The San Jose Sharks (28-14-7, 2nd Pacific) face a tough task tonight: defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning (36-10-2, 1st Atlantic). The Lightning are the best team in the NHL, and it’s not particularly close. Tampa leads the Calgary Flames by nine points, by 17 in goal differential, they just lost their tenth game in regulation midway through January and just lost their twelfth game total. For comparison, the Anaheim Ducks just won their first game on Thursday after losing 12 games in a row.
The Lightning are very good, but the Sharks beat this very same Lightning team without three of their regular defensemen just three weeks ago, and the Arizona Coyotes beat this very same Sharks team just three days ago so, by the transitive property, the Lightning are objectively worse than the Coyotes, and we all know the Coyotes aren’t any good, so this should be easy!
As confident as we are, though, that our application of algebra is predictive of a clear Sharks win tonight, it’s worth exploring just how dominant Tampa has been so far this season. With 74 points through 48 games played, the Bolts are on pace for a 126-point season. That would be the highest point total the NHL has seen since the 2004-05 lockout, edging out the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings’ record of 124. It would be the fifth-highest point season in NHL history and perilously close to the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens’ record of 132. The Lightning have accrued a truly absurd 77.1 percent of possible points to date, which, if carried through the full 82, would be the second highest point pace in an 82-game season ever (the Red Wings again, 1995-96 — the Wings and Habs come up a lot in these kinds of discussions).
Despite their dominance, the Bolts lost their aforementioned tenth game in regulation hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, by a score of 4-2, largely on the back of a heroic effort by Buds goaltender Frederik Andersen. The Dane made 36 saves in his second game back in the lineup after missing eight. The loss ended a nine-game home winning streak for the Lightning and, depending on what news comes out about Tyler Johnson’s injury, may have cost them a lot more. According to Bolts assistant coach Derek Lalonde, Johnson will probably be ready after the team’s break on Jan. 30, which puts his availability tonight squarely in doubt.
Digging just a little deeper, though, that game does little to quell concerns about Tampa’s power. Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL in points with 76 (!) through 48 games, and tallied his 54th assist on Thursday. Only 16 players in the NHL have more than 54 points. The Bolts controlled 56 percent of the shot attempts and put 38 shots on goal to Toronto’s 31. A Leafs team effort to block 18 of the Lightning’s shot attempts and a herculean effort by Andersen were the real difference makers and, if the Sharks are to come out on top tonight, they’ll need to replicate that playbook.
Just one day before the Lightning’s home winning streak was snapped by Auston Matthews and his Leafs, the Sharks had a streak of their own ended by Matthews’ future team, the Arizona Coyotes. San Jose’s seven-game winning streak was the longest in the NHL, an honor now shared by the Winnipeg Jets, New York Islanders and Canadiens with four. The 6-3 road loss on Wednesday (a score inflated by two empty net markers) marked the first time in seven games that the Sharks had allowed more than two goals and was Aaron Dell’s second career loss to the ‘Yotes. Richard Panik scored the team’s 12th shorthanded goal, second in the NHL only to the Flames’ 14, and Kevin Labanc scored his first goal in 15 games. If the Sharks can somehow get even more depth scoring going forward, they may not even need goaltenders at all.
Still, the Sharks are flying high. They hold a 16-4-2 record since Dec. 2 (which, strangely enough, now includes two losses to Arizona), sit fourth in the NHL in points and are firmly ensconced in a playoff berth with a 14-point lead over the Minnesota Wild, Edmonton Oilers and Ducks fighting for the West’s second wild card spot. It would take a monumental collapse for the Sharks to miss out on the post season, but please don’t tell them I said that.
The boys would do well to recall the last time they met this team: a comfortable 5-2 win in San Jose on Jan. 5. Missing defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Radim Simek, the Sharks ended Tampa’s 16-game point streak and their seven-game winning streak while handing them their first regulation loss since the end of November on the back of two goals from Evander Kane. The 16-game streak was just two shy of the franchise’s record, set in 2004. While Simek and Braun are back in the lineup, it looks more and more like Vlasic will miss tonight’s game, despite travelling to Tampa and skating with the team.
That win seemed to imply that less is more, when it comes to NHL-proven defenders, but tonight will have to prove that adage wrong. After all, if less is more, just think about how much more more is!
Is the NHL underestimating Brayden Point?
After opening the scoring against the Leafs on Thursday, Point became the first player this year to hit 30 goals and 60 points. Spending the plurality of his even strength ice time with Johnson and Kucherov helps, to be sure, but Point may need to start being mentioned in more serious comparisons with the company he keeps in the scoring race. His 63 points in 48 games ranks seventh in the NHL, flanked above by Nathan MacKinnon and Patrick Kane and below by Blake Wheeler and Mitch Marner. The point is (hah!) that Point is more than just a complementary piece on this roster and should be regarded as such.
Can the Sharks contain Tampa’s lethal power play?
While the Lightning’s 5-on-5 play has been dominant this season, their special teams’ production has been ... oh, similarly dominant. Tampa’s 29.0 percent efficiency on the power play is the league’s best, and their 83.9 percent kill ranks sixth. Interestingly, their shot attempt metrics are not nearly as dominant. Tampa’s 94.77 shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 play ranks 14th in the league (San Jose’s 108.51 is second, a natural consequence of Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, probably), suggesting that the Bolts pick their chances — probably an effective strategy with a man advantage unit that boasts their star power. If the Sharks can take advantage of Tampa’s reluctance to take low percentage shots on the power play, perhaps by limiting lateral puck movement and pressuring down low at the expense of point shots, they may be able to more effectively limit the damage.
How many more can the Tampa corps score before the Tampa corps’ core gets bored?
When a team is as far ahead in the standings as the Lightning are, it’s hard to find anything about which to be concerned. Complacency is one of those things. The Lightning’s leadership core and head coach Jon Cooper will have to be threading a tricky needle in allocating rest, maintaining momentum and keeping motivations high to perform every night with the President’s Trophy all but sewn up before the All-Star break. Many a Stanley Cup favorite in February has fallen by the wayside in the first few rounds and the Lightning will have to work hard to keep their eyes on that giant silver prize if they want to keep playing into June.
Bold prediction: The Sharks take advantage of a Lightning team eager to jump into their bye week. Martin Jones makes 38 saves and the Sharks triumph 5-2 on the back of two-goal performances from Timo Meier and Logan Couture. Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman have a tragic falling out, culminating in a brawl at center ice, quashing all hope that the former may sign in Tampa this Summer. The city of San Jose begins to schedule road closures for parades.
The Sharks continue their Florida tour with a visit to Sunrise to greet the Panthers on Monday at 4 p.m. PST. The Lightning have some time off, not playing again until after the All-Star break, when they heat to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 5 p.m. PST.