It took just two minutes and twelve seconds for San Jose Sharks fans’ collective stomach ulcer to return. The host Arizona Coyotes scored twice early on their way to limiting the Sharks to just seven shots on goal in the first period. Both goals came too quickly and too easily, and for the game’s first 20 minutes, the Sharks resembled the ragged team that sleepwalked through the season’s opening month.
It was a scary first period for the visitors and not just because of the score. After stringing together a handful of impressive efforts earlier in November, the Sharks outshot opponents at 5-on-5 in just one of the seven contests preceding last night’s desert matchup.
The rough first period in Arizona threatened not just to doom the team’s chances at two points, but also to represent the squad’s slide back into mediocrity.
And yet, all was not lost. San Jose turned itself around and turned the game around during the second frame, outshooting Arizona 23-8 at 5-on-5, including a 16-6 shots-on-goal margin. The Sharks finished the game with 53 percent of all 5-on-5 shots and nearly 51 percent of all expected goals.
Leading way for the visitors was the forward line of Evander Kane, Logan Couture and Barclay Goodrow. With that trio on the ice, the Sharks outshot Arizona 11-6 at 5-on-5, a margin that also included a 7-1 shots-on-goal advantage. Those three helped the Sharks outscore Arizona 1-0 and allowed mostly low-quality unblocked shots.
Unfortunately, that stat line was more of the same 2019-20 story for the Sharks: The top of the lineup got things done, while the bottom-six forwards mostly struggled relative to their teammates. The coaching staff moved Kevin Labanc down to Joe Thornton’s wing, presumably to more evenly distribute the true top-six forward talent throughout the lineup. The result was a low-event, if rather uninspiring showing.
At the bottom of the Sharks’ forward group, Antti Suomela demonstrated his value to the team thus far by remaining in San Jose. That line — Noah Gregor and Melker Karlsson flanking Dylan Gambrell — was the only Sharks forward line to be outshot by Arizona, despite assuming zero defensive zone faceoff responsibilities. The Finnish center has so far offered a strong defensive presence to a struggling fourth line group and an overall positive play-driving impact. He’s been almost inarguably the team’s best skater in the group that also includes Karlsson, Gambrell, Gregor and Lukas Radil. Without that talent last night, the Sharks' bottom-rung forwards continued to be mostly silent, Gambrell’s goal notwithstanding.
On defense, it’s time to sound the alarm about this year’s version of the Radim Simek and Brent Burns pairing. With those two on the ice at 5-on-5, the Sharks were outshot 8-13 and gave up far more quality looks than they generated. San Jose’s 1B pair has been poor in its own end a year after offering the first glimpse of regularly sound defensive play with Burns on the ice anyone has seen in ages. This season’s poor output continued last night, no doubt impacted by Burns’ continued descent into no-man’s land and Simek’s recovery from knee surgery earlier this calendar year. Should these two continue to falter in their own end, San Jose have trouble continuing down the path it took during much of November.
Picking up their slack, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic helped San Jose outshoot Arizona 15-9 (11-4 shots on goal, outproduce its opponents in shot quality, and outscore the hosts 2-0 at 5-on-5. Though the two have struggled to sustain offense, they’ve been an above-average pair defensively and have limited shot volume against, if not quality.
Outside of the 5-on-5 play, a terrifying trend has emerged. During the Sharks’ last 10 games, its 5-on-4 power play has taken the ninth-lowest rate of unblocked shots and generated the 11th-lowest rate of expected goals. It seems the coaching staff’s constant tinkering with the power play personnel has interrupted what was the team’s best unit during October. If the Sharks continue to falter with the man-advantage, teams may become less afraid of taking penalties against them.
Behind the skaters’ up-and-down performance, Martin Jones put together another solid night. He was expected to allow 1.86 goals and gave up two, but it’s difficult to pin the blame for the Coyotes' second goal on the San Jose netminder. It’s unclear which NHL goaltender would have been able to stop the gaping-mouth doorstep shot that put the hosts up by two, no matter what the shot-to-goal probabilities suggest. Seven of the goalie’s last nine games have been solid if not entirely good showings, given what we might expect of the shots he faced. While I wouldn’t call it a comeback, I’d at least call that consistent display of competent netminding encouraging.
Last night’s performance was about the level at which the team has played during the second half of November. Quantity, if not quality, of 5-on-5 shots, decent goaltending and the team’s most talented players doing just enough to secure two points. They’ll need to find a way to create more sustained offense both at 5-on-5 and during the power play if they want to turn this November run into something real. For now, it’s a bit of a mirage buoyed by a weak schedule of opponents and many games at the Tank.