The San Jose Sharks (13-11-1, 4th Pacific) find themselves the owner of a Wild Card berth ahead of their matchup with an overachieving Winnipeg Jets (14-9-1, 3rd Central). Winnipeg has one more standings point than division mate Colorado Avalanche, despite having a goal differential 17 goals worse than Colorado. Host to this not-as-good-as-its-record team, San Jose finds itself in somewhat unfamiliar territory as they digs themselves out of an early season hole, gasping for playoff contention once again.
After dropping the first two games of November, the San Jose coaching staff rearranged its lineup. Since then, the team has won nine of 10 games and inched its way past the .500 mark. It should be noted that, while the team’s 5-on-5 play improved during that stretch, the team won six of those nine games by a one-goal margin. Five of those wins came in overtime or the shootout. Though above-average 5-on-5 performance is a welcome sign, the mark of a squad due for regression is throngs of one-goal victories. San Jose has still been outscored by 10 goals on the season despite their November climb, another reminder that the division basement isn’t far away.
All that said, this is an on-paper matchup the Sharks should win at home. In fact, given how each team has played lately, one might expect the Sharks’ and Jets’ records to be switched.
After a slow start to the season, the Sharks began to resemble more of a competitive NHL team. Since first-line center Tomas Hertl’s injury, though, the team has begun to sink back to pre-November performance levels. There may be no more salient illustration of how important he is to this team.
The Jets, meanwhile, started slow and have continued, um, slowly. The team’s 5-on-5 shot share ranks just 23rd in the league to-date, while the Sharks have nearly breached the break-even point at 16th overall. This comparison looks fairly similar as the teams turn shot volume into quality shots.
Here, we see again how important Tomas Hertl’s presence is to this lineup. Without their first-line center, the team’s already-poor forward depth is thrown into positions for which it isn’t fit. As a result, the team’s performance drops.
On special teams, a similar story unfolds. The Jets have taken the 15th-best rate of unblocked shots at 5-on-4. The Sharks have allowed the 14th-lowest rate of unblocked shots at 4-on-5. Winnipeg has allowed the eighth-highest rate of unblocked shots on their primary penalty kill formation, something the Sharks’ sixth-best rate of unblocked shots for should handle easily. We should expect San Jose’s unblocked shots to become goals far more frequently than Winnipeg’s unblocked shots, lending a decided advantage in the special teams column to the hosts.
The only place the visiting team has a clear advantage is in goal. Likely Winnipeg starter, Connor Hellebuyck has, according to MoneyPuck’s expected goals model, the fifth-highest save percentage above expected of all goalies with at least five games under their belts this season. Martin Jones, meanwhile, has been the league’s 15th-worst of 61 goalies.
Which injured roster will prevail?
Bryan Little has an injured ear drum and a concussion and will miss the game. He’s been playing middle-six minutes this season, but he is still a strong two-way presence on team that needs help on either end of the ice. It also appears depth defender Nathan Beaulieu will miss tonight’s game. He’s much less important to Winnipeg’s chances, but he’s someone else the coaching staff will have to work around, nonetheless.
To help all the puzzle pieces fit together, Blake Wheeler will likely continue to play center. He’s earning top-five minutes this season, though his two-way potency seems to be waning.
Those of us who follow team teal are well aware that the Tomas Hertl-sized hole in the Sharks’ lineup is akin to a creeping illness. The Sharks may hang on now, but the longer this issue goes un-remedied, the closer this team inches to catastrophe. With him out, the team not only must reshuffle the forwards, but it is also at the mercy of a coach who refuses to deliver any sort of ice time balance.
Whichever of these teams can better cover for its injuries will gain an edge on tonight’s opponent.
Can anyone on the Sharks defense corps generate offense?
Right now, the only Sharks defense pair generating any regular 5-on-5 offense is the duo of Brent Burns and Radim Simek. Unfortunately, what they produce offensively, they give up multiple times over in front of their own net. While reuniting Marc-Edouard Vlasic with Erik Karlsson has stabilized the team’s defense, that pair has been unable to produce regular shot volume or quality. The same can be said about any combination of depth defenders.
If the Sharks would like to win tonight and continue winning more generally, someone other than Burns and Simek will have to start figuring out how to get the puck over center ice with regularity.
Can Martin Jones be good again?
As much as I want to just write “lol” and leave it there, Jones has perhaps quietly been solid in the team’s last four outings. According to Natural Stat Trick’s expected goals model, Jones allowed just 0.65 goals more than expected against Anaheim, played poorly again versus Edmonton, and then turned in two stellar performances against the Islanders and Kings. It’s not enough of a strong stretch to suggest anything other than a hot streak. But, if Jones can stay strong between the pipes tonight, the Sharks can eliminate their one clear on-paper disadvantage and turn this game into a truly one-sided affair.
Bold prediction: San Jose puts together what will be the first impressive performance without Hertl, routing the Jets 4-1 while receiving goal-scoring from a couple of struggling depth forwards.