anaheim Ducks, anything can happen.

The Pacific Division rivals’ first meeting was a knock-down, drag-out brawl with 165 combined penalty minutes. The second bout was a shootout, featuring 10 goals between the two teams. The third game was a 3-2 overtime thriller and the Sharks won the last contest by getting under the Ducks’ skin, drawing nine penalties in the 3-0 victory.

What should we expect in the series finale at SAP Center on Thursday?

Defense. Solid team defense.

“We hope so,” Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy said, when asked if he’s expecting a defensive struggle with the Sharks on Thursday. “But the Sharks have so much offensive firepower. They’ve been an outstanding team against us. We do need to be ready.”

The Ducks (32-10-6), who hold a 14-point lead over the Sharks (25-17-6) in the Pacific Division penthouse, are currently riding a six-game winning streak and playing their best defense of the season. In their last five games, the Ducks have surrendered just six goals, pitching two shutouts in the process.

Lovejoy said the Ducks’ performance in the neutral zone has been key to their recent success on the defensive side of the puck.

“We’ve really focused on shorter passes,” he said. “We have our center coming a lot lower [in the defensive zone] these days and we’re trying to escape, just get it over the red line and really get it deep. Not exclusively using a hard rim, but we’re really trying to do that because we’re trying to get below the goalline. We have so many big bodies that are really hard to play against down there.”

The “big bodies” that Lovejoy is referring to includes Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Devante Smith-Pelly and Patrick Maroon, giving the Ducks one of the toughest forechecks in the NHL.

As usual, the Sharks defense will need to contain Perry, who’s collected 31 points in 33 games, and Getzlaf, who’s making a case for a Hart Trophy nomination with 50 points in 47 games.

“You have to take away their time and space,” Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. “They’re going to get opportunities — it’s guaranteed. You’ve just got to minimize what they get.”

After losing 255 man games to injury and the mumps in the first half, the Ducks are finally getting healthy, which is also allowing them to settle into their defensive game.

“It makes such a difference,” Lovejoy said. “I think we were winning games by the skin of our teeth. We had a lot of guys in and out of the lineup with major injuries and I think any time you can get a healthy team, you’re going to be better. We have consistency now.”

The Ducks are also getting help from netminder Frederick Andersen, who’s recorded 47 wins in his first 64 decisions, tying the mark set by former-Montreal Canadiens goalie Bill Durnan in 1944 for the best start by a goalie in NHL history. But backup Illya Bryzgalov will get the start on Thursday.

With the team defense the Ducks are playing, Logan Couture said the Sharks will need to shoot the puck whenever they see daylight.

“Shoot the puck, get it back and play in their end,” Couture said.

Alternate captain Joe Pavelski agreed: “There’s a lot of teams that we see that are strong defensively and it’s just, over the years, that first shot has to get there. It’s the only way [the defense] breaks down. If you pass it up, there’s a good chance your window will close and your shift will be over.”

With both squads looking to assert their defensive games, the final matchup will likely be decided by special teams. The Sharks are 6-for-20 (30 percent) on the power play against the Ducks this season, a key reason why they’ve put together a 3-0-1 record when matched up against their division rival. Likewise, the penalty kill is executing at a 93.8 percent clip (15-of-16) against the Ducks this season.

“Special teams have played well for us in those situations and I think the games have been emotional and we’ve been able to control our emotions maybe a little better than they have,” McLellan said. “I don’t know where it will go tonight, but they’ve given us opportunities on the power play and we’ve been able to take advantage of it.”