Wait, there’s a Western Conference?
The San Jose Sharks (4-3-1, 4th Pacific) travel to the American heartland tonight to take on the league-leading Nashville Predators (7-1-0, 1st Central). In a quirk of the NHL schedule, the Predators are only San Jose’s third Western Conference opponent in their ninth game, and their sixth road game. That the Sharks have been able to carve out a .500 record under those conditions would be impressive if their quality of competition hadn’t been so low.
Thus far, the Sharks have dropped games against the Ducks (leading the Pacific, but last in the NHL in shot attempt share, first in PDO, and probably held aloft by unsustainable play from all-American superhero John Gibson), Islanders (composed almost entirely of Lou Lamoriello fourth liners), Rangers (third last team in the league and dead last in the Atlantic), and Devils (actually good? Wait, what is this?). Tonight marks the first time the Sharks will square off against a team that is almost universally seen as a Stanley Cup contender, and they’ll need to be last week’s Sharks, and not the prior week’s, if they hope to stand a chance.
The Sharks finally got some tangible results to back up their dominant possession play this week, most recently in a chippy 4-1 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday night. On the back of a 24-save performance by Martin Jones and a three-point night from Tomas Hertl, the Sharks split the season series with the Isles, which maybe makes the whole thing sound a bit less impressive. Recent hat-tricker and perpetual-alternate-captain Logan Couture has four goals in two games, which I’m told is quite good.
The Perds are riding a high themselves, having only lost one game on the young season, a 3-0 affair against the Calgary Flames way back on October 9. Since then, Nashville has beaten every team they’ve faced by at least two goals, putting together a tidy five-game winning streak, capped most recently by a 3-0 shut out of the Edmonton Oilers. Boasting the reigning Vezina trophy winner (sort of, we’ll get to that), and one of the league’s best top four defensemen group (sort of, we’ll get to that, too) the Predators are one of the best two or three teams in the NHL on paper, and they’ve shown that theory to be the case in practice so far.
At last, a worthy foe.
Can the Sharks beat the Juuse?
With the reigning Vezina trophy winner Pekka Rinne (see, told you we’d get there) on the Injured Reserve with a concussion, dating back to a collision with teammate Kevin Fiala on Friday, the Predators have turned to their Finn in the wings, Juuse Saros. Long seen as the heir apparent to Rinne’s starting job, Saros posted a 31-save shut out against the Connor McDavids upon entering the starter’s crease. The Sharks, then, face not one nemesis (Pekka Rinne’s .940 save percentage against San Jose is formidable), but another just as fierce: the back-up goaltender (thunder clap).
Saros has had flashes of brilliance during a largely inconsistent back up career with the Predators, but his .925 save percentage seems to imply he’s been more help than hurt over the years. The Sharks’ struggling against second string goalies is a well worn narrative among fans, but if the boys can convince themselves that Rinne is on his way out anyway, maybe they can dodge this particular bullet.
Will Nashville’s actual points in the standings prove to be a better indicator of team quality than San Jose’s nerd points?
Flippancy aside, the Sharks lead the NHL in shot attempt share by a significant margin, and their middling PDO suggests that they have yet to really reap the rewards of that domination. While shot quality and opponent quality are things to consider, teams that shoot more tend to win more in the long term. The Predators, however, are winning more now. Like, a lot more. Nashville’s advanced possession stats, however, aren’t nearly as impressive (their PDO of 1.046 is second only to Anaheim) as the Sharks’, and they’re not likely to win seven of every eight games they play until June. If both teams start regressing in opposite directions tonight, we’re in for a show.
How does the Sharks’ new look D-corps stack up against the league’s best?
With captain Roman Josi, team leader in points among defensemen Mattias Ekholm, not-injured-this-year Ryan Ellis and very good and stylish boy P.K. Subban, the Predators boast the best top four defensemen in the NHL.
Or do they?
The Sharks’ addition of best defenseman alive and noted Swedish pirate Erik Karlsson to a top four that already carried Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Joakim Ryan could challenge Nashville for that title. What’s more, both teams look to the blue line for offense, with Karlsson, Burns, Josi and Subban ranking first, second, third and sixth in points among defensemen since the 2014-15 season. Wait, really? Let’s do that again: four of the top six point leaders among defenseman over the past five seasons are playing in this game.
Jeez, gang, this should be fun.
Bold prediction: With the game tied at three and two minutes left in regulation, Ellis sustains a minor hip injury that forces him from the game. “Buh God, that’s Matt Irwin’s music!” The Brentwood Bay Bomber himself descends from the rafters onto the Predators’ blue line and places a classic Irwin howitzer just barely three feet high and left of the Sharks’ net.
Hertl scores in overtime.