The Tampa Bay Lightning (32-7-2, 1st Atlantic) are ridiculous.
This team has put the entire NHL on their back and are carrying us all through the inevitability of their championship season, and their trip to visit our precious San Jose Sharks (22-13-7, 3rd Pacific) is, at best, a bump in their road. At least, that’s what they want us to think.
The Sharks are on a pretty respectable run of their own. With ten wins and 12 points in their last 15 games, the Sharks host the Bolts tonight on the first game home after a 2-1-0 road trip that ran the entire spectrum of fandom from joyous (Edmonton) to miserable (Calgary) back through harrowing (Colorado) to positive. Still, the Sharks’ underlying numbers continue to dominate, as their 57.47 score- and venue-adjusted shot attempt share at 5-on-5 led the entire NHL through the month of December. Unfortunately, it seems that that impressive record comes at quite a cost: some significant names on the Sharks’ blue line have suffered at the hands of fate and/or Sam Bennett and are questionable for tonight’s contest including, but not limited to: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Radim Simek.
As good as the Sharks have been lately, the Bolts have been so much better. The Lightning hold the longest active point streak in the NHL at 16, during which they’ve recorded an absurd 15-0-1 record, including a seven-game winning streak, their last loss in regulation against the Anaheim Ducks coming way back on November 27. That really only scratches the surface of Tampa’s dominance: the Lightning lead the NHL by 12 points. Tied for second place are the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Calgary Flames and the Vegas Golden Knights, who are all two points up on the Winnipeg Jets, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins tied for fifth. The league is tight at the top, except for Tampa.
As frightening as Lightening [sic] can be, the Bolts at least did us the courtesy of obliterating the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night to the melodious tune of 6-2. On the back of a goal and three assists from Nikita Kucherov and three points from captain Steven Stamkos, the Bolts won their seventh game in a row and their league-leading 32nd of the season in southern California. Andrei Vasilevskiy won his sixth consecutive start with 28 saves, and is 7-0-1 since returning to the Tampa line up from a foot injury. With six goals on the evening, the Lightning have now scored four or more goals in ten of their last eleven games, and their goal differential of +55 leads the league by 21. For context, the Leafs are second in that category with 34 and lead the Flames by five.
The Sharks’ last contest was more of a mixed blessing. While San Jose came out on top with a 5-4 win over the Avalanche in Colorado, they coughed up a 5-1 lead on the way there, highlighting concerns over goaltending and team defense. Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski led the way for the boys in blue with a power play goal and three assists each, and Joonas Donskoi continued on his recent campaign to remind us all that he still exists with a series of great plays in the offensive zone. The Sharks handed the Avalanche their sixth straight loss, pouring some cold water on the home team’s dominant top line.
If the Sharks want to have any kind of success tonight against the NHL’s most dominant team, they’ll need to find a way to shut down Steven Stamkos, who has eight goals and 13 points in eight games, Brayden Point, who has three goals and 13 points in an eight game point streak, and Kucherov, who leads the league with 69 points and has eight goals and 27(!) points in a 12 game streak. And they’ll need to do it with at least one and as many as three of their regular defensemen on the bench.
Put your seatbelts on boys, you’re gonna need ‘em.
What can anyone do about Nikita Kucherov?
Kucherov, the league’s leading scorer with 69 points (yeah, I know, get it out of your system), just scored a goal and three assists in his seventh consecutive multipoint game, during which he scored his 400th point in 406 games, becoming the first 2011 draftee to hit the milestone. It didn’t seem to be a fluke either: Kucherov has at least four points in three of his last five games, and 15 assists in his last seven. “On fire” doesn’t seem to be enough of a superlative to describe the Russian’s play as of late, and the Sharks will be hard pressed to slow him down shy of hiring Paddington Bear to play with Brent Burns and coat the left half of the ice in marmalade. With the rate at which San Jose’s blue liners have been visiting the infirmary, that doesn’t sound that crazy.
Who can stop some pucks for this team?
It seems like a common refrain, but this recent road trip seemed to drive home the point that the Sharks’ goaltending problems are not isolated to Martin Jones. After Aaron Dell allowed eight goals to the Calgary Flames, Jones almost let the Avalanche steal a loser point from a 5-1 deficit before robbing Nathan MacKinnon in the last second of regulation en route to a 5-4 win. Against Tampa, that kind of close call will not be tolerated, and whoever the Sharks' coaching staff starts will need to be better than they’ve been thus far to give their skaters a chance.
What will the Sharks’ bruised defense corps look like?
The Sharks blue line, deep though it may be on paper, is looking ragged right now. Both halves of San Jose’s vaunted shut down pair are injured with Vlasic “questionable or even probable” to play tonight after missing the last 6:40 of the Sharks’ contest in Colorado with a wrist injury; and Braun on the injured reserve as of yesterday after leaving that same game at the 6:10 mark. While Vlasic and Radim Simek (out since a late, high hit from Calgary’s Sam Bennett on Monday) skated yesterday, their possible absence combined with the dearth of Braun’s brawn and the recall of the Barracuda’s Jacob Middleton yesterday throws the Sharks’ pairs into disarray. Erik Karlsson, Brenden Dillon and Brent Burns seem to be the only locks on the back end, and their partners could be just about anyone at this point, including, but not limited to, the aforementioned toy bear.
Update your resumé, is what I’m saying.
Bold prediction: I’m not going to sugar coat this for you, friends: I am afraid. I feel a storm coming, and I haven’t really weather proofed anything because I live in California and we don’t have any weather here. The Sharks lose 6-4 and are thankful for the privilege. I’m so very sorry.
The Sharks are back in action hosting the Kings on Monday at 7:30, and the Lightning head home to host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday at 4:30, both times Pacific.