Buffalo Sabres

Sharks' tough tests continue as team faces East-commanding Sabres


Sharks' tough tests continue as team faces East-commanding Sabres

SAN JOSE -- The Sharks might've tallied their third straight win on Wednesday night by beating a tough Carolina Hurricanes team. But their work against tough Eastern Conference competition has only begun.

Saturday night's contest marks the start of a six-game stretch against teams from the other side of the country, which starts with a home-and-home the Sharks will play against the conference-leading Buffalo Sabres.

That's right. The Sabres have command of the east at the moment. And the offensive weapons they'll bring to the next two games are sure to challenge some areas where San Jose has been at its weakest -- getting hemmed in their own zone and giving opponents too many chances.

Buffalo isn't leading the entire league with 13 points by accident. Through their first eight games of the 2019-20 season, they've outscored their opponents 29-18 and have a power play that has found the back of the net 11 times in 31 attempts so far.

Part of that success is because Victor Olofsson is tied for first in the league with six points per game on the young season. But the Sabres are also getting set-up help from Rasmus Dahlin, a ten-goal boost from captain Jack Eichel, and an offensive jolt from winger Jeff Skinner who continues to roll after posting a career-best 40 goals last season.

Add to it that netminder Carter Hutton is leading the league with a 1.39 goals-against average and .953 save percentage and you have the makings of a team on a red-hot start.

Not to mention one that will put the Sharks to the test.

The Sharks weren't completely satisfied with the effort they put on the ice last Wednesday against Carolina, especially in the first period when they were heavily pinned into their own end of the ice and got outshot 16-7. Despite scoring two power-play goals in that first frame San Jose knew that their penalty kill was the reason the Hurricanes weren't able to take the game over in the second stanza when the score was just 3-1. 

After the win, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer gave a lot of credit to Martin Jones in helping keep the Canes from taking the game over, especially with their power play. "Your goalie's always your best penalty killer," he said. "(Jones) was really solid. I thought in that first period [the score] could've been 3-3."

But the Sharks don't just need another big performance in the net on Saturday. They'll need to find a way to take the ice away from the Sabres and minimize their chances.

Needless to say, San Jose has to find a way to get more zone time against in their first period against the Sabres than they did in their first 20 against the Hurricanes. With an average 30.6 shots per game, Buffalo is winning games whether they outshoot their opponents or not -- not to mention being 6-1-0 when they score the first goal. San Jose might've caught a break in their last game by having a rough first period overshadowed by Evander Kane's hat trick and some killer saves on Jones' end, but they'll have to work harder to get out of their zone against a Buffalo team that's finding the back of the net early and often.

[RELATED: Sharks credit penalty kill in win over Canes]

This isn't to say it's all doom and gloom for the Sharks. They've cleaned a lot of things up over their last three games, getting big contributions from their special teams as well as from their goaltending. 

Getting positive contributions from all of those areas when they face off against the red-hot Sabres is really going to be the key.

NHL rumors: Sharks' Joe Pavelski could meet with Stars, Lightning this week


NHL rumors: Sharks' Joe Pavelski could meet with Stars, Lightning this week

The Sharks' efforts to keep all of their free agents got harder this weekend, when the NHL set next season's salary cap at $81.5 million. That gives San Jose just under $15 million in salary-cap space with Joe Pavelski and Timo Meier, among others, set to hit unrestricted or restricted free agency. 

At least in part because of that pending cap crunch, Pavelski told The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun that he will meet with "a few teams" this week. He also told LeBrun that he has not ruled out coming back to the Sharks, however.

“Yeah, we’ll see how that goes,’’ Pavelski said. “Maybe I come back. I don’t know.’’

League sources suggested to LeBrun that Pavelski "may visit" the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars later this week. A league source told The Athletic's Craig Morgan that the Arizona Coyotes already have met with Dan Plante, Pavelski's agent. LeBrun wrote that the Buffalo Sabres also could have called Pavelski, but they "don't have a site visit scheduled."

The President's Trophy-winning Lightning faces similarly tough cap decisions as the Sharks, with restricted free agent Brayden Point still unsigned. But the Stars ($9.957 million in cap space), Coyotes ($11.516 million after placing Marian Hossa on long-term injured reserve) and Sabres ($18.915 million) have the bulk of their roster signed and enough space to sign Pavelski, and all three ranked in the bottom third of the league in goals scored.

[RELATED: Sharks reportedly won't be thrilled with the 2019-20 salary cap]

Pavelski can help in that regard. He scored 38 goals last season, tied for the second most of his career, and has scored more than all but five players over the last five seasons. But Pavelski will turn 35 next month, and LeBrun wrote that the 13-year veteran "probably wants" a three-year deal, and LeBrun's "sense" is the Sharks don't want to sign Pavelski to a contract longer than two years.

Free agency officially begins July 1 at 9 a.m. PT (noon ET), and that is the soonest Pavelski could sign with another team. He could re-sign with the Sharks at any point beforehand, but Pavelski is at least exploring putting on a different sweater next season.

Sharks focused on capitalizing on opportunities after loss to Sabres

Sharks focused on capitalizing on opportunities after loss to Sabres

The Sharks were, of course, not pleased they weren’t able to snap the Sabres' winning streak during their visit to Buffalo. The team acknowledged afterwards that the game had some positives. Heck, rallying to tie it up late in the third period certainly made things interesting -- especially since San Jose hadn’t scored a goal on the road in 183:43 minutes.

Now, after falling to the Sabres 3-2 in overtime, the Sharks identify they need to not just create good scoring chances, but follow through and capitalize on them.

“I thought there were some chances we didn’t capitalize on early,” Evander Kane told the media after the loss, then added: “But it was a great effort to come back and tie the game and give ourselves a shot.”

Brent Burns agreed. “I think we had some chances,” the defenseman said. “[Buffalo] just ended up with one more.”

It literally was just one more chance that made the difference in Tuesday’s contest. San Jose and Buffalo played a tight back-and-forth game for the better part of 60 minutes, with the Sabres making more of a push in the second period and the Sharks responding in the latter part of the third. Buffalo kept up with San Jose on the shot clock, only being outdone 38-31 by the end of the game. The Sharks blocked seven shots to the Sabres' five and won 55 percent of the faceoffs on the evening. With both goaltenders making big saves at their respective ends of the ice, neither team was able to run away with the game. 

“It felt like there was not a lot out there for both sides,” Burns observed.

It was that one opportunity though, created by Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner in overtime, that gave the Sabres the victory.

Not that San Jose is going to completely dismiss their late-game push, or neglect applauding finding the back of the net after previously having trouble scoring on the road. Joe Pavelski notching both of San Jose’s third period markers certainly helped give the Sharks a boost.

“There are obviously going to be times where goals are tough to come by,” San Jose netminder Martin Jones said. “So, to get a couple late in the game tonight and grab a point tonight was big.”

So, how do the Sharks improve on Tuesday’s effort? 

“We need to do a little better job of getting a little more traffic in front of the net,” Kane said. “We had some good looks that we didn’t finish and that was unfortunate.”

The Sharks will get an immediate opportunity to capitalize on more chances, as they play again on Wednesday. While the competition will be steep – they’re playing the Maple Leafs in Toronto on the tail end of a back-to-back – the Sharks already know what they want to do better to improve on their game against the Sabres.