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.