Sharks

Five Sharks vs Ducks questions that will determine Round 1 series

Five Sharks vs Ducks questions that will determine Round 1 series

Only a single point separated the Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks in the standings at the end of the season, and little appears to separate them ahead of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Theirs is arguably the closest matchup to start the playoffs, leaving us all to wonder what will eventually set the winner apart.

With that in mind, here are five questions whose answers will ultimately determine who moves on to the second round. 

Are the Sharks’ kids (still) alright? 

San Jose really relied on young players this season, and will need them to beat Anaheim. Can Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl, Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and Chris Tierney continue to contribute offensively in the postseason?  

Donskoi (12 points), Hertl (11 points), and Tierney (nine points) were key contributors during the Sharks’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, and while Meier is still looking for his first playoff point, he was one of the team’s better players in a first-round loss last year. If they’re to avoid a repeat of 2017, when they scored just 14 goals in a six-game elimination, scoring depth led by these five under-25ers is key.

Can Corey Perry get hot?

For the second straight season, Anaheim had three 20-goal scorers and Corey Perry was not one of them. Perry hasn’t gone two consecutive years without 20 tallies since the first two seasons of his career. 

Five-on-five, the 32-year-old attempted shots, put pucks on net, and generated scoring chances at his lowest rates since 2007-08, according to Natural Stat Trick, but he was also a bit unlucky. He scored nearly six fewer non-empty net goals than expected, based on the quantity and quality of his chances, and some regression to his mean would make Anaheim’s formidable forward corps even deeper. 

Who gets better goaltending on the penalty kill? 

It may seem oddly specific, but hear us out: San Jose and Anaheim were third and fifth, respectively, in penalty kill percentage, despite allowing scoring chances at the 15th and ninth-highest rates, according to Natural Stat Trick. Both teams owe the disparity their goaltending, since starters Martin Jones (.900 four-on-five save percentage) and John Gibson (.917) stopped the 10th-highest and second-highest percentage of shots among goalies that played 100 minutes on the penalty kill, according to Corsica Hockey.  

The Sharks don’t spend much time in the box, but aren’t as stingy as the Ducks at even strength so limiting power play goals will be crucial. Conversely, Anaheim does take a lot of penalties, and doesn’t really drive play at even strength, so shorthanded time would give San Jose a lifeline if Gibson shuts the door five-on-five. As a result, whichever goaltender’s better on the penalty kill may yet sway the series.

Who ends up healthier? 

Each team is dealing with injuries after a long season, but the guaranteed absence on both sides loom largest. The Ducks have one on the back-end, as defenseman Cam Fowler was ruled out for two-to-six weeks last week. Meanwhile, the Sharks have one up front: Joe Thornton hasn’t played since spraining his right MCL on Jan. 25.

The front end of Fowler’s timetable would allow him to return for Game 4 a week from now, while Thornton’s said he won’t came back until his injured knee is ready. It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that neither player comes back, and the Ducks and Sharks have won without them this year. However, an early return for either player could push their team to the second round. 

How much will home-ice advantage ultimately matter? 

Both teams were a fair bit better at home than the road during the regular season. Anaheim was especially so to close out the year, winning each of the last seven home games of the year, and 10 of the last 11. San Jose, meanwhile, won eight of its last 12, but lost two of the last three.

Each won at least once on each other’s home rink during the regular season, although the Sharks and Ducks have not played each other since two weeks before the trade deadline. If their home-road disparities hold, this could be a series where the first team to win on the road is truly in the driver’s seat, if either is even able to. 

Sharks' struggles feel familiar on second rough East Coast road trip

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AP

Sharks' struggles feel familiar on second rough East Coast road trip

At the start of the Sharks' recent road trip earlier this week, the team felt like they were in pretty good shape. Despite losing to the Hurricanes in a shootout Thursday evening, San Jose played so well that they appeared primed to pick up a few wins.

But after being outscored 12-2 in back-to-back games against the Lightning on Saturday (7-1) and then the Panthers on Sunday (5-1), the Sharks aren't looking like the team that went 11-4-0 in the month of November. In fact, they're looking like the team that went 1-3-1 the last time they went on a long roadie out East.

Are the Sharks' struggles on this second long road trip just a coincidence, or is it history repeating itself?

"I think every trip is different, you're at different points," coach Peter DeBoer said to the media after the Sharks' loss to the Panthers. "My disappointment tonight was a little like last night. I think they scored on their first shot or their first couple of shots and then you're chasing the game right off of the bat. It's tough on the road to do that."

San Jose looked for a moment like they could trade in their bad luck during Sunday's game when Kevin Labanc scored a power-play goal in the first period to cut Florida's two-goal lead in half. But thanks to a lopsided special teams battle and Sergei Bobrovsky outplaying Martin Jones, the Sharks were handed yet another loss.

"I thought we hung in there and kept fighting, but it wasn't enough," DeBoer said. "Their goalie was better. Their special teams were better tonight than ours."

It's a disappointing trend to see from a Sharks team that was starting to turn things around after a solid November. Even after a disappointing loss to the Washington Capitals before the road trip, San Jose was able to put on quite the performance in Carolina -- despite only getting one point -- and had momentum in their favor. In both losses that ensued, that fight was hard to come by.

"I think we're a little too relaxed right now," Sharks winger Evander Kane admitted. "A couple of games where we got off to bad starts and weren't able to fight back. We didn't have much fight after we got down. That's probably the most disappointing part."

[RELATED: Simek to miss two weeks for minor knee procedure]

The Sharks might be leaving the Sunshine State behind, but their road trip isn't over just yet. They have one more stop before they can return home -- a Tuesday night meeting against the Predators in Nashville -- and one more chance to turn their luck on the road around. Even though the Predators haven't been playing well either, their home barn poses challenges for visiting teams. Given how the Sharks have played over the last couple of road games, a win won't be easy.

The Sharks have no choice but to buckle down and grind for a win.

"It sucks, but you just have to keep working to get out of this slump," Kevin Labanc said. "And make sure that we're getting out of this hole for ourselves."

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in lackluster 5-1 loss vs. Panthers

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AP

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in lackluster 5-1 loss vs. Panthers

BOX SCORE

The Sharks needed a big turnaround on Sunday afternoon after suffering a 7-1 loss at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning the night before, but they didn't come close.

San Jose played better on the back end of a back-to-back, but the Florida Panthers had all the answers. In the end, the Sharks dropped their fourth game in a row, this time by a score of 5-1. 

Here are three takeaways from Sunday's game:

A goalie made the difference -- again

While Martin Jones didn't get pulled from Sunday's game like he was in Team Teal's loss to the Lighting, he still provided a mixed performance. He made a few saves to take some momentum away from the Panthers' offense, but he also gave up an early power-play goal and let two shots from the blue line find the back of the net. While he didn't receive much support from the defense early on, he still needed to buckle down more later in the game when San Jose was battling to put more points on the board.

The Sharks' offense did try to make up for the damage on the scoreboard and got some really good offensive-zone time as the game went on. Unfortunately for San Jose, Sergei Bobrovsky was in fine form and had an answer for most of the best chances.

Can't blame Kane 

The NHL says they're taking hits to the head more seriously. So it's a mystery as to why Mackenzie Weeger's hit on Evander Kane at the start of the second period didn't at least draw a penalty. Although Kane only left the ice for a quick moment and then returned to the bench, you can't blame him for standing up to Weeger on his next shift to defend himself. With Kane leaving the ice afterward with 17 minutes worth of penalties, Florida created momentum from a power-play opportunity, as the Panthers scored their third goal at even strength almost immediately afterward.

Credit should go to the Sharks for not letting the incident ruin their flow. Even though the altercation led to Kane being penalized for the rest of the period, San Jose continued to build momentum in an effort to even up the score. It's just unfortunate the Sharks couldn't get at least one goal to show for that effort.

[RELATED: Sharks' Simek to miss two weeks for minor knee procedure]

Special teams still struggling 

Yes, San Jose scored a power-play goal in the first period, the team's first in more than 20 attempts on the man advantage over a nine-game span. However, the Sharks were unable to capitalize at the beginning of the third period when they got some extended power-play time and could have trimmed the deficit to one. 

San Jose's No. 1-ranked penalty kill struggled as well, surrendering two goals to the Panthers. Whatever is ailing the Sharks' special teams, they'll have to fix if they want to get back into the win column.