For the first time in a long time, the Sharks enter the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as legitimate underdogs after stumbling to a 7th-place finish on the back of some poor results in February and much of March. But as we've repeatedly discussed here at Fear the Fin, much to the chagrin of some, the Sharks' disastrous road trip and subsequent losses were largely the byproduct of bad luck rather than bad play. That shouldn't necessarily be surprising - the Sharks dropped games in the year's second and third months to some of the worst teams in the league like the Wild, Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, Oilers, Flames and Lightning. They would probably beat all of those teams in a seven-game series but with the postseason picture now set, they won't have that luxury.
No, if the Sharks are to claim the franchise's first Cup it will have to be by eliminating the best the league has to offer, starting with a St. Louis Blues team who are arguably the cream of the crop in the Western Conference. The incredible SnarkSD identified early on in the season that where the Sharks' real struggles materialized were in their matchups with other elite conference foes. In this piece, we'll examine what the underlying numbers tell us about the Sharks' performance in the regular season against the Blues, Red Wings, Kings, Blackhawks and Canucks who, along with San Jose, finished the year as the Western clubs who were top ten in puck possession league-wide.
San Jose Sharks v. Western Conference Elite (Even Strength)
|Opponent||EV Scoring Chance%||Fenwick%||Fenwick Close%||Fenwick Tied%||PDO ||EV Goal%
|v. Los Angeles||46.9%||44.6%||43.2%||43.8%||1040||64.3%|
|v. St. Louis||54.8%||56.0%||52.3%||58.9%||964||33.3%|
As a reminder, EV Scoring Chance% is the percentage of even-strength scoring chances for out of all even-strength chances, for and against (chances tracked by yours truly; details on scoring chance criteria can be found here). Fenwick% is the same idea but with even-strength shots and missed shots instead of chances; the stat tracks very closely with puck possession. Fenwick Tied% is a team's Fenwick% limited only to when the score is tied while Fenwick Close% is limited to when the score is tied in any period or within a goal in the first or second. PDO is the addition of a team's shooting percentage and save percentage at EV and, at the team level, usually regresses to 1000 over time.
- Right off the bat, it seems just as well that the Sharks didn't win the Pacific Division which would have punched their ticket to Chicago for the first round. The Hawks dominated the Sharks at even-strength this season by every conceivable measure.
- The Sharks' overall numbers against the team they're actually playing in the first round, St. Louis, look spectacular both on the scoring chances and Fenwick side of the equation but there's a major caveat: a lot of that is built on the first game between the teams this season when the Blues held a lead for much of the first and third periods, allowing San Jose to accumulate a gaudy +23 Corsi difference. The numbers for the other three Sharks/Blues games (which, coincidentally, are the three for which Ken Hitchcock was behind the bench) are bleaker: the Sharks were at 48.8% in Fenwick Close and 45.2% in EV chances. Granted, that's slicing an already tiny sample size even thinner but it's probably a more accurate representation of how the season series went.
- Look at that off-the-charts ridiculous PDO the Sharks posted against the Wings this year. While it's temping to say the scoring chances explain at least some of that, most of the Sharks' chance advantage was gained via a 21-11 trouncing of Detroit at evens in the teams' final meeting of the season when the Red Wings were sans Nicklas Lidstrom. We're getting ahead of ourselves here, but I'd be pretty wary of a three-peat against Detroit if both teams move on to the secound round this year - the Sharks certainly won't be able to count on a 10.4% shooting percentage backed up by 0.947 goaltending at even strength if they do run into the Winged Wheel.
- Similarly incredible PDO magic wielded by the Sharks versus L.A. this season. The Kings really took it to the Sharks possession-wise in the final three meetings of the season. With Jeff Carter in the fray and without Jack Johnson's ineptitude weighing them down, Los Angeles is going to give Vancouver hell in that series.
- It's kind of eerie how close the overall scoring chance and Fenwick numbers are for this sample.
- Overall, these numbers don't paint a flattering picture of the Sharks' ability to control play against other Western Conference powers this season. Being that far in the red at both generating chances and driving possession with the score close seems to raise some red flags but it's only fair to compare the Sharks' underlying numbers against these teams to how these five clubs have performed against each other, as well as San Jose, to see how far off the pace the Sharks really were:
2011-12 Head-to-Head Fenwick Close%
|Team||v. CHI||v. DET||v. LAK||v. SJS||v. STL||v. VAN||Overall|
- I'd be wary of reading too much into the individual head-to-head numbers because of sample size issues but damn did the Kings annihilate Vancouver territorially this season, even despite the fact that only one of their meetings came after the trade deadline.
- The small sample size disclaimer still applies but the Blues are undoubtedly happy to have Alex Steen back from injury and in the lineup for this playoff series. In 13 games against The League of Extraordinary Western Conference Teams, St. Louis posted a ridiculous 59.7% Fenwick Close with Steen on the ice. A 53% offensive-zone start rate in those games certainly helped but Steen was used frequently in tough defensive minutes against the Pavel Datsyuk and Jonathan Toews lines - he's going to be someone to keep an eye on throughout the series.
- Doesn't seem like Detroit has been talked about very much as a legitimate contender this season but that they are. They've been hobbled by injury over the past few months but they were still well in the black by the possession metrics against every team except St. Louis this season.
So what does this mean for the Sharks? Well apart from Vancouver (who are probably the worst President's Trophy winner we've seen since the lockout and a decent bet to lose to a phenomenal Kings team in round one) they've had the biggest struggles controlling territory against the best in the West. It's been an issue all season and while their numbers against the Blues, the only relevant team at the moment, appear superficially encouraging they're largely built on the first game of the season series alone. Anything can happen in a playoff series but this doesn't bode well for the Sharks' chances of advancing both in this series against St. Louis or in future rounds if they manage to tune out the Blues.