Sharks

'Timo time' fast approaching as Meier heats up

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USATSI

'Timo time' fast approaching as Meier heats up

San Jose Sharks forward Timo Meier played in the 34th game of his rookie season in April. He played in the 34th game of his second NHL season on Thursday.

In the same game, the second-year winger scored his sixth goal of the season, and his third in his last six games. The goal also doubled his production from a season ago.

What a difference a year, and some luck, makes.

Meier’s first professional season was defined by its ups and downs, and for good reason. The 21-year-old entered his rookie campaign as San Jose’s most recent first round pick, a future foundational piece ready to push the veterans that had taken the Sharks to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance months prior.

Instead, Meier struggled to score. He attempted five-on-five shots at a higher rate than every Shark, including Brent Burns, but San Jose scored on only 5.24 percent of their shots with Meier on the ice during five-on-five play, according to Corsica Hockey.

They’ve only scored on 5.79 percent of their shots in the same circumstances this season, but Meier’s personal shooting percentage has doubled, from 3.75 to 8.11 percent. He’s actually attempting shots at a lower rate than last season, to the tune of just over four fewer shot attempts per hour, but regression to the mean has offset that.

The puck’s gone in more, and Meier’s earned greater trust from the coaching staff. He’s averaging a full minute more in ice time this season (13:28) than he did as a rookie, and other than a healthy scratch on October 23, has played in each of San Jose’s games.

Perhaps the biggest difference in his game, though, has been Meier’s emergence as a genuine pest. He’s more than tripled his penalty minutes from last season, but more importantly, is tied for the team lead in penalties drawn.

Considering how much the Sharks have relied upon their much improved power play lately, that may just be Meier’s most important contribution this season. Even if he was not scoring goals himself, creating more opportunities for a now-dominant power play is a vital skill.

But unlike last season, Meier is scoring, and flashing the potential that enamored the Sharks enough to draft him in the top 10 ahead of Mathew Barzal and Brock Boeser, among others. This season, at least, the proverbial clock has ticked much closer to ‘Timo time.’

Five things to ponder when thinking about the Sharks' sweep of the Ducks

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AP

Five things to ponder when thinking about the Sharks' sweep of the Ducks

Round 1 can be summed up this simply for San Jose: The Sharks generally got better as the series progressed, while the Ducks further unraveled with each outing.

The biggest exception to that was Game 4, where in spurts, you could see Anaheim start to play the style they should have presented all along.  Skating the puck into the offensive zone instead dumping, getting possession established behind San Jose’s cage to set up scoring opportunities in front of Martin Jones, and most importantly - showing defensive discipline and taking far less penalties.  

But as the saying goes, “too little, too late." San Jose answered with a clutch coach’s challenge, and series clinching goal from Tomas Hertl.

In true Las Vegas fashion, I’m doubling down on my motto entering the playoffs: Expect the unexpected.

1) Martin Jones stopped 128 of the 132 Ducks shots he faced.

I could conclude my observations right here.  When you allow just four goals in four games, you’re probably getting three wins at the minimum.  However with the Sharks offense pouring in 16 goals over 12 periods, there was plenty of “run support” for Jones.  I’ll take it a step further and remind you that two of the four Ducks scores came on the power play, and I generally let the goalie off the hook for those.  Hard to pick an MVP with such wide-ranging contributions in this first round, but nobody would deny it going to Martin.

2) San Jose’s 4th line was the x-factor in the series, and Marcus Sorensen was a standout.

The smallest player on the Sharks ended the round on a three-game goal streak.  Whether it was his early equalizer in Game 2, his momentum gaining breakaway finisher in Game 3, or his tone-setting conversion in Game 4 — Sorensen scored some incredibly timely tallies for the club.  And it wasn’t just him, there were important contributions from Eric Fehr and Melker Karlsson over the course of the series, too.  Pete DeBoer has found incredible chemistry with his forward lines into the first few playoff games, top to bottom.  And this established depth is something we remember being very critical to that Cup Final run of two seasons ago.

3) The Sharks coaching staff should be credited with a goal in Game 4.

It was a rough second period for the Sharks.  They got out-shot 14-7, and took three minor penalties.  The last one came with a minute left, meaning that Anaheim would get about 60 seconds of advantage to end the period, then another 60 seconds with fresh legs and fresh ice to begin the 3rd period.  With time ticking down before 2nd intermission, Ryan Getzlaf buried a puck about one second after the clock had expired.  No goal.  Then at :27 seconds into the 3rd period, Rickard Rakell blasted one past Jones, except - Pete DeBoer challenged Anaheim’s entry into the zone, which turned out to be offside.  No goal again.  My math tells me preventing a goal is equally important to scoring one.  So in a 2-1 final score, the Sharks bench and coaching staff should be credited for catching what they saw.  And making the bold move (risking a minor penalty) to issue the challenge.

4) Pacing for the playoff marathon, not a sprint.

The best thing about San Jose sweeping is not even handing four straight losses to a SoCal rival.  Although wow, nobody is complaining about the bragging rights it brings.  It’s actually the efficiency of exerting yourself as few times as possible while advancing to the next round.  One thing we learned in the run of 2016, was the physical and mental toll an extra 24 games brough.  If it took San Jose 6 to eliminate Anaheim, that’s 6 more periods of risk, wear, and tear.  When you put yourself in position to end rounds quickly, you MUST capitalize.  Playing into mid-June becomes a battle against physical attrition.  Might as well play your cards well early.

5) Who is the underdog between San Jose and Las Vegas in Round 2?

Here’s a fancy fact: This will be (only) the eighth time that two teams have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs while each sweeping their prior opponent to advance.  On the Sharks side, it’s a group that has generally been together for years of playoff runs.  They have tons of experiences, both wining and losing as a group.  A total of 89 playoff games since 2010 alone.  With Las Vegas, you have many individuals with postseason experiences, but, certainly nowhere near the same level of experience (four games) together under the Golden Knights banner.  Naturally, you’d have to expect the pundits to favor the Golden Knights.  They won the division.  They are a storybook team.  Who are the Sharks to interfere with inaugural-season-destiny?   Pete DeBoer said he knew they “weren’t a mirage” after playing them head-to-head the day after Thanksgiving.  But if you’re the Sharks, gladly give the title of “favorites” to Las Vegas, and all the pressure it comes with.

Playing some of the best hockey of his career, Martin Jones seals Sharks' sweep of Ducks

Playing some of the best hockey of his career, Martin Jones seals Sharks' sweep of Ducks

SAN JOSE -- As the clock ticked towards the end of the second period, Anaheim Ducks winger Corey Perry gathered the puck on his backhand for his golden opportunity. The veteran forward had not scored all series, and seemed sure to end his drought and tie the game with a power play tally in Game 4 Wednesday night.

But Martin Jones was in the way.

“[Perry] was pretty tight to the net,” Jones said. “He didn’t have any room, so I just tried to take away the bottom of the net there.”

The Sharks goaltender kicked out his right pad, and smothered the shot for his 23rd save of the night, his 121st of the postseason at that point, preserving a one-goal lead. He made seven more in the third period, and led San Jose to a first-round sweep of its division rivals.

His team was outshot 31-17 after fourth-line forward Marcus Sorensen opened the scoring 5:43 into the contest.

“Well, I’m happy he’s on my side,” Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic deadpanned when asked what he thought as Jones made save after save in the second period.

“He’s part of our team. He’s doing his job, keeping us in it. He’s played really well the first four games [of the playoffs.]”

Jones relented for the first, and only, time all game when Andrew Cogliano tied the game for the Ducks with just over 12 minutes remaining in regulation. After Jones carried them for most of the last two games, his teammates responded in kind.

Tomas Hertl’s deflection trickled through John Gibson’s legs and into his net to take back the lead just 1:16 later. The Czech forward checkmated Anaheim, and Jones faced only three additional shots afterward.

Hertl and San Jose would not have been in position to do so without Jones’ play in net.

“[Jones] was excellent,” head coach Peter DeBoer said. “For sure both games [in San Jose], without him it would be different results. Even [an 8-1 win in Game 3] definitely isn’t an 8-1 game if he doesn’t show up and play the way he does.

“But, he’s a big part of our team, and has been for a long time and has been doing that for a long time for us. That’s something that we rely on and take for granted.”

Jones struggled for stretches during the regular season, and dealt with an undisclosed injury ahead of the All-Star break. His five-on-five save percentage (.915) was the lowest of his career as a starter, according to Corsica Hockey. He was excellent on the penalty kill, though, posting a four-on-five save percentage (.900) that ranked 10th among goalies that played a minimum of 100 shorthanded minutes.

The latter part of his carried over into the first round against the Ducks, as Jones stopped all but two of the 21 shots he faced on the penalty kill, including all six on Wednesday. Jones really improved five-on-five, however, as Cogliano’s goal was just the second even-strength tally he allowed all series.

His five-on-five save percentage (.979) this postseason is, according to Natural Stat Trick, better than every goaltender but one: Marc-Andre Fleury (.990) of the Vegas Golden Knights, San Jose’s opponent in the second round.

Jones, of course, is no stranger to big-time playoff moments. He was San Jose’s best player in a six-game loss in the first round to the Edmonton Oilers last year, and nearly single-handedly kept the Sharks alive in the Stanley Cup Final the year prior.

And yet, somehow, this might be the best stretch of his career in the postseason. He’s never stopped a higher a percentage of shots in a series than he did against the Ducks.

The Sharks will need him to continue to be at his best against a Golden Knights squad that also swept a SoCal opponent, the Los Angeles Kings, out of the first round.

“[Vegas is] a fast team,” Jones said. “They come at you with all four lines. They forecheck hard.

“They’re a tenacious, hard-working team so we need to make sure we’re preparing properly here and ready to go right from the start of Game 1 because they don’t give you any room to breath really. They come at you hard.”

And Jones will be there stand in their way.