The San Jose Sharks (43-24-9, 2nd Pacific) host the Chicago Blackhawks (33-33-10, 7th Central) tonight in similar predicaments, albeit with drastically different consequences. The Sharks have lost six in a row (four of them at home), after a six-game winning streak, and are six points behind the Calgary Flames, after the latter’s regulation loss to the Dallas Stars last night, for first place in the Pacific division. Another regulation loss tonight and, not only can the Sharks wave a forlorn goodbye to the division title, but they’ll need to start looking behind them for the Vegas Golden Knights, five points back in third place. The Blackhawks have lost four of their last five, after a five-game winning streak, and are eight points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the Western Conference’s second wild card spot. Both teams have a lot to play for, but the Hawks have a lot more to lose.
Or have they already lost it?
San Jose’s current six-game L streak is the longest of the season and the longest since March of 2017. At its core is a host of key injuries: Radim Simek, Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture have all missed some or all of those six games and while we’ve established that entering the second season on a losing streak has little bearing on the success of a cup run, entering with a pile of significant injuries sure diddly does.
What may be the most frustrating thing about the Sharks’ current slide is that they’ve left points on the table against more than a few teams that they should be beating. The caveat that no team in the NHL is easy to beat on a given night applies here, but in a tight race for playoff seeding, it’s imperative to bank points against teams lower in the standings so that big games like this weekend’s back-to-back against Vegas and Calgary have lower stakes.
In dropping games against the Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings, the Sharks left seven points on various tables against teams that have all since been eliminated from the playoffs.
Most recently, the Sharks’ 3-2 loss to Detroit at home on Monday was marked by inconsistent effort, poor team defense and sub-par goaltending (just playing the hits at this point). While the Sharks turned on the jets late and finally got a pair of pucks past the admittedly very good play of Wings goalie Jonathan Bernier, it was barely too little and far too late. Adding poetry to that loss, the Flames dropped a 3-0 game to the Kings and the Knights lost 3-1 to the St. Louis Blues that very same night, making San Jose’s loss an all the more tragic missed opportunity.
Chicago, while superficially in a much more do-or-die situation, are probably already dead. Six points back of the second wild card spot, the Hawks would have to leapfrog at least two teams to make it into the playoffs, meaning that, even if they were to win tonight and close out the season 5-0-0, they’d still need help to continue into the second season. If the Hawks win out, including tonight’s game in San Jose and a brutal final four-game closeout against the Winnipeg Jets, Blues, Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators, they’ll have 88 points. That means that the Avalanche can only win two of their last five games, the Arizona Coyotes can only win three (ROW shenanigans notwithstanding) and Minnesota Wild can only win four (not unreasonable). Considering the Coyotes play the Avalanche on Friday and the Wild on Sunday, and that someone has to win those games, Chicago’s playoff chances seem pretty slim.
So, while the Blackhawks have a lot to play for, they have had a lot to play for for a while now, and that hasn’t motivated them to score more than nine goals in their last six games. The offense seems to have dried up for Chicago at the worst possible time and while their playoff hopes are probably already finished, a loss tonight would just about do it.
One of the larger nails in their proverbial coffin was their 1-0 loss to the Coyotes in Glendale on Tuesday. While the Hawks played well enough, clawing back from a dismal first period to eventually put up 52.45 percent of the adjusted shot attempts, Arizona goaltender Darcy Kuemper continued his recent run of spectacular play and secured the four-point swing for the hosts, ending a five-game losing streak. You know what, at second glance, it’s starting to look like none of these teams really even want to make the playoffs, so maybe there’s more of a chance than first meets the eye.
Recent history seems to be on the Sharks’ side and they could sweep their season series tonight. In two meetings so far, San Jose has scored 12 goals, adding the most recent five in a 5-2 win at home on March 3.
To get out of this slide, they’ll have to continue that trend against what may be one of the league’s more desperate teams at this time of year, against an above-average goaltender in Corey Crawford who, after returning from injury earlier this year, has posted a respectable .917 save percentage on a team that leads the league in high danger scoring chances against at 5-on-5. Crawford’s .862 high danger save percentage at 5-on-5 is fifth among 37 goaltenders to have played at least 1500 minutes.
Can the Sharks take advantage of Chicago’s historically bad penalty kill?
Many of the Blackhawks’ struggles this season can be traced to their truly impressive inability to kill of meaningful stretches of time at 4-on-5. Indeed, the one goal they allowed in Arizona on Tuesday was at 1:49 of the only penalty they took that game. The Hawks’ 73.1 penalty kill percentage is the worst in the NHL by more than a full percentage point (the Edmonton Oilers are 30th at 74.2), leading to a fun (for some) quirk in which their 57 power play goals allowed is the third most in the league, while their 237 penalties committed is the third fewest.
In fact, if they can’t turn their kill around, Chicago’s 73.1 penalty kill percentage will be the worst mark since the Toronto Maple Leafs recorded a rate of 72.7 in 1988-89. This could be a key weakness to exploit, since the Blackhawks’ offense is nothing to sneeze at. Chicago’s 248 goals scored is the fourth most of any team in the Conference, and Sharks fans of all people know how dangerous a team can be when they get used to outscoring all of their other problems. If the Sharks can’t put up points on the worst penalty kill the league has seen in thirty years, they’ll be hard pressed to come up with two points against such a deceptively dangerous opponent.
Should we move the Sharks’ goalposts from first place to home ice?
Forgive me for the mixed sports metaphors, they can’t all be home runs; it’s important not to get too caught up in the Sharks’ recent struggles. As has been said before, it likely has little bearing on what they can do in the postseason and the Sharks would be well served to start preparing for a first round match up with the Golden Knights. Unfortunately, this where the importance of winning the division that we were hammering home a few weeks ago really comes into play. For most of the season-long trends that we can look to to assure ourselves that the Sharks are a good team and will be just fine, the Knights are close behind. Where San Jose is first in the league in adjusted 5-on-5 shot attempt share at 55.60 percent, Vegas is third with 54.68. Where the Sharks’ shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 is fourth at 62.99, the Knights are fifth with 62.62. That same stat on the penalty kill sees the Sharks in second at 105.63, and the Knights in third at 103.41.
In a seven game series, the difference could be anything, and one of those anythings is home ice. While Vegas’ home record is impressive this year, their road record is an even .500: 19-19-1 (.500 by NHL nu-math, under .500 by good honest America math). The Knights have earned 12 more points at home than on the road this year, more than all but six other teams, so should the Sharks (and by extension, should we) move the goalposts for the remainder of the regular season back to holding home ice over Vegas and resting?
Yes. The answer is yes.
Will Patrick Kane place second or third in Hart voting?
With 102 points on the season, Patrick Kane leads the Blackhawks in scoring by 26. To put that into perspective, Patrick Kane has Brent Seabrook more points than Jonathan Toews. Brendan Perlini plus Connor Murphy more points. If Nikita Kucherov didn’t already have his name carved onto the next four Harts, Kane would have a real shot at it, but at this point it’s just a question of where he finishes in the finalists standings. Kucherov is one with a bullet, and the other two seem likely to go to some combination of Kane, Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau, Sidney Crosby and a sea of dark horses.
If not for Kane, the Blackhawks probably would have been relegated to the ECHL by now, and the Sharks will have to shut him down if they are to have any chance at all tonight.
Bold prediction: The Sharks pull out of the skid finally, and put it to the Hawks: 6-2, ending the poor little dudes’ dwindling hopes. They have to win one of these things, right?
The Sharks are back in action on Saturday, hosting Vegas at 6 p.m., and the Blackhawks will head to L.A. to visit the Kings at 7:30 that evening.