There’s nothing like beating a team whose owner called your own “a mean, nasty team” to make yourself feel good.
The confidence the San Jose Sharks (11-11-1, 6th Pacific) earned from beating the archrival Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday is going to come in handy tonight, with the high flying New York Islanders (16-3-1, 2nd Metropolitan) in town. This will be the first of two meetings between the clubs, with the Sharks and Islanders splitting their pair of matchups last season.
The Sharks are looking to reach a significant milestone in this rocky campaign; with a victory over the Isles, they can post a winning record for the first time all year. But they’ll have to do it without the services of Tomas Hertl, who remains out with an ankle injury.
The Islanders are the dictionary definition of “red hot” right now, riding a franchise record 16-game point streak into San Jose. In that span, the Isles’ goaltending tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss have allowed a league low 36 goals, while budding star Matthew Barzal has led the way offensively with 19 points.
After the still-beloved John Tavares jumped ship two off-seasons ago, the Islanders were expected to compete for lottery picks. But thanks to the coaching work of Barry Trotz, some incredible goaltending and the rise of players like Barzal, captain Anders Lee and Brock Nelson, the Isles finished with 103 points in 2018-19 and are on pace to pass it this season.
In an effort to fill some holes left in the off-season, Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello took a flyer on two castoffs from the Colorado Avalanche in Derrick Brassard and Semyon Varlamov. Brassard has gone from being traded three times in 2018-19 to finding success on the Islanders’ second line playing alongside Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier. The 32-year-old has already bested his scoring total from last season, having notched 16 points in 20 games.
Varlamov joins New York after Philipp Grubauer took over as Colorado’s starting netminder and Robin Lehner was left to walk in free agency by Islanders management. With two goaltenders over the age of 30, coach Trotz has elected to split the starts evenly between Varlamov and Greiss, and it'spaid off. The 31-year-old Varlamov currently holds a 7-2-1 record and a .912 save percentage, while 34-year-old Greiss has a phenomenal 9-1-0 record .934 save percentage.
Who blinks first?
New York’s biggest strength throughout this season has been their well-balanced, hard working attack. With the possible exception of Barzal, the Islanders have been able to win hockey games, despite not having a bonafide superstar on the roster, and they’ve done so by getting key contributions from depth role players like Casey Cizikas, Josh Bailey and Devon Toews.
The good news for the Sharks is that a grinding style of play suits them perfectly, and with Hertl out and Pete DeBoer’s ranks clearly outnumbered in offensive weapons, they’ll need to rely on it a little more in this game. If San Jose can outwork the Isles’ top lines and exploit some holes in the team’s blue line, they stand a chance on the scoreboard.
The Suo-cret Weapon
Antti Suomela made his season debut with the mother club on Thursday, and while he almost factored into the scoring, he did give the team’s fourth line a boost in puck possession metrics. According to Hockey-Reference, the Sharks had control of the puck 57.1 percent of the time Suomela was on the ice against Vegas, the highest among all Sharks forwards.
Although Suomela was only on the ice for a team low 6:03 minutes, that puck possession stat alone is a reason for Pete DeBoer to add a couple more shifts. Keeping control of the puck is always valuable, but for a fourth line it can make the difference for shutting down an Islanders offense that’s currently firing on all cylinders.
And who knows, with a little more ice maybe the next time he deflects a puck someone won’t shove Timo Meier into their own goalie.
Playing up to the competition
After Aaron Dell put up a 38-save performance for the ages in Vegas on Thursday, there’s a little pressure on Martin Jones to match that success tonight. And with one of Greiss and Varlamov in net on the other end, he’ll have to match their level of play if the Sharks want a chance at two points tonight.
Playing against a tough opponent at an important crossroads of the season could be just what the doctor ordered for Jones. If he can out-duel a top level netminder and push the Sharks past that magic .500 mark, it could be the start of something special for both Jones and his teammates.
Bold prediction: The Islanders are on a roll, and it’s so hard to see the wheels falling off here. Which is why that’s exactly what’s about to happen. 3-1, Sharks.