Martin Jones single-handedly saved the Sharks bacon Thursday night. There is no doubt about that.
The San Jose goaltender was under siege for the majority of Game 5. In the end, Jones ended up stopping 44 of 46 Pittsburgh shots as he made a 3-2 first-period lead hold up until Joe Pavelski's empty-net goal with 1:20 remaining in the third sealed the victory.
As the Stanley Cup final now shifts back to San Jose for Game 6, the Sharks surely realize they will need to earn a much bigger slice of the possession pie moving forward if they are to become the first team since the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs to win a final after being down 3-1.
The Sharks were out-attempted by more than 2-to-1 in Game 5 as the Penguins fired 76 attempts towards Jones. San Jose managed to fire just 36 pucks towards Matt Murray at the other end.
San Jose has to be better and likely will be better on home ice where they actually out-attempted the Penguins in Games 3 and 4.
One of the reasons they will likely be better is due to the talents of four players who remain criminally underrated as a group; their top-four defense.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Brent Burns and Paul Martin are as good of a top-four defense as there is in the league. However, given the Sharks reputation of weaker blue lines and goaltending from years past, these four haven't gotten the praise they deserve as a unit. One could argue, even their own head coach has been underrating their abilities. Sharks Head Coach Pete DeBoer has had Vlasic and Burns both averaging well below Pittsburgh's Kris Letang in ice time.
Vlasic-Braun, Burns-Martin Are As Good As It Gets
Readers who have followed my Sharks content at previous sites know that I was a strong advocate for keeping Brent Burns at the forward position. Over parts of two seasons from 2013-14, Burns and Joe Thornton were nothing short of dominant together as a forward pair whether alongside Pavelski or Tomas Hertl.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson though had different ideas and elected to move Burns back to the blue line going into the 2014-15 season. For the next year-and-a-half, this looked to be a poor decision as Burns' defensive game was down right miserable. Last season Burns finished a minus-9 and this year was minus-15 halfway through the season.
While Burns made the All-Star Game both this season and last, it was certainly because of his offensive prowess alone as Sharks fans were often lamenting his defensive mistakes. "Burnover" became a frequently used term by Sharks fans on social media to describe the many poor turnovers Burns would make on a nightly basis.
But then came January 2016.
And all of a sudden, those turnovers started becoming less and less frequent. Not coincidentally, the Sharks started surging up the standings with a terrific 7-0-2 stretch from Jan. 9 through Jan. 26. As the season continued into February and March, Burns' defensive game continued to improve game after game until the sample size was big enough that you could confidently say Burns was now a strong two-way defenseman.
Burns' turnaround has led him to being a Norris trophy finalist this season as the most outstanding defenseman in the league. He will probably lose to Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, but had Burns' second-half defensive game been a season-long performance, he would surely be the favorite to win the award. That is how good Burns has been from January on.
First-year Shark Paul Martin has been the steadying presence alongside Burns on the Sharks' second-pairing. The 35-year-old veteran may be up there in age and not exactly fleet-of-foot anymore, but he can still skate well enough to keep up. His stick positioning is phenomenal and he has underrated puck skills for a defensive defenseman. Martin is incredibly poised with the puck and makes a strong first pass on the breakout. He's also been effective on the second power-play unit.
When the Sharks signed Martin this offseason, knowledgeable Penguins fans and media raved about his game. Martin brought with him high expectations and he has not disappointed. He turned in a plus-13 rating in the regular season, a solid mark considering he played mostly with Burns. Along with stout defensive play, Martin chipped in 20 points during the season. During these playoffs he is third on the team in plus/minus with a plus-9 and has added five assists in 23 games.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic doesn't typically score a whole lot, but the best defensive defenseman in the game today set a new career high with 39 points this season despite playing in just 67 games. A Gold medal winner at the Olympics for Team Canada in 2014, Vlasic was one of the first four defenseman named to Canada's World Cup roster this season. Burns certainly has the better shot and flashy moves with the puck, but if Vlasic were used as a No. 1 unit power-play quarterback, he could certainly eclipse the 50-point mark.
Think about that for a moment. Vlasic is the game's best defensive stalwart, shutting down the opponent's top offensive stars game in and game out, and yet he could also be a 50-point defenseman if tasked with more offensive role. He is also an amazing skater as he isn't far behind teammates Patrick Marleau and Matt Nieto as the fastest skater on the team. His hockey-IQ is off the charts, with the best defensive stick seen in the league since Nicklas Lidstrom.
Not to mention, as he has gotten older, Vlasic has become a bit tougher and meaner as well. He never strays out of position to make a bone-crunching hit, but he truly is tough to play against. Despite being just 6'1" 200 pounds, Vlasic is extremely tough in the corners. Pushing him off the puck is no easy task. His foot work is also impeccable, few defensemen in this league can keep up with the shifty starts and stops of guys like Sidney Crosby and Johnny Gaudreau, but Vlasic can.
While Burns is the official Norris finalist, there is a case to be made that Vlasic is just as deserving of that award.
Perhaps it is only natural that a defenseman as strong as Vlasic would overshadow his partner Justin Braun, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. The Minnesota native is perhaps the most underrated defenseman in the entire NHL, taking over that mantle from his very own partner. Prior to Vlasic's Olympic performance in 2014, he was the most underrated defenseman in the league. Nowadays, you could make the case for Braun.
While not as fast as Vlasic, Braun still has speed that allows him to jump up in the rush and be able to get back on defense. His defensive stick is also one of the best in the league. He is far more than just Vlasic's sidekick. These two are each tremendous two-way players. Like Vlasic, Braun also makes a terrific first pass and would see an increase in his offensive point totals if he were given a bigger offensive role.
Braun hasn't seen much power play time at all the past couple seasons, but still chips in around 20 points every year. While he doesn't have the power on his wrist shot that Burns does, he has always had an impeccable ability to get his point shot through traffic and on net. He gets his shot off fast and with a decent amount of power behind it without having to wind up for a big slapper.
Brauner is the type of defenseman that doesn't score a whole lot because of his role, but whenever he has the puck on his stick in a prime scoring situation, he's likely to get a quality shot off. Some national media may be surprised by Braun's three points in five Cup final games thus far, but nobody who watches Braun closely is surprised to see him get hot offensively. It is extremely disappointing that a player as strong as Braun hasn't gotten more consideration for Team USA. He is that good.
Best in the League?
It is a fair question to ask if the Sharks' top-four defense is the best in the league. No other team can claim to have two Norris-trophy caliber defensemen. While Roman Josi is great for Nashville, his partner Shea Weber is a fraction of his former self. St. Louis defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo haven't been as strong as in years past. Drew Doughty is a Norris finalist for Los Angeles and Jake Muzzin is also tremendous for the Kings but as a duo, they don't compare to the level of Vlasic and Burns.
Really, the only team that comes to mind that compares to the Sharks' top-four defense is Chicago. Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya basically played without a third pair as the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last season. Oduya though left this past offseason as a free agent. The Hawks attempted to replace him with Trevor Daley, but that didn't really work out as Daley was traded midseason to Pittsburgh. Keith, Hjalmarsson and Seabrook are probably a better trio than the Sharks' best three, but the gap between Braun/Martin and Chicago's fourth best defenseman Erik Gustafsson makes up the difference.
The Sharks may not have the best top-four defense in the league, but they are right there with the Blackhawks as the best in the league. It's about time people outside of San Jose take notice.
More Pickles Please
In the Sharks' Game 5 win, Vlasic finally saw an increase in minutes from 23 to 27 as San Jose protected a one-goal lead for nearly two periods. Regardless of score though, DeBoer would be wise to lean on Vlasic heavily in Game 6 and potentially Game 7. He can start resting sometime next week when the season is over.