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Defense sparks the Sharks' turnaround

Devin Setoguchi started slow, but is rolling now just like the Sharks. (Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)


By Stu Hackel

Not only does San Jose's Devin Setoguchi have one of the best names in hockey, it's one that frequently comes up in trade rumors. But the way he's playing lately, with five goals in two games, including a pair on Tuesday night in the Sharks' 4-3 win in Detroit, not trading Setoguchi might be the best move GM Doug Wilson makes by Monday's deadline.

For a good part of the season, Setoguchi didn't look like the 31-goal scorer of two seasons ago, but then again, the Sharks didn't look much like the NHL power they had been, either. It took him 24 games to get his first five goals, and in mid-January, he was stuck at seven for the campaign. Meanwhile, the team was flopping around like a hooked fish on the pier, ready for the frying pan -- especially after dropping six straight, their longest losing streak in 15 years that culminated in consecutive defeats at home to the Maple Leafs and Oilers.

Having Joe Pavelski out of the lineup for a few weeks didn't help. But the Sharks weren't getting good goaltending, and key players like Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle played with little impact, if not poorly. Only rookie Logan Couture seemed to consistently find the net. The Sharks sank to 12th in the West, three points out of eighth. The team reeked of underachievement.

Things turned around, perhaps not coincidentally, when Pavelski returned and Antti Niemi started to resemble the second half netminder he was last season for the Blackhawks. He was strong on Tuesday night -- from the beginning, when the Sharks were outshot 9-1 midway through the opening period, to the end -- preserving the win with this save on Johan Franzen with 22 seconds remaining in regulation:

Goaltending has been crucial for the Sharks because while they are on a 13-2-1 run heading into Wednesday's game in Pittsburgh, they have not been blowing out their opposition, scoring just enough to win. Ten of those games have been one-goal decisions and two more were two-goal wins with an empty net tally. That's 12 of the 16. Only once was their margin of victory more than two: last Saturday's 4-0 win over Colorado, a game in which Setoguchi got his first career hat trick.

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So team defense has been key for Todd McLellan's club because to climb back into the race, it had to employ playoff-style hockey in February. Until their current run, the Sharks had surrendered about 2.75 goals per game for the season, but over their last 16 games, they've allowed only 30, an average of 1.87 per game. That's cutting almost a full goal-against per match.

"There's a sacrifice to be made when you're playing hard defensively," Boyle told Richard Pollak of The San Jose Mercury-News. "You're giving up a little bit on offense. But it's all about winning games. Whatever works. And it's clear that defensively we've tightened things up."

"We're sticking to the same formula and the same recipe," McLellan added. "If they continue to give us everything they have on the defensive side, eventually the offense will come. At the end of the day, they have to produce a little more offensively. But it will not be at the cost of play at our own end."

Even the big guns are playing responsibly first, which is how the coach wants it. McLellan mentioned last week that's how coaches have always gotten the best out of Thornton. “What coaches have done with Jumbo in the past is trying to get him to play good, strong defensive hockey.... For us to be successful, and I’m not going to just single out Jumbo. There’s Heater, Danny Boyle, Patty, Pavs – those type of players have to produce offensively without cheating for us to have a chance to win games.”

It's working for Thornton, who has points in his last four games, including three against the Wings. Setoguchi has scored 10 goals in 14 games since January 22. Pavelski has eight points in his last seven games. Marleau has five goals and six assists during the 16-game streak. But Heatley, who sparked the turnaround with three goals and an assist in the first two games after the losing streak, has only two goals and three assists in the last 14.

Fortunately, the Sharks seem to be finding a way to get it done. While Couture's 24 goals lead the team, he hasn't scored in seven games, his longest dry spell of the season, but he's had two assists in each of his last two. He, Thornton and Setoguchi combined twice on Tuesday night in Detroit: the go-ahead goal which featured an impressive net drive by Setoguchi (video) and the eventual game-winner in which he ripped a one-timer from the high slot (video). Two very different goals.

"Devin is an important young player who is now playing well," Wilson told Craig Custance of The Sporting News. "(He's) trending in the right direction."

So while he may be attractive on the trade market, Setoguchi looks just as good staying in teal.