Penalty kill's surprising turnaround vital to Sharks' early-season success

Penalty kill's surprising turnaround vital to Sharks' early-season success

Joel Ward’s game-tying goal late in the third period of the Sharks’ shootout win over the Ducks on Saturday night was a second shy of counting as San Jose’s first shorthanded goal of the season.

The Sharks pressured the Ducks below their own goal line, forcing Antoine Vermette to rim it around the boards. Barclay Goodrow took advantage of a fortuitous bounce, a bad pinch, and another good bounce to get the puck to Ward and give San Jose a two-on-one rush.

A shorthanded goal would have been a fitting reward for the Sharks’ revamped penalty kill, which was the NHL’s second-best entering Sunday.

San Jose has killed off a remarkable 89.6 percent of their shorthanded opportunities, and has only allowed two power play goals in their last 12 games.

It’s a remarkable turnaround from last season, when the Sharks over-performed with a man in the penalty box. They ranked 18th in penalty kill percentage (80.7 percent), but were one of the league’s worst at limiting scoring chances.

Only nine teams allowed scoring chances on the penalty kill at a higher rate than the Sharks last season, according to Natural Stat Trick. This season, San Jose is allowing almost eight fewer scoring chances per hour of penalty kill time than last year (49.63 vs 57.17, via Natural Stat Trick).

That’s the seventh-lowest rate in the league, and a big reason why goaltender Martin Jones has posted a career-high shorthanded save percentage. He’s stood tall when called upon, but the Sharks aren’t asking nearly as much of him as they did last season.

San Jose’s penalty kill has not only helped its goaltender, but the rest of the team as well. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Sharks boast one of the league’s least-potent offenses, sitting 23rd in goals per game. Simply put, the penalty kill’s kept them in games.

The same could not be said of the penalty kill down the stretch last season. San Jose killed off 9 of their 34 shorthanded opportunities, or 73.53 percent, in the final 13 games of 2016-17, while the offense mired in an extended slump.

It’s not a perfect comparison, as they’ve scored more in this season’s first 13 games (35) than last season’s final 13 (27). Plus, the Sharks have been a much better possession team in that calamitous stretch.

But, the penalty kill’s turnaround has still offset a somewhat inert offensive start. It’s not only been a pleasant surprise for the Sharks, but one of the most important.

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.