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Blues at Sharks Preview: Strength meets strength in Western Conference boondoggle

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Good offense, meet good defense.

SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 08: Kevin Labanc #62 of the San Jose Sharks tries to score unsuccessfully on Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues at SAP Center on March 8, 2018 in San Jose, California. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Sharks’ (10-7-3, first in the Pacific) season to date has been marked by an impressive offense combined with spotty defense and a bad goaltending season. While the team has typically dominated — on the season, they’ve taken nearly 58 percent of all 5-on-5 score- and venue-adjusted shots — in the shot department, they’ve allowed their fare share of dangerous chances against on defense, and their goaltenders are again propping up their penalty kill rate.

Still, coming to town today will be a lowly Blues team (6-7-3, seventh in the Central) that, despite adding center Ryan O’Reilly to their already talented forward group, has slogged its way to an even goal differential in the basement of the league’s Central Division. While the complaints so far have been, rightly, about the team’s goaltending, the other 18 skaters aren’t providing goaltenders Jake Allen and Chad Johnson with much run support.

Through the six games the St. Louis have played so far in November (not including last night’s 4-1 win against Vegas), the Blues rank 25th in both adjusted 5-on-5 shot share and expected goal share. To the team’s credit, their expected 5-on-5 save percentage on unblocked shots ranks eighth in the league during those six games, rounding out what appears to be a top-10 defense. To paraphrase Shel Silverstein, it’s the offense I guess they forgot.

The Sharks, meanwhile, have inched back closer to the lofty perch they held when the season began a month-and-a-half ago. In eight November matchups, they’ve taken 55 percent of all 5-on-5 adjusted shots — good for third in the league during that stretch — and have generated nearly 58 percent of all expected goals, which ranks fourth overall. Unfortunately, the team’s defense on dangerous shots remains a problem. This month, San Jose has allowed the 10th-highest rate of expected goals against and have provided goalies Aaron Dell and Martin Jones with just the fourth-lowest expected shooting percentage on opponents’ unblocked shots at 5-on-5.

What each team possesses in spades is something for which the opponent seems to have a counter measure. San Jose’s shoot-don’t-think offense will meet the Blues’ imposing defense, while the Sharks’ poor defense shouldn’t have much to worry about from St. Louis’ unsuspecting offense.

So much depends upon goaltending, then, when these teams meet. Nominal starter Jake Allen started yesterday against Vegas, so San Jose likely faces a Chad Johnson who has been much better than the team’s number one. Of all 56 goalies who have started at least five games this season, Johnson ranks 19th in 5-on-5 save percentage above expected and allows a rebound rate that is above average, according to Money Puck’s goaltender model. Jones, on the other hand, offers a 5-on-5 save percentage that is 1.5 points below expected (55th out of those same 56 goalies) and has given up an average rebound rate.

Finally, the Sharks’ have a wounded team member who will not be available to play in tonight’s game. Tomas Hertl (yes, Hertl again) left Wednesday’s spectacle against the Toronto Maple Leafs with an injury, and though he practiced yesterday, will not play against St. Louis. Hertl seems allergic to the midwesterners this season, as he missed the two teams’ other contest against one another, along with games against Minnesota and Dallas just a week ago.

How will the Sharks non-Hertl forward lines handle St. Louis’ defense?

In the three games Hertl missed earlier this month, San Jose’s lines looked something mostly like this (at least to begin those games):

Evander Kane - Joe Pavelski - Joonas Donskoi
Timo Meier - Logan Couture - Kevin Labanc
Marcus Sorensen - Joe Thornton - Barclay Goodrow
Melker Karlsson - Antti Suomela - Rourke Chartier

Of those four lines, the Joe Thornton line has been by far the best relative to the rest of the team, followed by the Pavelski line, at least in terms of dangerous chances generated relative to the rest of the team. Unfortunately, it’s mostly been Jumbo doing the damage, with the other three lines collecting a smaller shot share at 5-on-5 relative to the team without them on the ice. Perhaps DeBoer and his behind-the-bench crew realized the error of their ways during these games, because the lineup appeared somewhat different against the Maple Leafs.

Pavelski skated with Couture and Meier; Suomela regained his rightful place between Kane and Donskoi; while Thornton skated between Labanc and Sorensen, and Goodrow dropped down to a line with Chartier and Karlsson, M. The results of the more recent lineup should continue to produce better results than its predecessor.

The Blues have two formidable defense pairs in Colton Parayko/Vince Dunn and Carl Gunnarsson/Alex Pietrangelo, so the Sharks will have to take as much advantage as possible of the 14 or so minutes Jay Bouwmeester and Joel Edmunson are out there.

Can the Sharks cash in on their limited power play opportunities?

The Blues have drawn nine more penalties at 5-on-5 than they have taken, whereas the Sharks are equally likely to take or draw a penalty. St. Louis boasts an impressive power play when it comes to creating shot volume, but the Blues are only average at creating expected goals. If Jones can continue his bizarrely impressive performance on the penalty kill, his Sharks should thwart any power in the Blues’ extra-man play.

Because of the discrepancy in the teams’ penalty differentials, San Jose is unlikely to enjoy a power play-filled evening. When they do land a man advantage moment, however, they could chance their way into an important goal. The Blues are just average when it comes to preventing shots and expected goals at 4-on-5, two things the Sharks’ excel at. Jake Allen has been better, though still unimpressive, while down a man. And Chad Johnson, for all his positive energy while playing 5-on-5 hockey, has so far experienced a serious drain while facing the man advantage.

Will San Jose slow down O’Reilly, Schwartz, Tarasenko?

With the Blues’ top line on the ice, the team out-shoots opponents, but only just barely. The trio — and the only group of team’s current forward lines to play more than a handful of minutes together — does generate the lion’s share of expected goals, but they do not power a high rate of expected goals for the team. It doesn’t appear that any of St. Louis’ forward lines possesses San Jose’s kryptonite, though this top unit should be the most dangerous.

Bold prediction: Marcus Sorensen records his first NHL hat trick. The winger and Joe Thornton are clicking right now, and they should see a good amount of the Blues’ solid, but team-worst defense pair to go along with plenty of offensive zone starts.