Sharks set for important stretch against Western teams

Sharks set for important stretch against Western teams

SAN JOSE – Nearly halfway through the season, no Western Conference team has played fewer games against its own conference and more against the Eastern Conference than the San Jose Sharks. In fact, San Jose has played more games against Eastern opponents (20) than Western (17), on its journey to first place in the Pacific Division.

That’s about to change in the month of January, as San Jose will play 14 of its next 16 games against teams in the Pacific and Central divisions. Saturday’s game against Los Angeles commenced eight of nine against Western Conference opponents.

The competition for playoff spots is about to intensify between teams that are in direct competition with one another.

“The importance of the game ramps up here another level, but I think we’re excited about the stretch run here,” coach Pete DeBoer said.

Joel Ward said: “I think it will be good for us. Those are the teams you’ve got to beat to climb up the standings.”

So far the Sharks have found more success against the Eastern Conference, going 14-6-0. They’ve been much more average against the West, with a 9-7-1 mark, including a 7-5-1 record in their own division.

Those barely-above-.500 marks are going to have to improve if the Sharks want to remain in a comfortable playoff position throughout the second half, although Justin Braun didn’t put much weight into the incongruence in the team’s record among conferences.

“I’m not sure what the reason is for that. Who knows? But, we’ve got to really bear down on these divisional games and conference games,” Braun said. “Keep that separation.”

The general sentiment among most hockey people is that in the west, there are heavier, more physical grind-it-out teams that like to cycle the puck in the offensive end. The east, conversely, has more speed and skill, and a greater ability to score off the rush.

But those days are changing, according to Ward and DeBoer – two guys who were in the Eastern Conference less than two years ago.

“I think before I kind of felt being in the East, the West was big bodies, cycling. Now I feel like everybody is playing the same style,” said Ward, who played four seasons in Washington. “It’s just getting pucks out of your zone quick, getting into the opposition as quickly [as you can], and getting on the forecheck.”

DeBoer, who coached the Devils and Panthers before joining the Sharks, said: “I don’t see a noticeable difference like maybe you saw five or six years ago. I think the gap has closed. The quality and the depth arguably in the east might be better, but I don’t see the same real difference in style of play or things that you noticeably saw five years ago.”

The biggest benefit to the Sharks having played so many games against Eastern Conference opponents is that the majority of their cross-country road games are behind them. They have just one more trek to the Eastern Time zone, playing four straight games in Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia and New Jersey in the second week of February.

Until then, the furthest east they’ll go is Winnipeg on Jan. 24. It sets up well for them to get plenty of practice and rest that has been hard to come by the first three months of the season – each of which has featured a road trip through Eastern Conference cities.

“The fact that we’re not traveling is welcomed,” DeBoer said.

Now they just have to utilize that extra time spent on the practice ice or in their own beds in games against teams they’ll have to beat.

“We’ll find a way to really dial it in here coming down the stretch,” Ward said.

Sharks blow out Devils for season-high fifth straight win

Sharks blow out Devils for season-high fifth straight win


SAN JOSE -- Jannik Hansen scored his first goal of the season and fellow fourth-liners Eric Fehr and Barclay Goodrow also scored to help the San Jose Sharks win their season-high fifth straight game, 6-2 over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night.

Logan Couture added his 30th goal of the season, and Joe Pavelski and Mikkel Boedker also scored to give the Sharks a four-point lead over third-place Los Angeles in the Pacific Division with one game in hand.

Brent Burns added three assists and Martin Jones made 26 saves.

The scoring barrage by San Jose spoiled Cory Schneider's return to net for the Devils. Schneider allowed four goals on 14 shots before getting pulled midway through the second period of his first start since March 8. Schneider has lost 11 starts in a row since his last win for the Devils on Dec. 27.

Taylor Hall scored his 32nd goal of the season and Blake Coleman also scored for the Devils, who lead Florida by just one point in the race for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers have two games in hand.

After Hansen and Fehr scored in the first period, Goodrow chipped one in midway through the second period on a surprising night of scoring from the fourth line when he beat Schneider on a 2-on-1.

Couture then scored 40 seconds later on San Jose's first shot against Keith Kinkaid for his third career 30-goal season. Boedker added San Jose's second power-play goal of the night late in the second and the rout was on.

The Sharks got off to a fast start in their first game back from a 3-0 Canadian road trip, scoring three goals in the first period and killing 1:20 of a two-man advantage for New Jersey.

The teams traded goals to start with Fehr beating Schneider over the shoulder from a bad angle and Hall answering when he stole a bouncing puck from Justin Braunand beat Jones with a quick shot.

San Jose then scored twice in a span of less than three minutes to take the lead. Pavelski tipped in a shot from Kevin Labanc on the power play to give the Sharks the lead.

Then after Jones denied Damon Severson from in close at one end, Dylan DeMelo sent a long pass that Hansen chased down and then beat Schneider on a breakaway for his first goal since March 30, 2017.

NOTES: DeMelo has 10 assists this month. ... San Jose D Brenden Dillon has a five-game point streak. ... Devils F Miles Wood (upper body) was scratched and Jesper Bratt played in his place.


Devils: Visit Pittsburgh on Friday.

Sharks: Host Vegas on Thursday.

With Devils in town, Sharks will get firsthand look at top contender for MVP


With Devils in town, Sharks will get firsthand look at top contender for MVP

As the season winds down, whispers surrounding players’ awards candidacies are turning into full-blown conversations. None are more interesting than those surrounding the Hart Trophy, awarded to “the player judged to be the most valuable to his team,” according to the NHL’s criteria.

The Sharks have already seen their fair share of MVP candidates since the trade deadline, and will encounter yet another one on Tuesday when Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils stop by SAP Center. They’ll see a couple more beyond Hall over the next three weeks, too.

Who do we think has the best case? With no disrespect meant to Nikita Kucherov or Anze Kopitar, Hart Trophy candidates that the Sharks won’t play before the playoffs, we’ll look at the ones the Sharks have played since the deadline or will play before the end of the regular season.

The Dark Horses
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: The demise of the ‘Great Eight’ was greatly exaggerated. In his 13th NHL season, the 32-year-old is tied for the league lead in goals (43), 11th in points (78), and has led a depleted Capitals roster to the precipice of a third-straight division title. That probably won’t be enough to earn his fourth Hart Trophy, but this is undoubtedly one of Ovi’s best seasons.

Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild: Staal was a pleasant surprise when he scored 65 points last year, but has been even better this season. He’s tied for fourth in the in goals (39), tied for fifth in even strength goals (26), tied for 19th in points (71), and leading his team in each category as a 33-year-old. The Wild are a near-lock for the postseason at this point, and a resurgent Staal deserves much of the credit.

The Frontrunners
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: McDavid’s candidacy comes down to where you fall on the “non-playoff players winning MVP” debate, but his value to the lottery-bound Oilers cannot be denied. Edmonton is 28-19-3 when he’s scored a point, and 3-17-2 when he hasn’t.

The former is about a 97-point pace in the standings over an 82-game season, while the latter is about a 30-point pace. In other words, the Oilers are basically a playoff team when McDavid scores, and historically bad when he doesn’t.

We’re sympathetic to questions about how valuable a player can be when his team will finish so far out of the postseason. However, imagining how much worse the poorly-constructed Oilers would be without him makes him a worthy candidate alone.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: The Colorado Avalanche were 31 points worse than the league’s second-worst team last season, and finished 46 points out of the postseason. A full offseason with second-year coach Jared Bednar, as well as some under-the-radar acquisitions have helped the Avalanche’s remarkable turnaround into a Wild Card team, but Nathan MacKinnon is undoubtedly the catalyst.

The former No. 1 pick has put it all together this season, and is tied-for-second in points (89) with McDavid, despite playing eight fewer games. His 1.39 points per game are the most in the league, as are his 3.49 points per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, according to Natural Stat Trick (minimum 500 minutes played).

The Avalanche is the league’s fifth-worst five-on-five puck possession team overall (47.42 percent corsi-for), but are right around league-average with MacKinnon on the ice (50.96 percent). He’d be a very worthy Hart Trophy winner, and likely would be the clear-cut frontrunner if not for the man leading the Devils into SAP Center on Tuesday.

The Favorite
Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils: McDavid is not the only No. 1 pick the Oilers drafted that’s in the MVP conversation, but he’s the only one still on their roster. The other is Taylor Hall, who has the best Hart Trophy case in our eyes.

Hall strikes the sweet spot between McDavid’s case, as a superstar with little support around him, and MacKinnon’s, as an emergent force leading a resurgence, and he has a 26-game point streak to his name. He sits outside the top 10 in points (77), goals (31), and assists (46), but has scored points at a higher rate per game (1.15) than all but six qualifying players.

He also doesn’t have Mikko Rantanen or Leon Draisaitl skating alongside him as MacKinnon and McDavid do, nor does he have a supporting cast like Kucherov and Kopitar. Of all the players the Sharks have and will face down the stretch, Hall’s been the player most valuable to his team this season.