Sharks

Sharks closely following Kings blueprint early in the season

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USATSI

Sharks closely following Kings blueprint early in the season

The Sharks' 2-1 win over the Kings on Sunday night was, well, very Kings-like.

At even strength, San Jose largely controlled play, limiting Los Angeles and peppering pucks at Jonathan Quick. Much like those Cup-winning Kings teams, the Sharks only had two goals to show for their efforts. 

In fact, they’ve been pretty Kings-like all season. 

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled here and elsewhere about San Jose’s inability to score. They had scored the fifth-fewest goals in the league (43) entering Monday, and the second-fewest during five-on-five play (24). 

The Stanley Cup champion Kings teams weren’t offensive world-beaters either, ranking 29th and 25th, respectively, in 2011-12 and 2013-14. Those squads controlled play, killed penalties, and boasted strong defensive depth, led by a goaltender capable of catching fire and carrying his team in the postseason. 

Sound familiar? 

It should, because San Jose is in the top six in both major measures of puck possession early in the season, according to Puck on Net. The penalty kill has killed off 88.5% of its opportunities, the second-best mark in the league. 

Brent Burns is off to a slow start, but the emergence of  Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan has solidified what was already one of the league’s best bluelines. Martin Jones’ even strength save percentage remains in the middle of the pack, but that may not matter much if the Sharks continue to limit chances. 

Of course, similar strengths mean there are similar concerns, too. So far, the Sharks have scored on just 8.2 percent of their shots, the 23rd-worst mark in the league. 

The Kings were 30th and 29th in shooting percentage in the regular season of their Cup campaigns, and although there’s hope San Jose will convert more, Los Angeles shows it’s far from a guarantee. 

If that continues, the margin for error becomes razor thin, just as it was for the Kings. Despite winning two Stanley Cups, Los Angeles did not win the Pacific Division during that stretch. They finished 16 points out in 2014, and needed a late-season swing (as well as a new head coach) just to make the postseason in 2012. 

As long as the Sharks struggle to score, even a slight defensive downturn would provide a hurdle on their path to the postseason. The season’s first two games, in which San Jose allowed nine goals and scored only three, are proof of that. 

It's still very early in the season, and San Jose has a long way to go until they're mentioned in the same breath as Los Angeles' title-winning teams. They still trail the Southern California rivals by four points in the division, let alone in Stanley Cup count. 

So far, though, the they're closely following the Kings’ blueprint. It’s led to success through 16 games, but the true test is if it leads to 16 wins in April, May, and June.

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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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.