It’s getting harder and harder every game to not feel bone-deep despair over the indefinite loss of Joe Thornton. The Sharks have yet to win a game without him, but luckily, the rest of the Pacific hasn’t figured things out since the All-Star break either, and the Sharks are still second in the division.
Though, things did look a bit brighter on Wednesday evening. The Sharks were good against the Red Wings, taking them all the way to a shootout after two scoreless periods. Kevin Labanc’s game-tying goal was a beauty and well-earned in a game he looked hungry in. Getting a point out of a game they could’ve (and should’ve) gotten two in isn’t ideal, but it’s not the end of the world, either.
Martin Jones played both ends of the back-to-back in Pittsburgh and Detroit and seems no worse for the wear. He is only two games into his return from injury, so it’s possible we see Aaron Dell in net tonight. Dell has never played against the Blue Jackets, while Jones earned a win both times they met last year, stopping 24 of 25 shots for a .960 save percentage the second time around.
These teams haven’t seen each other since October of 2016. The Blue Jackets have made some changes since then, sending Brandon Saad back to the Blackhawks for 2016 Calder Trophy winner, Artemi Panarin. The trade hasn’t seemed beneficial for either side, though it maybe leans in the Blue Jackets’ favor. Saad is on pace for 38 points this season — a career low for the winger. Panarin is also on pace for a career low of 67 points, a small drop off from 74 last season and 77 his Calder year (both seasons in which he was playing on a line with Patrick Kane). In December, he earned five primary assists in a single game against the New Jersey Devils.
The Blue Jackets came out of the gate strong this year, ready to bounce back from an embarrassing playoffs performance, taking only one game against their rival Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve struggled to maintain that consistency and are now fourth in the Metropolitan Division with a 27-19-4 record. They most recently lost to the Minnesota Wild in a shootout. Much like the Sharks, they’ve got a talent for taking games to an extra frame.
Brandon Dubinsky has returned to Columbus’ line up, despite speculation that his career was in jeopardy during an 18-game absence. At the start of the season, the Blue Jackets had revoked his alternate captaincy. A fight with Zack Kassian on December 12 fractured his orbital bone, sidelining him for six weeks. He then returned to Columbus during the team’s road trip before the All-Star break to deal with vague “personal issues,” that were later refuted by Dubinsky’s agent as being medical in nature. He played just shy of 15 minutes in his return against the Wild, taking 20 shifts and winning eight of his 15 face-offs.
Can the Sharks pull together their special teams?
Yes, the absence of Joe Thornton has thrown a wrench in the Sharks’ top power play unit and yes, their scoring woes are at 5-on-5, but there’s opportunity in this situation tonight. The Blue Jackets are averaging seven penalty minutes per game, making them the third-most penalized team in the league. On top of that, their penalty kill is an abysmal 77.1 percent, stacking up at a whopping 27th in the league. The best chance for goals tonight will be on the man advantage. Logan Couture, your time has come.
How will the defense look against a team that can’t score goals?
While the Blue Jackets are seventh in the league for shots on goal, averaging 33.5 per game, they’re only converting an average of 2.54 goals per game. Per corsica.hockey, they’re performing slightly above their expected goals for of 2.44. When adjusted for home ice, they’re performing well below, scoring an average 1.97 goals with an expected goals for per 60 of 2.85.
The Sharks’ defense has been struggling as of late and that’s something we can’t blame on Joe Thornton’s absence. They could stand to look very good against a team that peppers goaltenders with shots but fails to convert them into goals.
How will Danny O’Regan slot in?
Pete DeBoer is trying the full Lindy Ruff Shuffle method, because without another Joe to anchor Pavelski to, things get a little confusing out there for our buddy Pete. Trevor Daley, an older gentleman on the Detroit blueline who is not particularly known for scoring goals, was able to capitalize on Justin Braun and Dylan DeMelo being a defensive pairing for a shift to open scoring in the third period on Wednesday night. Sometimes the line blender method leads to great things and other times — many times — it all goes wrong.
O’Regan was called up and initially thought to be in against Detroit, as Timo Meier’s health was questionable. At the last minute, Meier slotted into the line up, making O’Regan the odd man out. But with DeBoer throwing everything to the wall and realizing that nothing sticks, he has little reason to keep O’Regan in the press box for long. The Goodrow-centered fourth line has been the only consistent and effective line combination over the last few games, so O’Regan could fall anywhere in the top-nine tonight.
Bold prediction: O’Regan gets his first goal of the season and it’s the game winner. Go big or go home, kids.
We’ll have lines and game thread for you later, but in the meantime, drop your own bold predictions below.