Buffalo Sabres

Upcoming Sharks homestand will be difficult, but success is critical

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USATSI

Upcoming Sharks homestand will be difficult, but success is critical

Saturday’s win over the Buffalo Sabres gave the San Jose Sharks something they haven’t had all season: A .500 record.

The Sharks head home having won four of their last six games, including three of five on the road trip, and with some of their early-season hiccups in the rearview mirror. It helps when, all over that span, Logan Couture’s scored more goals than any other player, Martin Jones hasn’t allowed more than two goals in a start, and the penalty kill’s been near-perfect.

Not all of their issues are behind them, of course. They scored 10 goals at five-on-five play on the road trip, but the 16 they’ve scored all season stood ninth-worst in the league as of this writing. The power play has, predictably, cooled off, converting on only 10.5 percent of their opportunities on the five-game road trip.

Still, they’re improving, and have been one of the league’s best possession teams early in the season, even as they haven’t necessarily played to their full potential. They’ll need to, though, on their upcoming homestand.

The five-game slate is daunting, to say the least, and arguably the toughest stretch in their entire schedule. San Jose will host three playoff teams from last season, including the Western Conference finalists: Anaheim and Nashville.

Tampa Bay and Vancouver missed out on the previous postseason, but the former looks like the league’s best team and the latter is much-improved under a new head coach. Oh, and it all begins against Toronto, during Patrick Marleau’s homecoming, on Monday.

The Sharks will have their hands full over the next two weeks, leading up to a critical benchmark. From 2005-2013, 77.3 percent of teams in playoff position on Thanksgiving made the postseason, according to STATS. Since STATS published their findings, that’s jumped ever-so-slightly to 79.2 percent.

Turkey Day’s a little under a month away, but it arrives five games after San Jose’s extended stay at SAP Center ends. Less wins now means the Sharks will need more wins later, and failing to win two or more of their next five games means they’ll need to be near-perfect in the following five games, and potentially beyond.

The next two weeks won’t necessarily make or break San Jose’s season, but they will have a much clearer idea of the road ahead. For now, though, the Sharks are a .500 team.

Whether or not they can be expected be anything more, or less, depends on the results of their next five games. 

Things get weird when the Sharks play the Sabres

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AP

Things get weird when the Sharks play the Sabres

The San Jose Sharks didn’t win their first game against the Buffalo Sabres until their fifth try.

That set the tone for a matchup that’s been entirely one-sided since, in favor of the Sabres. It doesn’t matter if they line up against Pat LaFontaine or Jack Eichel, if the Sabres are wearing blue and gold, red and black, or blue and gold again: San Jose has not been able to beat Buffalo consistently.

It’s been the perfect storm, really. Take a small sample size (37 matchups over 25 seasons), throw in the league’s parity, and the sport’s inherent randomness and you get one logic-defying stretch over a quarter-century. 

With that in mind, here are some facts that best epitomize just how much the Sharks have struggled against the Sabres. 

The Sharks have given up four or more goals 20 times 

No team has scored more goals per game against the Sharks than the Sabres (3.79). In 20 of those 37 games, Buffalo has scored four or more goals. It’s hard to win when you give up four goals every other time you play a team. 

And get this: every permanent coach in Sharks history has coached a game in which Buffalo’s scored five or more goals. Even one-year wonders Jim Wiley and Al Sims! It’s essentially a rite of passage at this point.

The Sharks have a losing record when they outshoot the Sabres

Your eyes do not deceive you: San Jose’s outshot Buffalo 18 times, and only won four times. Shots aren’t the end-all, be-all, and there were no doubt games in which Buffalo dominated and the Sharks outshot them after failing to mount a comeback.

But only four wins over that stretch? Meanwhile, the Sabres have had no problem beating the Sharks when they get the edge in shots, winning 10 out of 16 times. 

Are we completely sure there isn’t a curse at play? 

The Sharks have never won consecutive games against the Sabres

This is the granddaddy of them all. The Sharks have simply never pulled off a winning streak against Buffalo.. Last season was the first time they’ve picked up points in consecutive games, losing the first in overtime and winning the second in regulation.

The Sharks have managed to win consecutive games against all but one franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas also didn’t play a game until last week and didn’t exist as a franchise a year-and-a-half ago. 

The Sharks have winning streaks against the old Jets and the new Jets. They have winning streaks against the Coyotes, who were the old Jets, and the Thrashers, who are the new Jets. How absurd is that? 

That can all change tonight at SAP Center, since the Sharks won the last match-up in March. If the history of this series has showed us one thing, though, it’s to expect things to get weird. 

NHL Gameday: Buffalo has been surprising nemesis for Sharks

NHL Gameday: Buffalo has been surprising nemesis for Sharks

Programming note – Sharks-Sabres coverage starts today at 7:00 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on CSN California

WHERE THEY STAND

Sharks: 41-20-7, 89 points, 1st Pacific Division
Sabres: 28-29-12, 68 points, 7th Atlantic Division

PREGAME NEWS AND NOTES

***The Sharks have been very good this season against lesser competition; when facing teams that aren’t currently in playoff position, they are 24-4-6. But on Feb. 7 in Buffalo, against a team that will miss the postseason once again, the Sharks saw a 4-1 third period lead dissolve into a 5-4 overtime loss.

“We played two periods about as well as you can play, and a third period about as poorly as you can play,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “This team, for whatever reason, seems to have our number and has over the years. So, we’ve got to get past that.”

Marc-Edouard Vlasic recalled: “We gave too many odd-man rushes, and they’ll make you pay.”

Buffalo has won five in a row against the Sharks, and is 10-0-1 in the last 11. San Jose’s last regulation win was on Jan. 23, 2010.

The Sabres snapped a four-game losing streak on Saturday against Columbus, winning 5-3. They are 2-6-2 in their last 10.

***The Sharks’ lineup appears unchanged from Sunday, other than goalie Martin Jones returning to the net. David Schlemko and Melker Karlsson are still recovering from lower body injuries.

“Schlemko a lot closer. Karlsson a little bit closer, but still not available,” DeBoer said.

Rookie Marcus Sorensen will remain in the lineup, after he notched an assist against the Stars.

***The Sharks are 2-1-0 on their season-long six-game homestand, which continues with the Blues on Thursday and Ducks on Saturday. They are 22-8-4 on home ice, while Buffalo is 11-17-6 on the road.
 
KEEP AN EYE ON...

Sharks: Joel Ward. The veteran winger was promoted to the second line late in Saturday’s loss to Nashville and remained there on Sunday, posting a key early second period goal that deflated the Stars in San Jose’s comfortable win. Ward made the most of his chance to start in a top six role for the first time since Dec. 13 in Toronto.

Sabres: Ryan O’Reilly. The Sabres’ second leading scorer with 46 points (16g, 30a), O’Reilly has 11 points (4g, 7a) in his last 12 games against the Sharks. In his last seven games, he’s tallied three goals and five assists for eight points, with 20 shots on goal over that span.

PROBABLE LINES

Sharks
Jannik Hansen – Joe Thornton – Joe Pavelski
Patrick Marleau – Logan Couture – Joel Ward
Joonas Donskoi – Tomas Hertl – Mikkel Boedker
Micheal Haley – Chris Tierney – Marcus Sorensen

Paul Martin – Brent Burns
Marc-Edouard Vlasic – Justin Braun
Brenden Dillon – Dylan DeMelo

Martin Jones (starter)
Aaron Dell

Sabres
Evander Kane – Ryan O’Reilly – Justin Bailey
Matt Moulson – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Marcus Foligno – Zemgus Girgensons – Brian Gionta
Nic Deslauriers – Evan Rodrigues – Tyler Ennis

Jake McCabe – Rasmus Ristolainen
Justin Faulk – Zach Bogosian
Josh Gorges – Cody Franson

Robin Lehner
Anders Nilsson

INJURIES

Sharks: David Schlemko (lower body) and Melker Karlsson (lower body) are out.

Sabres: Kyle Okposo (ribs) is day-to-day. Dmitry Kulikov (upper body), Johan Larsson (dislocated wrist) and William Carrier (knee) are out.

QUOTEABLE

“We’re happy with where we are. We still want to catch a couple teams, but we want to make sure our game is going in the right direction heading into playoffs.” – Marc-Edouard Vlasic