Three takeaways: Sharks hang with 'Hawks, don't capitalize on chances

Three takeaways: Sharks hang with 'Hawks, don't capitalize on chances

CHICAGO – The chances were there, but the goals were not in a 4-1 Sharks loss to the Blackhawks at United Center on Sunday night. The three takeaways from San Jose’s only appearance in the Windy City, at least in the regular season…

1 – Hanging with Chicago

As they have been several times in recent years, the Blackhawks may again be the best team in the Western Conference. They sit atop the NHL standings with 48 points after Sunday’s win, are 13-2-3 at home and 6-0-1 in their last seven.

The Sharks, though, hung with them, outshooting Chicago 34-26 and getting more scoring chances.

“We felt like we played a fairly good game early on, and it gets away from us there at the end,” Joe Pavelski said. “It was definitely a game that was there for us.”

The Blackhawks simply capitalized on their chances, while the Sharks didn’t, particularly in the second period when they were dominating possession while leading, 1-0. The biggest difference in the game was in net, as Martin Jones had a rare off night while Scott Darling was brilliant.

Pete DeBoer said: “To their credit, their goalie was excellent in the second period and weathered the storm. It’s a dangerous team, they don’t need many looks to find the back of the net.”

2 – Finding their energy

I asked DeBoer before the game which team he would rather be – the Sharks, who hadn’t skated at all since Friday’s game in Montreal, or the Blackhawks, who were playing the second of a back-to-back with travel.

“It’s a good question,” said the coach, who wouldn’t commit one way or the other.

The first period was, frankly, boring, as both teams looked slow and out and sync. But the pace picked up in the second and third periods, and it turned into a pretty good hockey game between two contending teams.

“I felt really good out there. I think a lot of guys did,” Chris Tierney said.

The condensed schedule due to the World Cup, and the silly “bye week” that the players requested, has made the regular season a hectic one. While the Sharks were concluding a stretch of four road games in six nights, Chicago was playing its fifth game in nine days. It can make for bad hockey at times.

“Both teams are playing a lot of games in a few days right now. We’re at the end of a road trip, and we’ve flown a lot. Both teams are [under the] same circumstances,” Logan Couture said.

3 – Solid road trip

Getting six points out of eight is commendable, as the Sharks went 3-1-0 on their four-game trip and are in first place in the Pacific Division by two points over Anaheim and Edmonton.

Couture said: “[The trip] was good. We didn’t play our best. I thought we got better as the trip went on. That’s a really good hockey team over there, and we played a pretty tight game against them.”

The focus now will be to finish strong at home against division opponents Calgary and Edmonton before the three-day Christmas break begins on Saturday.

“There’s not many more [games] here before the break so we have to try to put these points in the bank here before a little time off,” Pavelski said.

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.