St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was analyzing the game of his own goalie Brian Elliott, but he could have been speaking for any number of NHL goalies. Part of the reason, Hitchcock explained, that Elliott has taken so long to regain his form from last season is that he missed the high-level instruction and preparation that comes during a normal NHL season. The long stretch of time away from the NHL and its structured practices and the lack of a real training camp resulted in a slow start for many goalies who didn't get an opportunity to sharpen their game in Europe.
Some, like Elliott, are just now rounding into form.
"Look at all the guys who just went and played shinny and look at how many are struggling," Hitchcock said. "You can't do that and play in this league."
Antti Niemi didn't have that problem. The Sharks goalie played in his native Finland for Pelicans Lahti, and then returned to North America with his goalie coach from Finland to stay sharp.
"[Niemi] worked with him, rented his own ice and spent a lot of time with him," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He was fully prepared to play when the season started. I don't know if the other goaltenders around the league had that luxury."
While other goalies worked to find their games, Niemi was perfect in January with a 6-0 record, 1.95 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. His save percentage has seen the expected regression since then, but he's still at .922 for the season, good for No. 13 in the league.
"Just getting ready and getting a good start helped [with confidence]," Niemi said on Wednesday.
He's been especially effective at home, with a 13-1-4 record at HP Pavilion to go with a 1.75 GAA and .936 SP. He just might be the least talked about Vezina candidate in the league.
And when you're looking for reasons to believe in the Sharks, he's where you start. But really, there's not an NHL team that teases more than San Jose. Twice this year, the Sharks have rattled off seven-game win streaks, which is impressive. It's the games in between that are troubling. So which Sharks team will we see in the playoffs, the streaking Sharks or the team that couldn't execute basic fundamental details against the Blue Jackets this week?
In one thought, Dan Boyle captured the frustrations of Sharks fans perfectly: "We've put together essentially two-seven game winning streaks. Then you've got the other side of it where we've been bad. If the right team can show up -- first of all we have to get in the playoffs -- if and when we get there, if that 14-0 team can show up, we can do some damage. If not, we're going to go out like last year."
This spring, it could be that simple. Depending on which Sharks team shows up.
Ignoring their spotty postseason history for a moment, a couple of key statistics suggest that the Sharks are capable of being a dangerous playoff team this year.
One of GM Doug Wilson's biggest concerns heading into this season was San Jose's awful penalty kill from last season. The Sharks' PK finished last season at 76.9 percent, No. 29 in the league. That's a weakness that will be exposed during the playoffs, and that's exactly what the Blues did, scoring six goals during their 18 power plays in the first round against San Jose. The Sharks were cooked in five games.
This season, there's been a dramatic improvement. Adding Brad Stuart, who leads the Sharks with 2:45 of short-handed ice time per game, was a big part in that improvement. So has the development and contributions of some of San Jose's younger defensemen in Justin Braun and Jason Demers.
San Jose currently has the league's No. 4 penalty kill (86.9 percent) and is tied with St. Louis in allowing only five power-play goals all season at home. A strong penalty kill is no guarantee for postseason success, but a bad penalty kill all but eliminates a team from contender status.
So that's a positive.
Another positive for the Sharks, who currently cling to the No. 5 seed in the West, is their team PDO, a metric that measures a team's luck by adding shooting percentage and save percentage at even strength. Over time, teams regress to 1.000 -- anything above that suggests teams are lucky and below it unlucky. The Sharks' PDO is currently at .990. If anything, they're due for some better bounces during the remainder of the season.
The one somewhat alarming stat is San Jose's goals for/against at even strength. They're currently at No. 21 in the league at 0.91, with the Islanders the only other playoff-position team with a lower number (0.88). If it's any consolation, last year's Stanley Cup finalists -- New Jersey and Los Angeles -- were both very average at even strength during the 2011-12 regular season.
There's enough there to make a numbers-based argument for the Sharks to be a team capable of making a postseason run this spring. The other factor is completely unmeasurable and has nothing to do with numbers: urgency. It's something the Sharks haven't always played with over the years.
That's fine for guys such as Logan Couture and some of the young defensemen who will be a part of that process, but for guys such as Boyle, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, this may be one of the final postseasons they get to make it happen together in San Jose.
Marleau also pointed out that Wilson added at the deadline with the trades for Scott Hannan and Raffi Torres, moves Marleau saw as a vote of confidence after the Sharks picked up their game around the deadline.
"You don't add depth unless you think you're going to go far," Marleau said.
That may be true, but another first-round flop, and the changes could be even more dramatic this summer than what we saw at the deadline. On some level, that could be a driving force for the Sharks this spring.
"I'm still a younger player. I don't think like that," Couture said. "I'm not stupid, I know guys are getting older and stuff like that. We want to win every single year. We realize that people are saying the window is closing and whatever they're saying. Hopefully we win this year and go from there."