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Sharks' early success not a fluke

Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have been crucial to the Sharks' winning ways in 2013-14. Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty Images

There are a lot of flashy explanations for the San Jose Sharks' success.

Tomas Hertl has emerged as one of the game's best rookies, with his combination of skill and size making him a great fit with Joe Thornton. There has been Brent Burns' successful transition to forward. The addition of Tyler Kennedy continues the San Jose trend toward speed that general manager Doug Wilson started at the trade deadline last season. The increase in speed is so noticeable that one reader compared the Sharks to the Oregon Ducks football team in Friday's mailbag.

The Sharks haven't lost in regulation, the last team in the NHL this season to have that distinction. They have a goal differential of plus-24, which is more than the combined total of goals the Rangers and Flyers have scored all season.

All these trends and developments were suggested to a Western Conference scout who recently saw the Sharks play as explanations for their success, and he glossed over them. What impressed him most was a more subtle development, one that could keep the Sharks rolling into (and hopefully through) the postseason.

"The evidence [for the Sharks success] was the pairing of Justin Braun and [Marc-Edouard] Vlasic," the scout said. "I thought they were really good. ... Braun has really stepped his game up."

Those two Sharks defensemen are both a plus-10 this season, which ties Chris Kunitz and Kevin Bieksa for the league lead. Vlasic has already equaled last season's point total of seven through nine games.

Their advanced stats are just as strong, with Vlasic's Relative Corsi at 17.3 and Braun's at 15.9, a sign that pucks are heading in the right direction when they're on the ice.

Both are 26 years old, just about the age you want your high-end defensemen to be when forming a championship-caliber team. And early signs this season point to this pair being the kind of shutdown duo that can help San Jose break through in the spring.

Monday night's win over Detroit was a great example of their effectiveness. It was a game without a regulation goal, and you can count on one hand how many tough saves Jimmy Howard and Antti Niemi had to make before the shootout. Considering the offensive firepower on the ice all game, like Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, that's impressive.

There just wasn't any room out there, a sign that both teams are committed to both ends of the ice and completely buying into what their coaches are asking. When Datsyuk and Zetterberg were on the ice, Braun and Vlasic usually were as well. For one game, the Red Wings' superstar duo was completely shut down.

"They played most of the night against two of the better players in the league right now in Datsyuk and Zetterberg. One had one shot, and the other one had two shots," said Sharks assistant coach and Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson. "If we've got two shutdown defensemen any better than Vlasic and Brauner, I haven't seen them yet. I'm sure every team thinks they do. I feel very, very confident every time I put those two guys on the ice."

Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman was in the building and surely noticed the effectiveness of Vlasic, who is making an Olympic statement this season against tough competition. There isn't a defenseman on the Sharks who plays against tougher forward competition, and Vlasic's Corsi for percentage (62.4 percent) is still among the best in the league, right next to Team Canada competition Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, according to ExtraSkater.com.

Braun has seen his ice time jump from 18:48 last season to 21:26 this year. He still hasn't played a full 82-game season in the NHL but clearly has earned the trust of Robinson and head coach Todd McLellan.

He's not going to be a player who puts up noticeable offensive numbers, but that's not his job. His subtle play with Vlasic has been a great fit.

"He's not flashy, but he doesn't make any mistakes and his compete level is really good," said the scout. "He just wins little puck battles. His isn't a sexy, rush the puck up and down the ice game. He does so many little things right. He gets the puck moving up the ice."

It's natural to be suspicious of the Sharks' early-season run. We haven't forgotten that San Jose started last season a perfect 7-0 before falling off a cliff.

"We're coming to that point now," Sharks forward Joe Pavelski said.

Last season, the winning streak was followed by a 10-game stretch in which the Sharks won just one game. All the early-season momentum and cushion were completely wiped out, and by the time the deadline rolled around, Wilson was restructuring his team.

Players point out that last season's early success didn't have the feel of legitimacy this year's does. It came on the back of some pretty fluky and unsustainable goal scoring, with Marleau scoring nine of the Sharks' 27 goals in that stretch. He ended up scoring just eight more goals the rest of the season.

Marleau is hot again, with seven goals in nine games, but he has company in 2013-14. Hertl has seven as well, and the Sharks have 10 players with at least two goals. By comparison, the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks have six players with at least two goals.

The addition of Hertl and Burns to the group of forwards gives the Sharks three lines for the opposing teams to contend with.

"[In 2013], we weren't getting much production from the second, third, fourth lines. This year we are," said Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart. "We have three lines that can score on any given night. That's been the biggest difference for me, just having that depth up front. We're not relying on one or two guys to score every night. That doesn't win you anything in the long run."

As McLellan points out, the start of the 2013 season was such a unique situation because of the lockout. Each team was at a different point in its development, with players in various degrees of preparation and comfort.

"This year, we're all in a common world with a long training camp, exhibition games, the ability to work on your games," McLellan said. "I think this year's start has more significance than last year."

That may be the case, but the Sharks have a history of hitting dry spells over the course of the long season. They know it and hope to learn from previous mistakes.

The fast pace and structured play that we started to see last season from the Sharks has carried over nicely into this season. Factor in the development and growth of that top pair and this start looks legitimate.

The Sharks, though, have to be more than an offensively skilled team to win it all.

"It's great to score goals, but you're not [always] going to be able," Robinson said after shutting out the Red Wings. "You're going to have to get through nights like this by playing solid defense. I think that's kind of what wins you championships."