One of the favorites for the Stanley Cup may have arrived at SAP Center last night. And I’m not talking about the Winnipeg Jets.
Despite the 5-3 loss, the San Jose Sharks made a winning statement.
“This is a big challenge,” said Pete DeBoer of the Jets. “This is one of the elite offensive teams in the league, they can play any way you want to play. Speed, heavy, hard, scoring from defense and forwards. Elite power play.”
In these areas and more, the Sharks stood up to their vaunted visitors last night.
Led by “Jumbo” Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, the Sharks have been able to play heavy and hard for years. Featuring Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, they certainly have enough firepower from the blueline. Since Oct. 18, San Jose’s power play has been humming at 27.9 percent, good for fifth in the NHL.
But in particular, it was the speed and skill of the two EK’s — Evander Kane, picked up last season, and Karlsson, added this fall — that was striking.
Kane recorded 10 shots; it was the ninth time in his career that he’s recorded at least that many shots in a game. A whopping seven came off the rush, and no coincidence, Karlsson was on the ice for five of them.
The dynamic duo did it in different ways too, showing off a combination of speed and skill that the Sharks lacked before their acquisitions.
Karlsson (65) led this rush. Karlsson received a Brenden Dillon (4) pass on his backhand, then coolly, in a single, sweeping motion, swiveled his body and the puck to his forehand as a forechecking Mark Scheifele (55) reached and missed.
Karlsson turned on the afterburners, leaving Scheifele in his wake, then completed a tape-to-tape pass to Kane. Jacob Trouba (8) kept Kane’s shot to the outside, while Karlsson crashed the net.
Seconds later, after a remarkable Thornton backcheck — the 39-year-old tracked Winnipeg’s superstar centerman, Scheifele, from end to end — Kane scooped up the loose puck and led the 2-on-1 rush with Karlsson. They pushed back Josh Morrissey (44) with their speed, then Kane flicked his deadly wrister past Connor Hellebuyck.
Between two Jets, Karlsson hit Kane’s forehand with a perfect stretch pass. Karlsson’s accuracy was crucial because it allowed Kane to receive the puck in stride; he was able to progress as far as the left dot before Ben Chiarot (7) forced a shot. Regardless, it was a good chance from a quality scoring area because of Karlsson’s pinpoint passing and Kane’s speed.
Even Karlsson’s partner Dillon joined a rush. This is important, because on a truly fast team, everybody plays fast, even if they’re not particularly fast on their own. Dillon’s center lane drive pushed two Jets defenders back and ceded the middle of the high slot to Kane.
Cleverly, Dillon attacked the outside defender, Dustin Byfuglien (33), instead of the inside man, Chiarot. As Dillon came down, this in effect created a soft pick for Chiarot to navigate through to switch over to Kane.
Last, but not least, is this rush.
They say “save room for dessert.” But in Karlsson’s case, it’s save room for the spectacular.
First, good defense by Kane and Karlsson created good offense. Karlsson’s stick and skating kept Byfuglien to the outside; Kane jumped Byfuglien’s centering pass to Scheifele. Pavelski (8) lofted a soft backhand pass over the forechecker to Joonas Donskoi (27). Donskoi showed good vision and patience to hit the hard-charging trailer, Karlsson.
Karlsson then shocked everybody, including his own teammate, with a no-look royal road pass through three Jets into Kane’s wheelhouse.
“It kind of handcuffed me because I didn’t think it was getting through,” admitted Kane.
For San Jose, it was a measuring stick game.
DeBoer acknowledged, “We talked, we wanted to see where we stacked up against one of the elite teams in the league.”
Even defensively, despite surrendering five goals, the Sharks were terrific. A world-class individual effort by Byfuglien, a Jets bounce off the stanchion, a puck off Mason Appleton’s skate, Justin Braun colliding into Martin Jones and an empty netter accounted for Winnipeg’s offense last night.
Adjusting for score/venue effects, the Sharks at 5v5 tonight:— Marcus White (@marcuspwhite) December 21, 2018
63.96% scoring chances
66.16% high-danger chances https://t.co/JFPICmDsiz
San Jose even managed to stifle the Peg’s mighty power play. Patrik Laine, who leads the NHL in power play goals with 10, recorded just one shot on the man-advantage. That was Laine’s only shot during the entire contest.
“Tonight was a pretty complete game in a lot of areas,” noted Pavelski. “We were on them, it felt like, the whole night.”
“In terms of hanging with a top team, we’re a top team,” Kane asserted. “I’m sure we’ll see these guys down the road.”
While San Jose has two regular season games left in Winnipeg, it felt like he was talking about more than that.
Karlsson seemed to agree: “We’re excited for the future.”