Nearing halfway point, Sharks on outside looking in at Cup contenders


Nearing halfway point, Sharks on outside looking in at Cup contenders

The San Jose Sharks enter their NHL-mandated, five day break one game short of the season’s halfway mark, but they should nonetheless begin the bye with a sense of clarity.

As it stands, the Sharks are a flawed team that, without things going their way down the stretch, is on the outside looking in at the Stanley Cup picture. Those flaws were on full display Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg.

A goaltender interference penalty against Chris Tierney late in the second period undoubtedly turned the tide in the Jets’ favor, but the Sharks only held a slight edge in five-on-five shot attempts (33-31) at the time. Winnipeg led 2-1 when Tierney went to the box, but the lead was befitting of a close game.

San Jose only trailed by one before Tierney’s penalty because Logan Couture scored on a power play. The Sharks, once again struggled to score at even strength.

That’s been cause for concern all season, but especially of late. Since December 7, San Jose’s scored 40.9 percent of its goals on the power play, as the Bay Area News Group’s Paul Gackle pointed out on Sunday.

The Sharks were once again unable to translate control of the puck into goals, but they were doubly doomed by defensive miscues. For the third time on their five-game trip, San Jose allowed at least three non-empty net goals.

That was also the sixth time in their last 10 games, and the normally-staunch Sharks are just 4-3-3 over that span. They’ve only scored 27 goals during that stretch, and the calculus is clear: the Sharks won’t win much if they aren’t at their best defensively.

The same can be said about plenty of teams around the league, of course, but San Jose’s five-on-five scoring woes make them far more reliant on defense and goaltending. They don’t have an offense good enough to consistently overcome a poor defensive showing.

The power play has kept them afloat this season, but that won’t be a reliable strategy in the postseason, when the games tighten and officials tend to swallow their whistles. Even if the power play continues to operate at peak efficiency, they simply won’t have as many opportunities in the playoffs.

In order to emerge as a true contender, the Sharks will need a lot to fall their way in the second half. A combination of key players (like Joe Pavelski) regressing to the mean, outside scoring help acquired at the trade deadline, and the teams above them in the standings faltering can propel San Jose back into the Stanley Cup conversation.

You just shouldn’t necessarily hold your breath.

Sharks face surprisingly tough test in Avalanche


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


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.