The San Jose Sharks (2-3-1, fifth Pacific) are back home. Fresh and rested after a road trip that saw them outscore their hosts 15-14 and post a 2-3 record (turns out scoring eight of those goals in one game makes that stat a little misleading), the Sharks are still looking to get their footing in the 2018-19 season and, if history is any indicator, this is not the ideal opponent for that. Since the 2007-08 season, the Sharks boast a 5-5-3 record against a team that made the playoffs twice in that span and was eliminated in the first round both times. That team is the Buffalo Sabres (3-3-0, sixth Atlantic), and they’ll provide the Sharks with an opportunity to get this season back on the right track tonight, if they’ve got the moxy for it.
Those of us looking forward to a Danny O’Regan reunion may have to wait a little while longer, for while the Evander Kane trade piece and former Shark’s college classmates Jack Eichel and Evan Rodrigues seem to have made a positive enough impression on Sabres head coach Phil Housley, O’Regan has yet to crack the NHL line up this year.
Still, somehow the Sabres have cruised to an even .500 record without O’Regan and, even with a disappointing loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday, may be approaching something that could generously be mistaken for competitive. In that division, though, they’ll need to be more than competitive to compete.
The Sharks, despite having played pretty well by most advanced metrics, sport a losing record on the season. Their league-second 38.5 shots per game and their league leading shot attempt share of 61.41 percent do little to assuage the nerves of those who notice that, to this point in the season, the correct process has not been leading to the correct results the way we’ve been taught to expect. A PDO of 0.973 has a lot to do with that, as the Sharks have had to deal with the dueling narratives of hot starts from opponents like Henrik Lundqvist, Robin Lehner and Keith Kinkaid, and of early season struggles from their own starter, Martin Jones, who sports an unflattering .881 five on five save percentage to go along with his -2.51 goals saved above (below?) average.
A little regression would go a long way tonight, and the Sabres’ underlying numbers have not been nearly so kind. Buffalo’s shot share of 43.13 percent is 28th in the league, and their shot attempt share of 47.51 percent is 20th. Maybe that just means that they need to work harder to convert their possessions into shots on net, but let’s hope they get to fixing that tomorrow.
A similar thread through both of these teams’ seasons has been a struggle on the man advantage. While the Sabres’ troubles do not look nearly as stark as the Sharks’ in terms of quality of play versus outcome, their 20th ranked 89.69 shot attempts per 60 minutes shows a need to improve on a power play that should be more effective, boasting talents like Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen and Samson Reinhart.
The Sharks need to start tallying up some standings points in the early going here, and a two game home stand hosting the Sabres and New York Islanders should give them that opportunity before heading back out onto the road to face the Nashville Predators for their third (!) Western Conference opponent of the young-but-not-that-young season.
Show us something, fellas.
Exactly how injured is this team already?
The Sharks’ problems this season have been well documented and analyzed here and elsewhere, but this week, and their return to San Jose, brought a series of injury concerns. As if the all too familiar Joe Thornton knee concerns weren’t enough, a practice injury to Logan Couture added to practice absences of Kevin Labanc and Tomas Hertl. While Couture and Hertl returned to practice as usual yesterday, the absence of both Thornton and proto-Thornton (that’s Labanc’s new nickname, don’t worry about it) is a concern.
Is Jeff Skinner back?
Buffalo’s biggest off-season acquisition hasn’t quite worked out as hoped so far this season, but Sabres fans are hoping that his first goal against the Knights on Tuesday will open the proverbial floodgates. Likely acquired to smooth over the loss of fellow volume shooter Evander Kane, Skinner’s two points on the season aren’t likely to turn as many heads as his first goal did, because it’s a beauty:
Skinner’s 16 shots on goal are second on the Sabres to Eichel’s 24 (!), and if this is the beginning of Skinner settling in in his new home, we could be in for some trouble.
When will Erik Karlsson start breaking hockey games for us?
Speaking of settling into new homes, Karlsson has yet to convert his dominant possession play and fancy footwork into box score success in teal. The first question will be whether he has fully recovered from the flu that led to a visible decline in his play in New Jersey. The second one will be whether a return to his new home can help to create some of the chemistry we’ve been looking for with his new defensive partner, Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
Bonus: Has Rasmus Dahlin arrived?
The new look Sabres are placing a lot of pressure on their young core. Increases in responsibility to Eichel and rookie Casey Mittelstadt are expected to make up for the loss of Ryan O’Reilly, Skinner and Conor Sheary are expected to make up for the loss of Kane, and it’s only a matter of time before 2018 first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin takes the number one reins from fellow Rasmus, Ristolainen. (I think he has to kill him in a duel of anointed blades and drink of his lifeblood beneath a new moon to don the mantle of First Rasmus.) (Can we take a minute to lament the Sabres’ clear lead in good hockey names/60? It is in no way fair that Rasmus Ristolainen and Zemgus Girgensons should be allowed to play on the same team with a man named Samson Reinhart. We need a hockey name cap.) The last time a defenseman won the Calder trophy was Aaron Ekblad in 2015, a fellow first overall pick, is Rasmus 2.0 ready to be next? Stay tuned!
Bold Prediction: Karlsson scores his first. Also, the Rasmuses run into each other during a miscommunication at their bench, and the entire known universe collapses into an anti-matter singularity.
We had a good run.