The Anaheim Ducks (19-14-5, 4th Pacific) are slipping. The losers of three in a row will be hoping that the NHL’s Christmas break provided enough rest to stop the skid tonight as they visit our San Jose Sharks (19-12-7, 2nd Pacific). Similarly, the Sharks dropped their last three games, but two shootout points against the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes may have made them sleep a little easier over the holiday.
In a pattern that may feel familiar to Sharks fans, Anaheim’s season has been one of streaks. They won four in a row before succumbing to their current three-game losing streak, and the last time these two teams met, on Oct. 28, the Sharks handed them what was then their fifth loss in a row. While Anaheim’s fourth place berth in the division may inspire hope in some fans, it may be an empty hope, as their -14 goal differential bests only the miserable Kings in the Pacific. For the most part, though, the Ducks’ success or failure this season has been the result of the transcendent play of goaltender John Gibson.
Gibson’s .926 Save Percentage trails only Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy among NHL starters, and his 30 starts ranks fourth. Head coach Randy Carlyle and the Ducks’ defensive system is not doing the American netminder any favors either: Gibson has faced 213 high danger shots on net at 5-on-5, the most of any NHL goalie, and his Goals Saved Above Average at evens of 14.33 leads the league. If this team is to have any success this season (or tonight) it will be on the back of Gibson.
Gibson’s 30 saves were irrelevant Saturday night, however, as his compatriot skaters could not solve Linus Ullmark in Buffalo and the Ducks fell 0-3 to the Sabres, allowing goals from Rasmus Dahlin and Jeff Skinner before an empty net goal from Conor Sheary sealed their fate. Ullmark’s second shut out of the season made him the first Sabres goaltender to record a shut out of 40 or more saves since Chad Johnson stopped 44 in Dec. 2015 — also, curiously enough, against the Ducks.
The Sharks will play their second game without Erik Karlsson tonight, as he serves the latter half of a two-game suspension for a hid to the head of Austin Wagner of the Kings. The Department of Player Safety’s inconsistencies aside, Karlsson’s absence was keenly felt against the Coyotes on Sunday afternoon. Still, as any coach will say, the loss of a top player means an opportunity for a bottom one, and Tim Heed made good, scoring his first goal of the season in his third appearance with the big club.
Two goals and no shortage of last minute heroics from Tomas Hertl weren't enough to secure the second point of the night, with Alex Galchenyuk scoring his third of the night in the shootout for the win. Sunday also marked the 999th career NHL game for Brent Burns which means, for the less mathematically inclined, that tonight will be his 1000th. One suspects that a few goals would be an appropriate way to celebrate the milestone, no?
The last meeting between the Sharks and Ducks was a wild affair, in which San Jose blew a two-goal lead only to reclaim the victory in overtime. Timo Meier was the hero, scoring his second of the game just over two minutes into extra time. In what has become a regular affair for Anaheim, the Ducks were badly out shot, but Gibson’s 45 saves earned his team the loser point.
The Sharks will need to outperform the Ducks to a similar degree tonight to get past Gibson, and Martin Jones will need to be up to the meager task of keeping their skaters off the board if our boys want to prolong their visitors’ losing streak and end their own.
How high can Joe Thornton climb?
With an assist on Heed’s goal against the Coyotes on Sunday, Thornton climbed past Marcel Dionne on the NHL’s all time assists list with 1041. Number nine on that list is Gordie Howe with 1049, then Steve Yzerman with 1063. Depending on how long Thornton continues to play, how high can he eventually climb up this ranking? It seems a given that he’ll pass Howe this season, but catching Paul Coffey at six with 1135, for instance, seems a tall order.
What effect does Erik Karlsson’s absence have on the Sharks’ roster?
Karlsson is the Time on Ice leader among Sharks skaters in all situations, so it’s no surprise that his absence is keenly felt. The Sharks seemed out of sorts on Sunday, but to ascribe that solely to the absence of Karlsson is likely a bridge too far. Still, his absence probably strains the already inconsistent pairings and lines on the team, and the minutes he’s been devouring will have to be reallocated. After Heed’s successful outing on Sunday, we’re likely to see him in the line up again tonight, and what he brings to the team will be key in deciding the outcome.
Is it time for a partier like Chartier?
Rourke Chartier has been recalled and sent down to the AHL’s Barracuda a few times lately, and tonight may be a uniquely apropos opportunity for him to draw back into the lineup. The Saskatoonie (is that what they’re called?) recorded his first NHL goal in the Sharks’ overtime win over the Ducks back in October, and often showed a capacity to compete at the NHL-level, despite recording no additional points in his 13-game audition earlier this year. If there is ever an opportunity to sit an underachieving forward (rhymes with Belker Barlsson), Chartier looks like he may be first in line to step up.
Bold prediction: John Gibson breaks an NHL record for saves made in a loss, stopping 93 of 99 as the Sharks cruise to a 6-0 win on the back of a Melker Karlsson hat trick.
The Sharks hit the road to take on the Edmonton Oilers in Alberta on Saturday at 1 p.m. PT, and the Ducks head home to host the Coyotes later that same day at 7 p.m. PT.