Rewind: Sharks grab first with help from Labanc's 'special talents'

Rewind: Sharks grab first with help from Labanc's 'special talents'

SAN JOSE – When the Sharks reassigned Kevin Labanc to the Barracuda for two games early this month, without telling him he was going to quickly return to the NHL after the rest of the Sharks enjoyed a rare weekend off, coach Pete DeBoer made it clear that the rookie had not yet earned the right to kick up his feet and relax.

“I don’t think any of these young guys have arrived yet, where they’re ready for weekends off,” DeBoer said on Dec. 6. “If they can play hockey, they’re going to play hockey.”

No doubt Labanc will get some down time now, though, as the NHL goes dormant for three days. The 21-year-old scored two goals, including a beautiful, goal-scorer’s goal in overtime, pushing the Sharks to 3-2 win over Edmonton and into sole position of first place in the Pacific Division.

Labanc now has six goals in his first 21 NHL games, including four in his last eight.

So, has he arrived?

"You know what, we're just going to take the young guys kind of week-to-week,” DeBoer said. “But, definitely, every time he plays, he impresses, and you gain more and more trust in his abilities and what he can do. He's got some special talents.”

Helping Labanc’s cause is that he’s seemingly finding chemistry with second line (and sometimes top line) center Logan Couture. He finished off a two-on-one with Couture in the third period, giving the Sharks a 2-1 lead at the time, and it was Couture who found him open in the faceoff circle just before Labanc picked a spot over Cam Talbot’s shoulder to give San Jose the victory in overtime.

“He’s a great guy on and off the ice,” Labanc said of his linemate. “Really nice to play with and kind of learn from him, as well.”

Couture said: "He's a guy that's consistently creating chances and scoring some goals for us. He's done a tremendous job."

On the overtime goal, Labanc showed his soft hands and knack for the net that got him recalled from the AHL in the first place.

"I saw that the goalie’s glove was a little bit down, so I knew I was going to shoot there," he said. "It was a good way to end the game.”

The home fans surely got their money’s worth, even before Labanc’s heroics. The Sharks controlled most of the first two periods, leading 1-0 on Joe Pavelski’s power play goal, but Edmonton responded in the third after putting electrifying young stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the same line. McDavid scored one himself and set up Patrick Maroon for another.

There was also an undercurrent of nastiness throughout the night in what seems to be a budding rivalry. Brenden Dillon and Micheal Haley each dropped the gloves, and in the second period, Dillon took a couple of hits – one before the whistle and one after – from the hotheaded Zack Kassian, who got two minor penalties for his undisciplined play.

The remaining four meetings between the Sharks and Oilers should be pretty good.

“Both teams are big, physical teams. Seemed like a typical Western Conference matchup,” Dillon said. “Obviously with four more [games] against each other, it’s just going to get bigger and bigger.”

Although it’s only late December, goalie Martin Jones admitted that the Sharks talked about the importance of being in first place at the Christmas break. The Sharks and Oilers started the night with 41 points apiece.

“We know what the standings are,” said Jones, who made 16 saves. “That was definitely our mindset coming into the game, is we want to finish in first place. Would have been nice to get it in regulation, but we’ll take the win.”

DeBoer said: “We talked as a group about finishing strong going into the Christmas break, and they've earned it. We haven't had an easy schedule. But, we got contributions from almost the entire organization to get here.”

That includes the rookie, Labanc, who’s absolutely earned a little bit of time off now, too.

“That’s a great way to end [before] the break,” Labanc said. “But it’s even better that we’re first in the standings.”

How the Sharks can catch the Golden Knights and win the Pacific


How the Sharks can catch the Golden Knights and win the Pacific

About a month ago, the Sharks appeared locked into the Pacific Division's second, third, fourth, or fifth spot. At the end of trade deadline day, they were 12 points back of the division-leading Vegas Golden Knights, and only two points up on the fifth place Calgary Flames.

24 days later, thanks to an 8-2-0 record over the last 10 games (second-best in the NHL), San Jose's still in second place. Now though, those margins are eight points and 11 points, respectively. 

The latter's pretty much locked the Sharks into a playoff spot, while the former's created a path for a late run at the Pacific Division crown. Beginning Thursday night, they will play the Golden Knights twice over both team's final nine games. 

What does the path look like to the Sharks' first division title since 2011? To start, they'll have to beat the Golden Knights twice in regulation to even have a shot. 

That is the foundation of any run at the Pacific's top spot. If the Sharks win both remaining games in regulation, they'll trail the Golden Knights by four points, leaving aside results against other teams for now.

They have to win in regulation, however. A win in overtime or the shootout on Thursday would only cut the gap to seven, and a subsequent win in regulation would leave it at five. Two losses, in any situation, would create a gap of 10-12 points, which would be nearly impossible to overcome this late in the season. 

One point doesn't seem like a lot, but this late in the season, it makes a world of difference. A five-point gap means they'll need to earn six more than the Golden Knights in those other seven games, while a four-point gap means they'll need to earn five in order to pass them. 

The simplest way to five extra points, is for the Sharks to have a record that's two wins and an overtime loss better (2-0-1) than the Golden Knights in the seven games where they don't play each other. That's impossible if Vegas earns at least 10 points in those seven games, so a 5-2-0 or 4-1-2 record would ensure a division banner raising in Sin City.

Taken all together, then, the Golden Knights' 'magic number' is 10 points. Even if the Sharks win on Thursday, their path to a Pacific title remains difficult, if not improbable. 

If a season with an expansion team leading their division has taught us anything, though -- it's that improbable is not impossible.  

The anatomy of Jannik Hansen's recently-broken scoring drought after nearly one year


The anatomy of Jannik Hansen's recently-broken scoring drought after nearly one year

Jannik Hansen's game-winning goal against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday marked the first time he scored in 355 days. 

Hansen last scored on Mar. 30, 2017 against the Edmonton Oilers, his second goal with the Sharks following an in-season trade. His scoring drought, in all, lasted 44 regular season games, 50 if you include the postseason. 

How exactly does a goal-scoring drought last nearly a year? The right (wrong?) circumstances all need to come together, and that was certainly the case for Hansen for much of the last year.

For one, the Danish forward was in and out of the lineup. San Jose played 83 regular season and postseason games between Hansen's second and third goals, and he did not play in 33 of those games. Plenty of players have had rough 50-game stretches, and that's often without not playing for weeks at a time, as Hansen has done a couple of times this season. 

When Hansen did draw into the lineup this year, however, he wasn't generating offense at the same rate he had in the past. This season, Hansen's five-on-five shot rate (6.19 shots per 60 minutes), shot attempt rate (10.53 individual corsi per 60), and unblocked shot attempt rate (8.95 individual fenwick per 60) were all down from his career averages, according to Corsica Hockey. 

That decline is natural, considering Hansen turned 32 just six days ago. Those rates were not down enough, however, to expect him to fail to score in his first 39 appearances this season. Naturally, a long run of bad luck played a big role in Hansen's dry spell.

Hansen went 0-for-66 in shots over the 50 consecutive regular season and playoff games in which he did not score. He's a career 11-percent shooter, and had he shot at his career average, he would have scored seven goals during that time. That feels about right for a bottom-six forward. 

In many ways, all of these factors fed into one another. Hansen wasn't generating shots or scoring, then was scratched, then couldn't find the back of the net when he returned and was scratched again. All the while, fellow fourth-liners Marcus Sorensen (26.7 percent shooting percentage this season), Joel Ward (14.3 percent) and Barclay Goodrow (13.2 percent) were converting on their chances, forcing Peter DeBoer's hand. 

His possession play has been solid all season (50.74 percent corsi-for, per Natural Stat Trick), but the offense hasn't followed. When it does, as was the case Tuesday night, he can be an effective fourth-line forward, and the goal on Tuesday bought him more time to prove it.