The San Jose Sharks (3-5-0, 7th Pacific) face the top team in the Eastern Conference tonight in what may be the least hospitable environment in the northern hemisphere for prehistoric, carnivorous, hockey-playing fish, as they head East to visit the Buffalo Sabres (7-1-1, 1st Atlantic). Like we discussed on Saturday, the Sabres’ success through their first nine games is less dominant than their ten-game winning streak last season, but might be a little more indicative of a Good Hockey Team, if not quite as good as tops in the East would suggest.
Unlike Saturday, Buffalo’s 5-on-5 adjusted PDO of 1.051 is now the second-best in the league, only trailing the Colorado Avalanche for that dubious honor, implying that some measure of their success so far is unsustainable in the very long term. Scoring four goals on 26 shots at 5-on-5 in San Jose on Saturday while going 0-for-4 on the man advantage likely had a fair amount to do with that particular metric’s inflation, as did Linus Ullmark’s very fancy .952 save percentage.
Despite the outcome, the Sharks played reasonably well against the cream of the East, controlling 53.64 percent of the shot attempts in all situations, and exactly 50 percent at 5-on-5. That may be a taller task on the road, where the Sharks’ coaching staff will have a harder time keeping Logan Couture on the ice against Jack Eichel, and in a building that is almost definitely haunted.
As mentioned previously in this space, the Sharks have won a tragicomic three times in 21 visits to Buffalo since their founding in 1991. In a desperate attempt to salvage some hope out of such a miserable stat line, though, all three of those wins were in the last ten games, and two of them were in the last four. Maybe this particular curse has finally turned a corner, but with the way the Sabres have been playing so far this year, the Sharks will need to rely on more than the gambler’s fallacy to scrape two points out of New York tonight.
The trip to Buffalo marks the beginning of one of the Sharks’ more grueling road trips of the season, as they head to back-to-back trips to the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday and Friday, followed by visits to the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins before finally heading home to face the Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks back-to-back at home on the first of the month.
On the bright side, this five-game road trip is the Sharks’ longest of the season, as they’ll check back in at home between road games a lot over the rest of the year. The Senators are probably the only easily beatable team of that bunch, even before we factor in the emotional effect Erik Karlsson’s return to Ottawa will undoubtedly bring, so it seems like recording a .500 point percentage on this road trip will be a pretty tall order. Cold comfort for a team that has yet to hit that mark on the season.
How will Ralph Krueger line match Tomas Hertl?
In Saturday’s game in San Jose, Hertl spent 7:21 at 5-on-5 on ice with both Evander Kane and Kevin Labanc. During that time, the Sharks recorded a dominant on-ice shot attempt percentage of 66.67 percent, largely devouring the Buffalo trio of Marcus Johansson, Jeff Skinner, and Vladimir Sobotka up front and Colin Miller and Rasmus Dahlin on the back end. While Krueger may want to shield Johansson from Hertl and Kane’s collective dangerousness, he may be hesitant to mess with what works. The teams’ top two lines went as well as could possible have been expected for the Sabres, as Eichel, along with wings Victor Olofsson and Samson Reinhart, obliterated the Couture line at evens, to the tune of a 77.78 percent shot attempt share for Buffalo when both centers were on the ice.
It should be interesting to watch what Krueger does with this information, and should give us a better idea of what kinds of roles he has in mind for his best players.
Who is Carter Hutton, but for real this time?
As tempting as it would be to copy and paste our Carter Hutton question from Saturday’s game, it feels like it would be both disingenuous and an abuse of a newly discovered cosmic power. This time, it seems pretty likely that Hutton will be the goalie of record to face his former franchise, as he and Ullmark have alternated starts for the entire season, save the first two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils, both multi-goal wins featuring Hutton in net.
The Worcester product is likely to provide stiffer competition to the Sharks than Ullmark did in San Jose, as, at 5-on-5, his goals saved above average of 4.51 is third in the league, and his .962(!) save percentage leads all keepers with more than two starts (Hutton has five).
Can the Sharks’ penalty kill continue to stymie the Sabre’s power play?
While the top-level position of the Sharks in the standings is unenviable, one particular area of their play has been excellent: their short-handed unit. San Jose’s 92.8 percent efficiency rate on the penalty kill ranks second in the NHL only to the Vegas Golden Knights, but Buffalo’s 31.4 percent scoring rate with the man advantage ranks fourth. For one game, at least, the immovable object has bested the unstoppable force, but the Sabres’ top unit of Eichel, Olofsson, Skinner, Reinhart, and somebody whose name is almost definitely Rasmus will be difficult to keep off the board forever.
Bold prediction: In his second game back in Buffalo since his trade to San Jose in 2018, Evander Kane stays hot, scoring two goals and adding two assists in regulation to pace the teams to a 4-4 tie. The shootout lasts forever, with each team exhausting their entire bench until Kane steps up to bat for his second attempt as the second shooter in the skills competition’s 27th round. Kane skates wide to the right, almost dragging the puck behind him in the slot. As he curves in toward the net, Hutton starts to retreat, cutting off angles up high while preserving lateral mobility. Kane puts just enough pressure on his stick on his way in, bending the shaft to fool Hutton, who flinches. Kane drags the puck backward between his legs as he flies left across the slot, and backhands a behind-the-back wrist shot over Hutton’s left shoulder. The ping of the puck on the crossbar is deafening before the puck drops directly down, a quarter-inch past the goal line. The Sharks’ bench erupts, ecstatic, their glee held in stark contrast to the gloomy silence of the Buffalo faithful as their prodigal son has finally brought them that which they all most feared.
Further review shows that the puck traveled backward during Kane’s stunt, the goal is disallowed, and Zemgus Girgensons scores in round 29 for the Sabres. 5-4.