The San Jose Sharks (15-13-1, 5th Pacific) head across the nation to visit the Carolina Hurricanes (16-11-1, 4th Metropolitan) tonight, still smarting from Tuesday’s reality check. They’ll need to recover quickly, as they’re hitting the road for one of the more difficult road stretches of the season, playing four games in six nights, all against what are probably pretty formidable opponents.
The most formidable among them is probably these very Hurricanes, whose 33 points is more than any of the rest of the teams on the itinerary. That said, Carolina has been inconsistent this season after a roaring start: winning their first five games and sitting briefly atop the league standings the morning of October 12. Since then, they’ve managed just 11 wins in 23 opportunities, without much in the way of predictability. With just over a third of the season behind them, Carolina has already recorded three three-game winning streaks and two three-game losing streaks.
In that way, as in many others, the Hurricanes look a lot like the Sharks this year (albeit better): underachieving, inconsistent, occasionally brilliant and often frustrating. While Carolina’s ceiling is likely quite a bit higher than that of our good blue boys, they have similarly failed to reach it just yet. We talked earlier this week about strength of schedule, and how the Sharks have played the second-easiest schedule to date by some metrics. The honor of easiest schedule overall goes to these Hurricanes, whose average opponent ranked 19.78 out of 31 in expected goal share at even strength. While San Jose has the fifth toughest schedule left on the table, Carolina’s is first.
That shouldn’t affect their chances tonight against a Sharks team that ranks 25th, but it may have bit them in their 2-0 loss on Tuesday to the Boston Bruins, who rank ... 20th. Okay, maybe not. Still, expected goals be damned, the Bruins are a dominant team against whom the ‘Canes played well for almost 56 minutes before former Shark Charlie Coyle got the tip of his stick on a Brad Marchand shot to beat James Reimer and break the nil-nil tie. Carolina was sadly held off the board, despite this very creative “goal” by Jaccob Slavin:
Jaccob Slavin's shot went *through* the net. Originally called a goal and quickly called off. That's... something. pic.twitter.com/GT9Fhkt7dx— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) December 4, 2019
Hurricanes fans would probably have liked a lot more from their first game against Boston after being swept out of the Eastern Conference Final last season, but they held their own for long enough to take some positives out of the experience, despite providing the Bruins their eighth straight victory.
The Sharks are also coming into tonight off of a regulation loss, though it’s one whose positives are harder to find. San Jose’s 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals at the SAP Center on Tuesday may have functioned as a reality check to a team that coasted through easy match ups in November. The Sharks took care of business last month, and beat many teams they were supposed to beat, but that doesn’t make them contenders, a fact the Caps seemed to take delight in demonstrating.
The Sharks were dominated in almost every possible regard, and the 5-2 score actually makes the game seem closer than it was. Among other things, though, it was a night of strangely soft punishments from the NHL Department of Player Safety. Ryan Johansen received only a fine for a nasty looking elbow to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Brayden Point, Erik Cernak received no supplemental discipline for a much nastier looking elbow to the Nashville Predators’ Daniel Carr, and in more relevant news, Evander Kane escaped suspension for this shot to the head of Radko Gudas:
Angle 2 of the Evander Kane hit to the head of Radko Gudas pic.twitter.com/54DCVc0KkY— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) December 4, 2019
The DoPS was created in 2014 specifically to reduce the incidence of hits very much like this one: avoidable, concussive impacts to the head of vulnerable players. Have those hits been reduced in five years? Probably. Have they been reduced enough? Absolutely not. Until the DoPS is allowed to operate with some teeth and a semblance of independence to both issue significant suspensions with consistency and communicate the logic of those decisions to its customers (us), these kinds of hits will continue. We have a responsibility to deal with them honestly no matter what color the perpetrator is wearing. This was a dirty and unnecessary hit that should have been severely punished.
Okay, enough of that, the loss was only the Sharks’ second in their last seven contests, and it may behoove both the Sharks and ‘Canes to burn the tapes of their last games. The league is crowded with parity, but the Bruins and Caps seem to be in a tier of their own looking down upon us peasants, and losses to them should not set us (or them) panicking. One of these teams will be able to bounce back from their loss to a dominant team tonight and silence some of their doubters, and the Sharks will need the momentum heading into this weekend.
If nothing else, tonight will provide one of the more aesthetic match ups possible in the NHL: teal and red always pop.
Where are all the loser points?
The main reason it’s so hard to make up ground in the NHL standings is that the teams you’re trying to catch are earning points even when they’re losing. In that regard, the league can often end with teams earning playoff spots despite recording fewer wins than the teams they’re displacing. No teams have reached this point of the season without a single overtime loss, but four have only one.
Two of those teams meet tonight. The four teams ahead of the Sharks in the standings have 15 loser points combined; that’s 15 points between the Sharks and success given by a system of which San Jose is not taking advantage. Sure, the Sharks have to win more games, but the also have to hold more of their losses into extra time: everybody else is.
Has Dougie Hamilton finally arrived?
Setting aside the nigh-sociopathic decision to name one’s two children Freddie and Dougie, Hamilton the greater seems to finally be achieving the heights the advanced stats community has been crowing about for years, from his time with Boston through to the Calgary Flames and onto Carolina’s bench. Hamilton sits second in the league in defensemen scoring with 28 points in 28 games, sitting only behind John Carlson’s 40 (!) with the Caps.
It may have taken the better part of seven seasons in the NHL, but ‘Canes head coach Rod Brind’amour has been the one to finally give Hamilton top power play minutes. Indeed, his 2:56 per game on the power play is the largest rate of his career by a long shot. The Hurricanes have finally unlocked the potential of a top pair, top power play, puck moving defenseman, and they should be feared.
What’s wrong with Tomas Hertl?
The Sharks’ probable best forward so far this year didn’t skate a shift for the last 18:36 of the third period on Tuesday and the final 11:18 of the team’s game against the Los Angeles Kings on November 29. Both of those games were pretty well finished by that point, and head coach Peter DeBoer assures us that these were precautionary measures, but concerns about the Czech center’s health abound. If Hertl’s injury is indeed more serious than we’re being led to believe, would it be better to sit him out entirely so as to avoid exacerbating an injury? We’ll have to assume that the Sharks’ coaching and medical staffs are making decisions with the player’s well being in mind, and hope that Hertl is healing despite getting close to regular minutes, those two stints withstanding.
Bold prediction: Dougie Hamilton got a message from his brother, Freddie, last night by way of carrier pigeon. The elder brother implored his young charge to take it easy on his old club: Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are like family to him, you see? Dougie trusts and obeys his elder sibling, and scores three goals into his own net on the power play. The Sharks win 3-2.