NHL

Making the case for the Sharks-Predators rivalry

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AP

Making the case for the Sharks-Predators rivalry

When the NHL realigned and switched up its playoff format ahead of the 2013-14 season, “the format was intended to accentuate (divisional) rivalries,” commissioner Gary Bettman later told The Columbus Dispatch. In the first two rounds of the postseason, teams are seeded within their own divisions, with the exception of a Wild Card team in each division. 

The format’s definitely added bad blood, with the Penguins-Capitals and Sharks-Kings rivalries undoubtedly better for the change. That’s largely come at the expense of inter-division matchups, which often turned into legitimate rivalries after heated playoff series. 

The Wild Card spot’s injected new life into some inter-divisional rivalries, and quite a few have involved the Sharks and Nashville Predators, who play each other Thursday night. 

Nashville’s eliminated the Anaheim Ducks in consecutive postseasons, needing seven and six games, respectively. San Jose, meanwhile, rekindled a rivalry with the St. Louis Blues en route to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2016, over a decade after playing each other three times in a five-year span. 

The best one, though, may just be between the Sharks and Predators themselves.

For one, there’s the prior playoff history. San Jose blitzed through Broadway and beat Nashville in five-game series in back-to-back postseasons in 2006 and 2007. Neither series would necessarily be considered a classic, but successive eliminations at the hands of one team builds plenty of resentment, which is always a critical element. 

Most importantly though, there’s legitimate recent animosity. The teams played a back-and-forth, seven-game series in the second round in 2016, of course, but it spilled into last season and this season. 

In their last three games against one another, the Sharks and Predators combined for a staggering 122 penalty minutes. That’s included three fights, five slashes, and six roughing penalties, as well as two misconducts. 

The last matchup alone, on Nov. 1, featured nearly as many combined penalties (14) as shots on goal (15) in the third period. It was both teams’ 12th game of the season. 

Not all of the principal characters will return, as Cody McLeod’s now on the other Broadway and Joe Thornton remains on the mend, but the stakes are considerably higher. Nashville can move to within a point of the President’s Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs with a win, while San Jose can move three points clear of home-ice in the first round.

With the Red Wings now playing in the Eastern Conference, the Sharks didn’t otherwise have an in-conference, out-of-division rival. Over the last three seasons, the Predators have started to fill that void, and will continue to as long as the two teams still play meaningful games. 

Even if that wasn’t always the league’s plan. 

Sharks' power play cooling off at the wrong time

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USATSI

Sharks' power play cooling off at the wrong time

The Sharks woke up Sunday with an ice-cold power play. San Jose, the league’s fourth-best team in power play percentage, failed to score on the man advantage in each of its last four games, the second-longest streak of the season (six games; Nov. 4-18).

That wasn’t too much of an issue, as the team still won three of those last four games. Given how good they’ve been on the man advantage this season, though, there should be cause for concern.

Part of the problem is that the Sharks have drawn fewer penalties. Opponents have only been penalized nine times in the last four games against San Jose, or 2.25 times per game, down from 3.31 per game on the season.

The Sharks largely shot from the same places over the last four games as they have on the season, but they also shot a lot less. They generated shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances at a lower rate in the previous four games than on the season, according to Natural Stat Trick.

You’d think Tomas Hertl’s absence would have something to do with it, but San Jose’s top unit actually created shot attempts, shots, scoring chances, and high-danger changes at a higher rate with Hertl out of the lineup on Thursday than in the three games prior. The power play is also missing the injured Joe Thornton, but the Sharks are somehow generating shots and attempts at a slightly higher rate without him.

Whatever the cause, the timing is less than ideal. San Jose remains one of the worst five-on-five scoring teams in the league, despite a relative outburst of 11 such goals in the last four games.

Plus, they begin a stretch on Sunday against some of the league’s best penalty-killing teams. All of their next five opponents are against teams in the top 16 in penalty kill percentage.

The Dallas Stars, the Sharks’ opponent on Sunday, just might be the best of the bunch. They’re 11th in the league in suppressing shot attempts on the penalty kill, fourth in limiting shots, and sixth in preventing scoring chances, per Natural Stat Trick.

San Jose’s struggled against the Central Division all season, and an impotent power play is not going to do much to change that, unless the recent five-on-five scoring improvement becomes permanent. Then, it won’t have to worry all that much.

But considering how much better the Sharks have been on the man advantage than at even strength all season, that’s not something they can necessarily count on.

Sharks too reliant on divisional dominance for standings position

Sharks too reliant on divisional dominance for standings position

Sharks forwards Chris Tierney and Mikkel Boedker, in the midst of breakout and bounce-back seasons, respectively, can thank the Vancouver Canucks and the rest of the Pacific Division for their success this year.

The pair each scored goals in San Jose’s win over Vancouver on Thursday night, upping their respective goal totals to 14 and nine. Tierney’s scored six of those 14 goals against the Pacific, while Boedker’s scored all but one of his against divisional foes.

We know Tierney and Boedker’s stat sheets would look more sparse, but where would the Sharks as a whole be without the Pacific Division? Pretty much dead in the water.

No team has won more game against their own division (15), picked up more points against their own division (33), or relied on divisional games for a higher percentage of their standings points (47.14 percent) than the Sharks. Only the Vegas Golden Knights (87.5), Boston Bruins (75), and Pittsburgh Penguins (68.75) have won a higher percentage of games against divisional foes than San Jose (68.18).

That bodes well for the Sharks’ postseason hopes, as the road to a Stanley Cup makes two stops in the division within the first two rounds, barring a Central Division detour thanks to the Wild Card. The problem is that San Jose has to get there first, and they’ve already played the bulk of their divisional schedule.

Of the 24 games left in the season, the Sharks will play seven games in the Pacific. Three are against Edmonton and Vancouver, while four are against Calgary and Vegas, the teams San Jose is currently sandwiched between in the standings.

The bad news is that, with just a two-point grip on their playoff spot entering Friday, the Sharks will play 13 of their remaining 24 games against teams from the Central Division. The worse news is that San Jose is just 2-4-2 against the Central.

Seven of those games against the Central are on the road. All but three are against teams currently in playoff position.

In other words, that’s not a stretch where you want to be down one, if not two top-six forwards, depending on when Tomas Hertl is able to return from his injury.

Feasting on divisional opponents has been just enough to keep the Sharks in playoff position up until this point of the season, but not by much. Their Pacific prowess may even be enough for a deep playoff run.

But on its own, divisional dominance may not enough to get them there in the first place.