|41-21-7, 89 points||34-25-10, 78 points
|5th in Western Conference
||9th in Western Conference
The San Jose Sharks take full aim at the Nashville Predators tonight in what can safely be classified as a "must-win".
In years past we've probably been overly indulgent with our classification of these "barometer games" and "litmus tests" during the month of March. Looking back on those halcyon days of yore when San Jose would make the final push to the postseason comfortably sitting above the playoff bubble by about 12 points, it was clear that those games were just an opportunity to shore up any lingering issues before the first round.
But a time of bloodshot eyes, explosive diarrhea runs, and a crippling Scotch addiction? Days like that they were most assuredly not.
Welcome to the playoffs. In mid-March.
13 games for this team to lift themselves up from the depths to which they have sank. These things are not simple, nor are they easy, nor are they fair-- we've covered how the Sharks have deserved a better fate than the one they have given due to their underlying numbers, but that point is now but the deadest of horses. It is irrelevant, languid, and lifeless. The only underlying numbers that matter are the ones that tower above them all, the almighty standing point. Standing points that will turn strong and sinewy men at the peak of their physical ability into run down old geezers by April 7th, leaving only battered and bruised souls that yearn to live to play another day, another week, another round.
Here at Fear The Fin the writing staff and I are proud of our (self-proclaimed) ability to keep a calm head and approach the game of hockey from a reasonable point of view. We don't get caught up in the "heart" and "guts" talk; not because we don't believe it exists, but because we believe that we have found better ways to analyze the team.
It may be dry, and it may be scientific, but it is something we believe in because we have seen the broad range of utility that statistics like CORSI, Fenwick, and scoring chances have on the outcome of hockey games. They are not fact, nor are they infallible. However, we believe they provide the best methods for us to analyze a team to go along with observation of systems, talent, and long-term success.
To control a game for the majority of play is something that the San Jose Sharks, their coaching staff, their management, and their fans expect of them. This is what has defined their performance over the past four seasons. This is what their level of talent has been capable of. And scoring chance data from The Neutral has shown, this is what has continued to define San Jose even in the midst of a 9-14-6 streak in 29 games played. They have good underlying numbers. They have a good system that puts them in position to win every single night.
For the next 13 games however, that stuff really doesn't mean anything.
Right now it's about stones, cajones, a will to win, and just about every superlative you can pull out of Pierre McGuire's playbook. The underlying numbers mean very little until April 7th hits, and once that happens, those numbers are going to mean even less.
What has killed the Sharks lately has not been those long stretches of play where they look lost and out to lunch. Outside of the loss against St. Louis in HP Pavilion on March 3rd where the Sharks were absolutely dismantled, there isn't a single game that comes to mind where you can say "The Sharks look overwhelmed in that one."
What has killed them, and is frankly far more troubling, is their absolute inability to a) take advantage of opportunities in key moments of the game and b) avoid making glaring mistakes at key moments of the game. The issue isn't overall play. The issue is those moments that define what this time of year is all about.
That is the most concerning trend above all else. It's like an avalanche that hits a town in the middle of nowhere, but instead of stopping and allowing you to pick up the pieces it keeps coming and carries the house all the way to the edge of a cliff. And there's no real working your way out of it until you just say "Fuck it boys we're going to go out and fucking win this one."
It's not a mentality that you are going to outchance the other guys, because the Sharks have done that. It's not a mentality of you are going to outplay the other guys, because the Sharks have done that. It's not even a mentality of being more resilient than the other guys, because frankly the Sharks have done that by outchancing and outplaying the other guys and doing exactly what they've done to some degree over the last four seasons.
But this is different. This is about something far more psychological, something far more foreign, and certainly far more strange.
Because this current funk, slide, nose dive, whatever you want to call it, well shit-- now you need to change your philosophy, an entire frame of mind, just about everything you have programmed yourself to do over the last four seasons.
All of a sudden it's not about the technical aspects of the regular season, an 82 game stepping stone, where you put faith in your ability to bounce back after games you don't get the breaks in. San Jose has had so many of those moments over the last four years and they've always managed to bounce back and go on to win the Pacific. Why? Because they're a veteran team who understands that if you keep plugging away the bounces should go your way. Just keep plugging and you'll be fine. Your talent, your system, your hard work is going to get you there.
But now you're in a dogfight. Now you're in a position where just plugging away isn't good enough anymore. So you push things and you make mistakes and you always seemed to get burned and you never seem to be able to capitalize. So you push more and things end up sliding even further down the hill and it takes a herculean effort just to keep things where they are, let alone start the long trek up.
That is such a dramatic shift from where this team has been for so many years. Unbelievably dramatic. The Sharks have been a great playoff team the last two years, reaching two straight Western Conference Finals'. So it makes sense that they would be ready for this type of push to the playoffs when you look at it at face value.
But the fact remains that this is the regular season. And I think that's a big key here. Hockey is hockey, you play the same game. I get that. But in the postseason you match up for one team for a seven game set. Travel is point A to point B and back to Point A again. You study one team, you play one team, you generally key in on one matchup as an individual. You are dialed in. No matter how many times you'll hear (and we'll say) "this is the playoffs", it's not. It's completely different.
For the last four years in March San Jose was able to tinker with ice time, lineups, health, systems, set plays, zone entries, and all other manner of tweaks and combinations. They were able to focus on the big picture, the end goal. These games in March meant preparing to be at your best in the postseason, not killing yourself to find a win just to live another day and have to do it all over again the next night.
But now they have to do just that. They are now in a place that they have never been in before during the regular season. And that means the approach in March this team is accustomed to will have to change dramatically. It is a huge change in philosophy.
Only time will tell if that's a positive or a negative.
Tonight isn't about talent. The last 29 games have been about talent, about hard work, about outchancing your opponents and outplaying them for the majority of the game.
Tonight is about literally willing yourself to win because at the end of the day that is the only thing that you have left to turn to.
There is no room left to rely on anything else.
Prediction: Sharks grind out a 3-2 victory while getting outchanced and all that matters is the two points. Goals by Pavelski, Braun, and Winnik.