The San Jose Sharks (19-11-5, 2nd Pacific) will face the toughest test of their recent run of success as they host the Winnipeg Jets (22-10-2, 1st Central) at SAP Center tonight. Winners of five straight, their longest such streak of the season, the Sharks have yet to face a team as deep, as dangerous and from as cold and internet-less a city as the Jets. Since the Sharks’ 6-2 humiliation at the hands of the Senators in Ottawa on the first of the month, our boys in teal have rattled off seven wins in eight opportunities, the lone outlier coming from a 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars that was dutifully avenged six days later.
Of those seven opponents however, only one is currently sitting in a playoff spot, casting them all into stark contrast with the high flying, division-leading Jets. No strangers to recent success themselves, the Jets’ loss to the Los Angeles Kings snapped a five-game win streak of their own, and served as only their second loss in their last 11 contests. The Jets’ 46 points in the league standings are good enough for a tie for second overall with the Toronto Maple Leafs, eight (!) points behind the unreasonably good Tampa Bay Lightning. To their credit, one of Winnipeg’s recent wins was a 5-4 overtime thriller against those very same Lightning on Sunday.
That most recent game against Los Angeles featured two teams at opposite ends of the NHL standings trying their best to out-boring each other. A game that features five goals and 59 shots would usually generate more excitement, but, hindered by many of the shots for the first half being low percentage lobs and a preponderance of ugly bounces and bad puck luck, the Jets dropped the game by a score of 4-1. Mathieu Perrault scored the Jets’ lone tally to extend his goal streak to five games, but five other five-game streaks ended: Winnipeg’s aforementioned win streak, their road win streak, Los Angeles’ loss streak and point streaks for both Dustin Byfuglien and Blake Wheeler.
If the Jets’ measly single goal against the Kings was giving you hope for an anemic Winnipeg offense coming into San Jose, temper those expectations. Sunday’s nap time was just the second time in their last 16 games that the Jets have scored fewer than two goals. It also marked the 400th NHL game for Mark Scheifele, who sits atop the Jets’ scoring race with 46 points in 34 games. If the NHL is truly becoming a more high-scoring league, the Jets are leading the way, as sophomore Patrik Laine sits third in the league in goals with 23.
The Sharks, on the other hand, are coming into tonight’s action on a decidedly higher note, having bested the Minnesota Wild on the road on Tuesday with a 4-0 shutout. On the back of Martin Jones’ 26 saves, Logan Couture’s two goals and two points each from Tomas Hertl, Lukas Radil and Radim Simek, the Sharks were just the latest to contribute to Minnesota’s precipitous fall from grace.
Couture is on fire, having scored six goals and 19 points in his last 15 games. Furthermore, Erik Karlsson seems to have really found his stride in teal, sitting on seven assists during a six-game point streak. It was a good example of what this team can look like when all cylinders are firing effectively. When this team can access its forward depth, its activated defense and its occasionally spectacular goaltending, they’re nigh unstoppable.
They’ll need all of the above to best a Jets team that broke all of our hearts last time around. Way back on Jan. 23, the Jets came into San Jose and scored three goals on their first four shots on a poor, unsuspecting Aaron Dell. The Sharks fought back through the second period, getting goals from Joe Pavelski, Couture and our dearly departed best friend Chris Tierney. Blake Wheeler ended all of our hopes in overtime, however, scoring his second of the night just 18 seconds into extra time to claim the second point with a 5-4 victory.
You probably don’t remember all of that, and neither did I, but I do remember one thing about that night, and it involved Mikkel Boedker falling awkwardly onto Joe Thornton’s calf near the benches, ending Thornton’s night and, as it turned out, his season.
Let’s hope exactly none of that happens tonight. Fingers crossed, wood knocked upon, feet of rabbits rubbed and all that.
Is Martin Jones back?
After sitting at a 5-on-5 save percentage of .881 in 17 appearances through November, and spending a great deal of the season with underlying metrics in the bottom of the NHL rankings, Jones seems to have turned a corner with the rest of the team, and his .922 5-on-5 save percentage during December has come along for the ride. Still, it is worth wondering if Jones has finally “figured it out” after a few nights of rest, relaxation and cocktails, if he’d been nursing an injury during the season’s first few months or if the team’s coherence and defensive development are manifesting in his rate stats. As with most of these questions, it’s probably a little bit of all of the above.
Jones’ goals saved above average (GSAA) — a metric that attempts to estimate the goals an average NHL goaltender would allow given the opponents’ shot quality and frequency — was a league worst minus-13.93 the morning of Dec. 1. A Senators beat down, a series of clandestine team meetings and eight games later, Jones’ December GSAA is a perfectly acceptable 1.96, good enough for sixth among NHL goalies with at least five starts. With such small sample sizes, it’s impossible to definitively ascribe cause, but whatever the source of his power is, it’s fine by us if he keeps it up.
Have the Sharks finally solved their roster?
A casual observer with less than a passing familiarity between correlation and causation would have no trouble assigning credit for the Sharks’ recent success to the emergence of rookie European free agents Lukas Radil and Radim Simek. While Radil and Simek have played well, slotting seamlessly into the fourth line with Barclay Goodrow and Melker Karlsson, and into the top pairing opposite Brent Burns, respectively, it bears mentioning that San Jose’s recent success comes on the heels of one of the more horrendous travel schedules an NHL club can possibly endure, and features some of the league’s, shall we say, less intimidating opponents. Tonight’s game against one of the league’s best will be an opportunity for the new kids to show that they are a part of the team’s upswing, and not just along for the easy schedule stretch ride.
Which Patrik Laine will the Sharks face?
At the tender age of 20, Laine has already established himself as one of the league’s premier goal scorers, but his production has tended to come in fits and starts this year. Of his 23 goals, 11 came during a four-game stretch from November 19-24, including a five-goal outing in St. Louis against the floundering Blues. Since then, his four goals in 12 games seems a lot less dangerous than his season numbers appear at first glance. Manifesting a dangerous presence in San Jose will be key to his team’s success here.
Bold Prediction: The Sharks flip the script from their last Jets party, scoring three goals in the first period, allowing three in the second, going one for one in the third and winning a 5-4 over time game 18 seconds into overtime on a Blake Wheeler own goal.
The Sharks host the Kings on Saturday in a matinee at 1 p.m. PST, the Jets will jet up to Vancouver to face the Canucks that evening at 7 p.m. PST.