Tonight, the San Jose Sharks (14-12-1, 4th Pacific) head to Glendale to take on the Arizona Coyotes (15-8-4, 2nd Pacific) in a Pacific Division showdown. Sharks fans should enjoy these "rivalry" games while they can, as the desert dogs will be heading east to join the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks in the Central Division prior to the opening of the 2021-22 season.
Last season, San Jose and Arizona split their four games, with two ending in regulation and two (a Sharks overtime win, and a Coyotes shootout victory) requiring extra time. Home ice proved not to be a factor in their season series, as both teams earned one of their two respective victories in their opponent’s building. Tonight marks the beginning of another four-game season series between the two, and with the Coyotes’ hot start, it could have serious implications in the division race down the stretch.
The Sharks, fresh off of a 4-1 victory over their longtime rivals from Los Angeles, look to re-establish their win streak, which recently met its end after only three games, courtesy of a 5-1 shellacking by the Winnipeg Jets. That being said, the Sharks have been red-hot as of late, winning ten of their last twelve games and rocketing up the Pacific Division standings.
Although beating the Kings is a euphoric event in its own right, Sharks fans have another reason to be smiling — the return of forward Tomas Hertl, who took the ice in yesterday’s contest following a brief stint on injured reserve. San Jose will have to hope Hertl, who didn’t play the last 11 minutes of the third period as a precaution, per Head Coach Peter DeBoer, is ready to go against a stingy Coyotes defense that’s allowed the second fewest goals-against in the league.
With the Vegas Golden Knights picking up two points in their game last night (and Arizona, their opponent, picking up one in a shootout loss), the Sharks are in desperate need of a victory to remain in the playoff picture, both by keeping pace with their Pacific Division pack-mates, and creating space in a crowded Western Conference, with three teams trailing San Jose in the second wild-card position by only a point.
Arizona comes into tonight’s game off of their aforementioned shootout loss to the Golden Knights, a game where they benefitted from stellar goaltending from Darcy Kuemper, who posted a .974 save percentage on 38 shots. Even in defeat, the Coyotes continued their recent stretch of excellent play, particularly against Pacific Division teams — in their last nine games against divisional opponents, the Coyotes have gone 6-0-3, registering at least a point in each.
Offensively, they’re led by center Nick Schmaltz, acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, who has 19 points in 27 games, while on defense, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson sets the tone, averaging over 24 minutes of ice time per night. Most importantly, however, has been their play in net, with starting netminder Darcy Kuemper leading the league in goals against average (1.97), and ranking second in save percentage (.935), trailing only Chicago’s Robin Lehner. In a crowded Pacific Division, the Coyotes desperately need every point they can get to retain their position as second in the standings — particularly against divisional opponents looking to usurp them.
Solving the Puzzle Between the Pipes
The Coyotes have been excellent defensively this year, allowing the second fewest goals against in the league, while the Sharks have struggled, allowing more goals than all but three teams in the league. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this has to do with quality of goaltending. Both of Arizona’s goaltenders, Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, rank in the NHL’s top ten in terms of save percentage (second at .935 and ninth at .926 respectively), with both posting top twenty goals against averages (first at 1.97, and sixteenth at 2.62 respectively).
Sharks starter Martin Jones has strung together a few very solid outings of late (including three straight games with a save percentage over .900), but San Jose’s tending tandem is outclassed here. With the Sharks and Coyotes scoring a near-identical number of goals this season, someone will have to step up in a big way for San Jose to fly home with two points. With the Sharks on the second half of a back-to-back, it’s likely we see Aaron Dell in net, whose last appearance came against Winnipeg, allowing four goals on 25 shots. Tonight would be an excellent time for a bounce-back game from No. 30.
Special Teams Will Need to be Special
To beat a team like the Coyotes, the Sharks will need to convert on every opportunity presented to them, including coming away with a win on special teams, an area in which they have an advantage tonight. Possessing the league’s best penalty kill is an excellent place to start, as it’s unlikely tonight’s game is a high-scoring affair, and having confidence in their penalty kill allows the Sharks to play a little more fluidly, not overthinking every stick-check or battle in the corners. However, that won’t be enough — the Sharks will need to snap the cold streak of their power play, which has gone 0/16 over their last secen games. While it wouldn’t be accurate to call the Coyotes’ 18th ranked penalty kill a weakness, it is a vulnerability — one the Sharks will need to exploit.
Bold Prediction: The Sharks surprise Arizona in the desert, scoring an early goal, and behind a stellar performance in net, hold on for a victory.