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.

Bad offense, not bad officiating, is main culprit for Sharks' skid

Bad offense, not bad officiating, is main culprit for Sharks' skid

For just the second time this season, the San Jose Sharks have lost consecutive games.

It’s the first time since the club opened the season 0-2, and were outscored 9-4. San Jose played much better in Thursday’s loss to Florida and Saturday’s defeat at the hands of Boston than they did to start the campaign, but have now been on the wrong side of four goal reviews.

The Sharks have lost each of the last two games by two goals, so there’s an understandable temptation to chalk these losses up to questionable officiating. Yet even if you disregard the notion that the officials got each call right (which they did), it’s one that must be resisted.

Their actual lack of offense, not a perceived lack of good officiating, is the main culprit behind the losing streak.

Timo Meier’s goal on Saturday stands as San Jose’s lone tally on this three-game homestand. It’s not for a lack of trying: The Sharks pumped 72 shots on net in the last two games, but could not solve Roberto Luongo or Anton Khudobin.

You can blame the officiating in San Jose’s last two losses all you want, but a good offensive team would have converted subsequent chances to make up for the goals taken off the board. The Sharks have not been a good offensive team this season, and could not make up for it.

San Jose’s inability to finish chances has been their main weakness all season, but they were still able to win games thanks to their defense and goaltending. The latter’s lapsed at times over the last two games, and the former let them down on Saturday when Aaron Dell allowed three goals on only 20 shots.

But that, as well as the discussion around the recent officiating, only serves to mask the Sharks’ real issue. San Jose just simply cannot score.

They’ve only scored on 7.41 percent of their shots this season, according to Natural Stat Trick, which is the third-worst rate in the league. There’s too much talent on the roster to expect that to continue all season, but the Sharks faltered offensively down the stretch last season, too.

Plus, they’re relying significantly on players on the wrong side of 30. Brent Burns, 32, hasn’t scored a goal, and Joe Pavelski, 33, is on pace to score fewer than 20 goals.

He hasn’t failed to reach that mark in a decade. At some point, it must be asked: are the Sharks just unlucky, or is age catching up to their star players?

The answer is probably a bit of both. How much of a role either factor has played is up for debate, but that either has led to San Jose’s failure to score goals is not.

Poor officiating is easier to diagnose than a poor offense, but it’s the latter, not the former, that’s responsible for the Sharks’ most recent skid.

Play of Jones, Khudobin this season proof of how fickle goaltending can be


Play of Jones, Khudobin this season proof of how fickle goaltending can be

Martin Jones was a Boston Bruin for less than a week.

The “Original Six” franchise acquired Jones from the Los Angeles Kings on June 26, 2015. Four days later, Jones was traded back into the Pacific Division, this time to Northern California.

The Sharks gave up a first round pick and prospect Sean Kuraly for Jones. It seemed like a fairly high price at the time, but it’s one San Jose was happy to pay: No goalie started more games than Jones over the last two seasons, and the team signed him to a five-year extension this summer.

The first Jones trade in 2015 set off a flood of goalie transactions, as five netminders were traded during Jones’ extremely brief Boston tenure. One of those was Anton Khudobin, who will start for the Bruins as Jones backs up Aaron Dell against  his “former team” on Saturday night.

Khudobin was traded from Carolina to Anaheim, where he started seven games before getting sent down to the AHL. He then signed with Boston in 2016, returning to his former club as the Bruins tried to fill the hole that trading Jones left behind entrenched starter Tuukka Rask.

Jones and Khudobin will have taken vastly different paths to their respective creases on Saturday night. The former enters the game as his club’s undisputed franchise goalie, and the latter the unheralded backup.

Naturally then, Khudobin’s been the better goaltender this season.

Among the 46 goalies that have played 200 five-on-five minutes this season, Khudobin’s .962 five-on-five save percentage was the best entering Saturday, according to Corsica.  So, too, is his .954 save percentage off of high-danger shots.

Jones, meanwhile, ranks 27th (.920) and 14th (.833) in those respective categories.

What does it all mean? For one, it’s early in the season, and the fact that Khudobin’s made seven fewer starts undoubtedly plays a role in his superior performance to Jones.

Mainly, it speaks to just how fickle goaltending can be.

The Bruins backup is arguably getting the nod Saturday night because of how bad the man ahead of him has been. Rask, once one of the league’s best goaltenders, has steadily declined over the last three years and reached a new low this season: This year, he’s 40th out of 46 qualifying goalies in five-on-five save percentage.

Jones has demonstrated this, too. He’s stopped a lower percentage of low-and-medium danger shots at even strength than the last two seasons, but has stopped a higher percentage of high-danger shots.

Plus, he’s played behind one of the league’s best penalty-killing teams after playing behind one of its worst last season, and has benefitted from a corresponding bump in his shorthanded save percentage.

So much of what a goalie does is out of their control. Yet who’s playing in front of them, what kind of shots they see, and how often they see those shots all can affect their performance.

Khudobin and Jones are living proof of that this season.