Late in the first period last night, Brent Burns was in the defensive zone, draped all over Washington Capitals forward Lars Eller. There was no way Eller would get anywhere near the puck or the net. Burns effectively erased Eller from the play as the Capitals cycled the puck to the blueline atop their offensive zone. The giant Sharks’ defenseman’s defense was textbook but for one problem: Burns’ man was Jakub Vrana, and Vrana stood ten feet away to Martin Jones’ right, alone.
John Carlson’s pass found Vrana’s tape, and why wouldn’t it? The goal was probably the easiest Vrana’s scored since his youth hockey days. Burns acting uncouth in his own end is nothing new, but this season his behavior has been particularly damaging. Playing some of the worst defense of his career, Burns is a major reason the team’s team defense hasn’t been able to keep the puck out of their own net.
Burns isn’t the lone person at fault, though. The play preceding the goal was emblematic of how the team so often plays defense. They do a fine job of limiting shot volume, sure, but this team the last few seasons has not figured out away to keep up-close and dangerous shots at bay.
By the time the first period was done, the Sharks had allowed 20 unblocked shots that we would have expected to generate at least one goal. The evening didn’t get any prettier as San Jose allowed three goals in the period’s final seven minutes and then another just two-and-a-half minutes into the second period. Washington added one more tally for good measure as the middle twenty came to a close, ensuring the third would be a formality.
Because the third period was largely meaningless, we can focus instead on the two periods that mattered somewhat.
Through 40 minutes, the Capitals took 58 percent of the 5-on-5 score- and venue-adjusted shots. They generated nearly 70 percent of the expected goals and never let the Sharks mount a consistent attack despite playing with a large lead for the entire second period.
Somewhat surprisingly, all of the Sharks' forward lines but one helped the team outshoot their opponents. After adjusting for the out-of-orbit score deficit, those shot advantages shrink, of course. It’s easy to blame the fourth line of Dylan Gambrell, Noah Gregor and Melker Karlsson. After 40 minutes, that trio had been outshot by eight and had given up unblocked shots nearly three times as likely as their own to go in.
That group wasn’t the only forward line to allow a much higher percentage of dangerous shots, however. Not one of the Sharks’ four lines produced higher-probability shots at 5-on-5 than its Washington counterpart. No, the one bright spot for San Jose was on its blueline, where Erik Karlsson shined.
Together with partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Karlsson played nearly eight minutes against Alexander Ovechkin’s line during those first two periods. During that time, the Great Eight and Co. took just three shots on goal and didn’t manage many more dangerous shots than the Sharks did against them. As has been the case far too often this season, instead the rest of the team gave out on their stalwart first pair, rendering their services useless.
Those two were two of just five Sharks players who were not on the ice for a 5-on-5 goal against. They joined Logan Couture, Barclay Goodrow and Evander Kane in that feat. Small consolation in a forgettable game.
The drivel the Sharks put onto the ice reminded viewers of just how flawed this team currently is. It showed again that when San Jose’s poor offense cannot overcome volume with good shooting, the game can quickly go south. Without consistently tight defense or a goaltender to bail them out, the Sharks are going to struggle against any team with a reasonable 5-on-5 offense this season.
Up next is a road trip that starts in the American South, against two teams with top-10 offenses and a third that is at least average. Unless the Sharks manage a few small miracles, it’s easy to picture them going winless against Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida and Nashville. A healthy Antti Suomela can help shore up the bottom of the forward group, but this team is still a long way away from finding any sort of sustained offense or goaltending. Without those components, golf is much more likely than spring hockey in 2020.