Sharks

Any time without Vlasic would represent a real test for the Sharks

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USATI

Any time without Vlasic would represent a real test for the Sharks

The San Jose Sharks sealed their first three-game winning streak with a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Wednesday night. In the process, they still experienced their biggest loss of the season.

Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game just over a minute into the third period with an apparent head injury. Predators forward Ryan Johansen lined up Vlasic for a hit along the boards, and his elbow appeared to drive Vlasic’s head into the boards.

Head coach Peter DeBoer offered no update on Vlasic’s status after the game. Given Vlasic’s own injury history, and his importance to the team, the Sharks have plenty of reasons to be concerned.

Last season, Vlasic suffered multiple facial fractures after taking a puck to the face in a December 30 with over the Philadelphia Flyers. Vlasic missed the next four games, and was not the same player defensively after returning.

He scored 19 points in 40 games after the injury, compared to 9 in 35 before, but his puck possession numbers cratered upon his return. Last season was the first in Vlasic’s career where the Sharks attempted less shots than their opponents with the defenseman on the ice, according to Hockey Reference.

Since Vlasic appeared to suffer another injury to his head, the Sharks will need to be extra cautious working him back to health and towards a return to the lineup. His recovery is the most important priority, even as the Sharks will likely struggle in his absence.

Even though Vlasic failed to drive play in the same way he’s done in the past last season, his presence opens up opportunities for his fellow defensemen. This season, no Sharks blueliner has started a lower percentage of shifts in the offensive zone than Vlasic, per Natural Stat Trick.

With Vlasic and partner Justin Braun drawing the toughest assignments, Brent Burns and Tim Heed are freed up and able to create offensively while playing against more manageable competition. Vlasic’s potential absence, then, will fundamentally change how DeBoer utilizes his defense.

The Sharks could soon have reinforcements, as defenseman Paul Martin is practicing with the team and DeBoer told reporters after the game he’s “getting closer” to a return from injured reserve. His return will ensure something resembling normalcy on the blueline, as San Jose will still have three defenseman playing on their proper side.

Make no mistake, though: any time without Vlasic would represent a real test for the Sharks, who went just 2-4-1 without him last season. Any team is in trouble after losing a minutes-eating defenseman to injury, but the Sharks are especially dependent upon him.

Vlasic’s presence makes life easier for his teammates, and his absence will make things much harder as the team is beginning to hit its stride.

Sharks face surprisingly tough test in Avalanche

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USATSI

Sharks face surprisingly tough test in Avalanche

On a night when Eric Lindros is getting his number retired, who would have thought one of the NHL's best games involves a team that was the worst a season ago, and another features a team that didn't even exist last year?

Okay, most of the hockey world's eyes will be glued to tonight's Golden Knights-Lightning tilt in Tampa, which surely felt just as weird to write as it did for you to read. But Sharks-Avalanche could have that game beat, and not just because Long Beach native Matt Nieto will play against his former team.

No, the Sharks and Avalanche just happen to be two of the hottest teams in the league.

San Jose has won three in a row, and along with Nashville, holds the league's third-longest active winning streak. Colorado, meanwhile, has won seven in a row, and along with Calgary, holds the league's longest streak.

The Avalanche have not lost in 2018, and since their streak began on Dec. 29, have scored the third-most goals and allowed the fewest. With starter Semyon Varlamov out with a groin strain, backup netminder Jonathan Bernier has stopped all but seven of the shots he's seen, good for a .962 save percentage.

Nathan Mackinnon has emerged as an under-the-radar Hart Trophy candidate, or at least he would have been under-the-radar if seemingly the entire hockey world hadn't made the same observation. He's no longer a dark horse, though, and may be the frontrunner if Colorado is even sniffing the postseason at the end of the year.

After all, the Avalanche were far closer to the 1992-93 Sharks than Colorado's glory days last season, losing the ninth-most games in a single season in NHL history. Entering Thursday, the Avalanche are just two points out of the final wild card spot.

To further drive home just how remarkable the turnaround's been, the Avalanche already have three more points than last season. In 39 fewer games.

Colorado may not be as good as they've been over the last seven games, when they've also led the league in PDO, the sum of save percentage and shooting percentage often used as a shorthand for luck. But during the stretch, the Avalanche are also a positive puck possession team when adjusting for score and venue, according to Natural Stat Trick, and eighth in adjusted corsi-for percentage during the win streak, per Corsica Hockey.

The Sharks, too, have been playing much better than before the bye. Two of the wins on their three-game streak have come against the cellar-dwelling Coyotes, though, and they needed overtime and a shootout to beat them.

The Avalanche will then represent the toughest test for the Sharks following the week off, and a potentially thorny end to their three-game road trip. Who would have thought? 

Pavelski a shootout hero in midst of a career-worst cold streak

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USATSI

Pavelski a shootout hero in midst of a career-worst cold streak

The shootout has been kind to Joe Pavelski all season.

After scoring the shootout winner in Tuesday night’s win over the Coyotes, Pavelski has now scored the fourth-most shootout goals in a single season of his career, and there’s still 39 games left in the season. Only Artemi Panarin has scored more shootout goals (four) than the Sharks captain (three) on the year.

The Sharks have needed Pavelski more than they have after 65 minutes far more than in recent memory. San Jose’s won three games in the shootout this season, one more than last year and one shy from matching their total from the prior two seasons.

Again, there’s still 39 games to go.

San Jose is on pace to win their most games in the shootout since the Todd McLellan era, when they picked up no fewer than five shootout wins each season. This season, those wins are currently the difference between home ice advantage in the first round, as the Sharks are tied for second in the Pacific with two games in hand, and missing the playoffs.

They’ve needed every one of Pavelski’s shootout goals, too. File this under “statistics that are too good to be true,” but the proven postseason performer has scored each of his three shootout goals in San Jose’s three shootout wins, while failing to score in both of their losses.

Pavelski’s needed to deliver in the shootout at least in part because he often has not delivered when actual hockey’s been played. Injuries, age, and an at-times unfathomable lack of luck have all contributed, but the Wisconsin product is in the midst of one of the longest scoring droughts of his career.

He’s not scored an even strength goal since Dec. 1 against Florida. For those keeping score at home, that’s 19 games, a month, and a calendar change ago.

If Pavelski doesn’t score at even strength on Thursday against Colorado, he’ll have matched the longest even strength goal-scoring drought of his career. In 2010-11 and the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Pavelski went 20 games without an even strength tally.

To further put things into perspective, is tied with Joe Thornton and Melker Karlsson for sixth on the team in even strength goals. Thornton’s enjoyed a nice shooting resurgence, but this is an instance where the setup man scoring as much as the sniper is not a positive development.

You can’t only fault for Pavelski for struggling so much, of course, as his team has scored the second-fewest even strength goals in the league this year. He’s also a victim of his own success, and subject to further outsized expectations because of the letter on his chest.

Tuesday showed Pavelski’s still found ways to contribute, even if he hasn’t found the back of the net at even strength. But if Pavelski’s drought lasts beyond Thursday, he’ll be on an unprecedented schnide as far as his career is concerned.

More performances like the former may ultimately be enough to get the Sharks into the postseason. More like the latter won’t get them much farther than that.