Sharks vs. Blackhawks: Heavyweights

Ezra Shaw

The top two teams in the NHL meet tonight at the Tank.

Chicago Blackhawks

@

San Jose Sharks
7-0-2, 16 points
7-1-1, 15 points
1st in Western Conference 2nd in Western Conference

7:30 PM PST | HP Pavilion | San Jose, California
TV: CSNCA-HD | Radio: 98.5 KFOX, SJSharks.com
Know Your Enemy: Second City Hockey, The Committed Indian

Projected Sharks Lineup

Patrick Marleau - Joe Thornton - Joe Pavelski
James Sheppard - Logan Couture - Ryane Clowe
Tommy Wingels - Michal Handzus - Martin Havlat
Andrew Desjardins - Scott Gomez - Adam Burish

Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Brad Stuart
Matt Irwin - Justin Braun
Douglas Murray - Jason Demers

Antti Niemi
Thomas Greiss

Projected Blackhawks Lineup

Brandon Saad - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa
Patrick Sharp - Dave Bolland - Patrick Kane
Viktor Stalberg - Andrew Shaw - Brian Bickell
Michal Frolik - Marcus Kruger - Brandon Bollig

Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook
Niklas Hjalmarsson - Johnny Oduya
Nick Leddy - Sheldon Brookbank

Corey Crawford
Ray Emery

It isn't often we get to watch the two best teams in the NHL go at it in regular season action. In a shortened season eschewing out-of-conference play, that occurrence becomes even less likely. But the Sharks and Blackhawks have earned their spots atop the league standings and currently sit first and second in the NHL two and a half weeks into the 2013 season. They'll go head-to-head in a true heavyweight battle tonight at the Tank.

The similarities between San Jose and Chicago in 2013 certainly don't end with them occupying common ground ahead of the rest of the league. Both teams were atrocious on the penalty kill a season ago but have been stellar so far this season. Chicago ranked 27th in the league in PK efficiency in 2011-12 while San Jose was 29th. Through nine games, they currently rank 1st and 6th, respectively. For both teams, that success shorthanded has come as a result of severely reducing shots against. No team in the NHL allowed more shots per 60 4v5 minutes than the 56 Chicago yielded last season but they're allowing just 40.6 (8th fewest in the league) so far. Meanwhile, the Sharks have gone from allowing 50.6 shots per 60 minutes shorthanded a year ago to just 36.4 (3rd best) through nine games in 2013.

Chicago and San Jose have also been riding the percentages to a fair extent, which is pretty much a given for any team boasting as spotless a record as these two clubs. Both teams' even-strength possession stats in the early going are fairly mediocre (although Chicago was doing much better territorially before being torched by Calgary on Saturday) but have still managed to outscore opponents 5v5 courtesy a 1028 PDO for the Hawks and a 1033 rate for San Jose. That isn't sustainable but these are two historically strong possession teams that might be able to compensate for regression by improving their shot differential accordingly.

There's no doubt this is the Sharks' biggest game of the young season. It won't be easy to hand Chicago its first regulation loss of the season while playing the second half of a back-to-back but if the Sharks can pull it off it might be time to start hoping against hope that this team is on its way to putting it all together. Go Sharks.

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