During the course of an 82 game season, the fickle nature of hockey has a way of showing up at the most inopportune times. And with the Sharks in the midst of a three game streak where they've scored a grand total of one goal despite pleas from, Todd McLellan, Doug Wilson, and your neighbor Ted for some scoring punch, that fickle nature has been having a field day.
Life isn't fair-- hockey, even less so.
With the city of San Jose on the verge of having a riot Los Angeles would be proud of, today calls for a hard look at just what the issue could be with our downtrodden Sharks. As Timorous Me points out, the Sharks have more shutouts against this season (seven) than they had regulation losses forty three games into Todd McLellan's first year behind the Sharks bench (six).
It's the kind of statistic that really makes you appreciate season one of Arrested Development (or at least allows you to make a reference to it-- and really, can there ever be too many references to one of the greatest comedies of all-time?)
Where is God? "There is no God!"
At any rate, the first complaint you'll always hear about the Sharks is shot selection. As the narrative will inevitably go, San Jose didn't have any chances in tight, instead opting to throw the puck at the net from the point without traffic in front and hope the goaltender will kick out the rebound.
As we see from shot location charts however, San Jose has done a good job of getting into those high success rates areas over the last three games-- against Anaheim, Nashville, and Buffalo respectively, the Sharks got 54.0%, 48.8%, and 50% of their shots on net from between the faceoff dots or near/below the top of the circles. In other words, 50.8% (59/116) of opposing goaltender saves were made from areas that give the Sharks the best opportunity to score a goal.
Comparing the opportunities for and against in each game, this paints a pretty clear picture as to which team controlled the game-- the first period against Buffalo was a dismal affair, but ever since that second period outburst that saw San Jose come roaring out of the gates and control possession, there hasn't been much to complain about outside of the final score. The NHL is obviously a results-oriented business, where goals trump effort at the end of the day, but the last eight periods of hockey from San Jose have shown some marked improvements from the inconsistency they've displayed throughout this season. In the offensive end of the ice they've been impressive in just about every facet of the game except where it matters most-- scoring goals.
Against Buffalo I thought the Sharks did a pretty mediocre job of getting to the front of the net and setting screens on Ryan Miller. He didn't see a whole lot of traffic, and managed to eat up a lot of pucks because of it. Nashville was an improvement in this regard, and Anaheim was really just a case of running up against a goaltender who managed to stop everything thrown his way despite dealing with some bodies and traffic in front.
The only real area I can see the Sharks improving is their horizontal passing game. San Jose doesn't do a very good job of getting off one-timers after a hard pass through the center of the ice, opting instead to work the puck along the perimeter vertically and shift gears by floating passes at the blueline between their defensemen. They like to set up their shots to get to the best possible area of the ice, which is fine in theory, but it allows both the goaltender and defense to move their feet into shooting lanes and square up to the puck. And against the quality of goaltending they've seen the last three games, getting square to the puck means there isn't going to be an awful lot of second chance opportunities lying around.
As Todd McLellan said after the Nashville game, and I'm paraphrasing here, these types of losses are all about context. If the Sharks are in first place you're able to compartmentalize the loss and pick out the positives, but if the Sharks are fighting just to stay in the playoff picture (which they are), then the two points are all that matters. It's been this way since late November, and that's what makes these last few games so hard to stomach.
If the Sharks continue to play as they have during their last two games against Nashville and Anaheim, you have to think the breaks are eventually going to come-- the chances have been too fortuitous, and too numerous, for this kind of offensive stagnation to continue provided (and this is the kicker) we don't see a return to the bad habits that have plagued the Sharks this year.
Which really takes us full circle to Saturday evening, the theme of this 2010-2011 season-- past performances and inconsistency. These types of losses to Anaheim and Nashville are painful not only because San Jose deserved a better fate but, most importantly, because they've given away so many standings points this season through third period meltdowns and mercurial efforts on a game by game basis. It's the reason why panic has begun to set in, and the reason why there are so many legitimate concerns with how this team will play down the stretch.
They may have deserved a better fate the last two nights. But 11th in the Western Conference, on the outside looking in without games in hand, is a product of the entire body of work they've produced this year. And that fact is a grim reaper camped right outside the locker room door.
Life isn't fair. Hockey, even less so.