January 28, 2015 By Paul Gackle

Rink Notes: Sharks Lean On Top Defensive Pairing As Season Intensifies

SAN JOSE — As the San Jose Sharks push for an 11th straight appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the team is relying more and more on its top defensive pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns for stability on the back end.

The Sharks blue line currently features two rookies in Matt Tennyson and Mirco Mueller, a 35-year-old veteran in Scott Hannan and a midseason acquisition in Brenden Dillon. Justin Braun, a stalwart on the back end, is sidelined for four to six weeks with a left-hand injury.

By leaning on Vlasic and Burns, the Sharks can ease the burden on the rest of the group.

“If I have to play 25, 30 minutes, I will,” Vlasic said, when asked about his recent increase in ice time. “I’m more than capable of doing that.”

In past seasons, the Sharks have doled out minutes on the back end quite evenly among their six defensemen, compared to many other squads in the NHL who rely heavily on one or two guys. With a veteran-heavy group featuring Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart, the Sharks had enough balance in their defensive pairings that they didn’t need to lean on any single blue liner for 25, 26 or 27 minutes a night last season.

But the times they are a changing.

In his last six games, Vlasic has seen more than 25 minutes of ice time on five occasions after reaching the 25-minute plateau only four times in his first 41 games. Burns, who receives playing time with the team’s first power play unit, has skated for more than 26 minutes in each of his last four games, including a 28-minutes-and-16-seconds marathon against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 19. Other than Vlasic and Burns, no Sharks defenseman logged more than 20 minutes in their last contest against the Kings on Jan.21.

Burns leads the Sharks in time on ice this year, averaging 23 minutes and 59 seconds per game.

Vlasic, who’s never averaged more than 24 minutes per game in a single season, said a heavier workload won’t hurt his performance.

“I feel great. The more I play, the better I feel,” he said. “The more I’m in the game, I’m more engaged. You’re not just sitting on the bench.”

The Sharks currently hold a one-point edge over the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames for second place in the Pacific Division. They lead the Los Angeles Kings by four points for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Beat L.A. (and Anaheim): The Sharks are 5-1-1 against their interstate rivals, the Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, this season. But the team is hovering just above the .500 mark against everyone else, racking up a 20-16-5 record against the rest of the NHL.

“The rivalry seems to bring the best out of us,” head coach Todd McLellan said.

The Sharks special teams play has also been at its best when they hook up with the Kings and Ducks, who travel to SAP Center on Thursday for the final contest of the rivals’ five-game regular season series.

In their five wins against the Kings and Ducks, the Sharks power play is 8-for-25 (32 percent) and the penalty kill is 21-for-23 (93 percent).

“That’s probably been the difference,” McLellan said.

Kennedy Out, Again: Tyler Kennedy’s hard luck season continues.

Kennedy will be out of the lineup when the Sharks tangle with the Ducks on Thursday because of a lower-body injury.

“He skated well yesterday and was sore after,” McLellan said, referring to the team’s first post-All-Star game practice on Tuesday.

The injury is just the latest setback for Kennedy, who opened the season on the injured reserve and missed games on Nov. 29 and Dec. 2 with a lower-body injury before returning to the IR for more than a month after hurting his left shoulder against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 6.

Kennedy has been a catalyst for the Sharks when he’s been in the lineup this season, adding speed and skill to the team’s third line, where he’s  been slotted for the majority of his minutes.

In 18 games, Kennedy’s collected seven points (4g, 3a) while posting a plus-5 rating.