Sharks-Panthers: What to watch for


Sharks-Panthers: What to watch for

SAN JOSE The Florida Panthers visit HP Pavilion tonight to face the Sharks as one of the more pleasant surprises in the NHL. They lead the Southeast Division with 30 points (13-8-4), as rivals like Washington and Tampa Bay have struggled to find consistency.

A new coach Kevin Dineen as well as key offseason additions like Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell, Tomas Fleischmann and Jose Theodore have rejuvenated a franchise that has been at or near the bottom of the standings in recent years.

Now that the NHL season has passed the quarter point, though, the rebuilt Panthers are sneaking up on teams no longer.

The team was torn down somewhat, and rebuilt with a number of new bodies. Its a clean slate, and everybody had a chance to prove themselves to a new coach or manager in the organization, said Todd McLellan. Theyve done a very good job, and theyre a hell of a hockey team.

The Panthers are the second straight club to visit HP Pavilion that the Sharks rarely see, after San Jose managed to defeat the Montreal Canadiens in a shootout on Thursday, 4-3. The teams met just once last season, a 3-2 win for the Panthers in South Florida.

The Panthers are concluding a four-game road trip, looking to fly home with a 2-2 mark. Theyve scored just eight goals in their last five games, but are getting leading scorer Kris Versteeg back after he missed the 2-1 loss in Los Angeles on Thursday with a broken nose, courtesy of former Shark Derek Joslin.

Hes a game breaker, he adds a lot to our lineup, and it will be good to get him back in there, said Dineen of Versteeg.

Rebound effort for top line: As good as the Sharks second line of Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture and Marty Havlat was in Thursdays win, the top line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski struggled. Those three were scoreless and a combined -8 after being reunited at the start of a game for the first time in more than three weeks.

Marleau, who was the Sharks most consistent scorer with 11 points in nine games while centering the second line, said there was an adjustment period for him in moving back to the wing.

There was a little bit in the first. Sometimes as a winger you get stuck on the boards a little bit and have to remind yourself to get skating and push the pace a little bit and try to create things that way, he said. As a center youre always in and around the play, but as a winger you have to make sure that you go to it.

The second lines combined five points masked the poor performance of the top line, but McLellan points out that the opposite has been true on plenty of other nights.

The top lines teammates bailed them out, much like theyve done for them in the past, said the coach. I have no problem putting them back on the ice tonight, and I expect much better from them.
Battle of the backups: Thomas Greiss is the confirmed starter for San Jose, while all signs point to the Panthers inserting Scott Clemmensen in the net in favor of regular starter Jose Theodore.

Greiss last appearance was Nov. 20 at Colorado, when he made 36 saves in a 4-1 Sharks win over the Avalanche.

Hes played well for us, and I say the same thing every time he goes in, said McLellan. We trust him and we think hell give us a good night.

Griess is 4-3 with a 1.99 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

Clemmensen, on the other hand, has played in just a single game while Theodore has impressed in getting the bulk of the work. His one was an excellent one, though, as he recorded a shutout by making 25 saves in Dallas on Nov. 15.
Pressure the D: The Panthers generate much of their offense from the blue line, led by former Shark Brian Campbells 20 points (tied for second in the NHL in points among defensemen). Jason Garrisons eight goals are tops among NHL defenders, while Dmitry Kulikov has 14 assists.

Pressuring the defensemen on the points and getting in hard on the forecheck are the keys to countering Floridas impressive blue line corps.

Campbell is the passer and Garrison is the shooter, and hes got eight goals already. Five-on-five, the penalty kill, it will be very important to get in the lane on him, and Campbell too, who can skate it and pass it, said Marc-Edouard Vlasic. It will be a big challenge for our forwards and our d-men.

Were going to have to be aware of where their d-men are. It starts in the offensive zone, said McLellan. If you get lazy on the forecheck or get caught on the boards, theyll beat you up ice.

Getting in shooting lanes is always important on the penalty kill, and will be even more so tonight for San Jose due to the Panthers defense. The Sharks penalty kill enters the game last in the league at home (73.0 percent), although San Jose has been shorthanded just 68 times fewest in the NHL. The Panthers have the second fewest with 71.

Thats a good sign, but at the same time if we only have one or two we have to make sure we kill them off, said Vlasic.
Odds and ends: Colin White will likely replace Jim Vandermeer on the teams third defense pair, along with Jason Demers. Floridas roster features several former Sharks, including Marco Sturm, who was acquired from Vancouver on Oct. 23. He and Brian Campbell are the only ones expected in the lineup tonight, though, as Marcel Goc, Mikael Samuelsson and Matt Bradley are all hurt. Florida is still without winger Scottie Upshall (upper body). San Jose has won its last four home games against Florida, outscoring them 18-3 in the process.

Sharks have tall task against Penguins, who are in Stanley Cup form


Sharks have tall task against Penguins, who are in Stanley Cup form

The Sharks witnessed firsthand the emergence of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native Nathan Mackinnon as a legitimate superstar in a loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday. Naturally, their reward is to face the NHL's first superstar from the area on Saturday. 

And of course, much like Mackinnon, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is playing some of the best hockey of his career. 

In 2018, no player has scored more points than the three-time Stanley Cup champion (15). In fact, three of the top five scorers in the new year skate in the Steel City: Evgeni Malkin is tied for third with 13 points, and Phil Kessel is right behind him in a tie for fifth with 12 points. 

The trio has powered the Penguins to a three-point lead on the Eastern Conference's final Wild Card spot. As recently as New Year's Eve, though, the Penguins were seventh place in the loaded Metropolitan Division, and three points back of the postseason. 

It was always a matter of 'when' rather than 'if' Pittsburgh would turn it on. Fatigue was always a possibility, as the back-to-back champions have played at least 13 more postseason games (49) than any other team in the league over the last two seasons, but any concerns seem firmly in the rearview mirror at the moment. 

The same cannot necessarily be said about the Sharks, whom the Penguins dispatched in six games in San Jose's first Stanley Cup Final appearance. Yes, they've won three out of four since the bye week, but haven't played all that well in the process.

Two of those wins came against the lowly Coyotes, and San Jose has barely out-possesed their opponents (50.74 five-on-five corsi-for percentage; 51.22 fenwick-for percentage, according to Corsica Hockey). They're scoring nearly a goal more per 60 minutes of five-on-five play (2.69) than before the bye (1.85), but are allowing nearly one-and-a-quarter more goals (3.58 five-on-five GA/60) than before the bye week (2.24).

The latter is, at least in part, because Martin Jones is not playing well. The Conn Smythe-like form that kept the Sharks in it against the Penguins two Junes ago has largely eluded him this season, and injury may have played a part. 

Jones is day-to-day with a minor injury, according to the Bay Area News Group's Paul Gackle, and the team recalled goaltender Troy Grosenick from the San Jose Barracuda on Friday as a result. That leaves Aaron Dell in net as the last line of defense against the Penguins. 

With Pittsburgh looking a lot like the team that celebrated a Stanley Cup win on San Jose's home ice two postseasons ago, stopping them will be a tall task. 

DeBoer's defense of Jones doesn't paint the whole picture


DeBoer's defense of Jones doesn't paint the whole picture

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer passionately defended goaltender Martin Jones following San Jose's 5-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night. For the eighth time in his last 14 starts, Jones allowed four goals, but DeBoer tried to take a look at the bigger picture. 

"You guys like to grab little pictures of things that work for the story your writing," DeBoer told reporters in Denver after he was asked about Jones' recent struggles. 

"It's 14 games. You can go back six games and write whatever story you want. He's having a great year for us. Our goaltending has been excellent all year."

If you look at his save percentage, Jones is not having a great season.

His save percentage in all situations (.9097) is the lowest in his three seasons in teal, and ranks 22nd out of the 34 goalies that have played 1000 minutes in all situations, according to Corsica Hockey. His five-on-five save percentage (.9147) is also the lowest of his teal tenure, and sits 26th out of 30 goalies that have played 1000 five-on-five minutes. 

But save percentage doesn't always tell the whole story, as it doesn't take into account shot quality. As we've written previously, Jones has played behind a loose defense this season.

Among those aforementioned 30 goalies, Jones has faced the highest percentage of high-danger shots, the second-highest percentage of medium-danger shots, and fourth-lowest percentage of low-danger shots. 

Luckily, there's a metric that does take into account shot quality: goals saved above average (GSAA). GSAA works much like Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in baseball, and considers how well a league-average goaltender would do "based on the shot danger faced," according to Corsica's definition.

Jones has been better than his save percentage would indicate. His 0.54 five-on-five GSAA ranks 17th out of the 30 goalies that have played 1000 five-on-five minutes, and his all situations GSAA (8.69) ranks 11th out of 34 goalies that have played 1000 minutes in all situations. 

GSAA has the same downside as WAR, in that it's an accumulative statistic, and favors players that have played more. In order to equalize for playing time, we can look at GSAA/30 shots faced. 

Jones ranks 17th and 10th in five-on-five (0.03) and all situations (0.31) GSAA/30, respectively, among goaltenders that have played 1000 minutes in such circumstances. In other words, Jones has been about average during five-on-five play, and one of the league's better goalies across all situations, at least based on the kind of shots he's faced.

That's not neccessarily "great," but Jones has been better on the whole than his recent play would indicate. Of course, he's also been outplayed in his own crease.

Backup goaltender Aaron Dell not only boasts a higher save percentage than Jones, but his GSAA/30 in five-on-five situations (0.15) and across all strengths (0.44) are also higher than Jones'. Every 30 shots on the penalty kill, Dell (2.05 GSAA/30) saves nearly a goal more than Jones (1.06). 

DeBoer also acknowledged that Dell will have to play more out of necessity, with the Sharks halfway through a stretch of eight games in 13 days. That includes a difficult back-to-back this weekend, hosting the Penguins Saturday and facing the Ducks in Anaheim on Sunday. 

The coach was on to something on Thursday. Yes, Jones has been better than his recenty play, and his season-long save percentage, would indicate. 

But that doesn't mean he's been "great," nor does it mean he's San Jose's better option in net right now.