In the final game of the 2018-19 regular season, the San Jose Sharks (45-27-9, 2nd Pacific) host the Colorado Avalanche (38-29-14, 5th Central) in, after a long bout of misfortune, a bid to enter the postseason with at least a tiny sliver of momentum. After the Sharks’ win over the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday, our boys sit on a 2-8-1 record in their last 11 games, allowing 45 goals to boot, seemingly falling apart in all the worst ways at the worst possible time.
Adding injury to insult, Timo Meier, the Sharks’ leading point scorer and most effective driver of scoring chances at 5-on-5, left Thursday’s game at 9:26 of the third period after apparently injuring his left wrist during an awkward fall into the boards with defenseman Darnell Nurse. As illustrated yesterday morning, the potential loss of Meier isn’t a death knell for the team’s chances next week, but it sure don’t help, and any news on that front will likely qualify as good news to worried fans.
The Avalanche, with an overtime win over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, have punched their ticket to the postseason for the second straight season, but just the third in the last nine. Both of the other playoff berths in that span, in 2018 and 2014 ended in summary first round exits and, with a date with either the Calgary Flames or the winner of the Central division on tap, that outcome seems pretty likely to repeat. Colorado has not recorded consecutive playoff appearances since 2004-06, and has not won a playoff round since 2008. Still, the Avs are hot, and hot teams with a hot goaltender have pulled off big upsets before.
With wins in all six of their final home games and an 11-2-1 record in their last 14 games, the Avs are flying into the postseason. If the Dallas Stars lose their last game in regulation tonight and Colorado gets two points from their visit to San Jose, they’ll play the to-be-determined winner of the Central Division, and whether that’s the Nashville Predators, Jets, or St. Louis Blues (all separated by a single point and playing their last games tonight), it’s almost definitely preferable to the Conference winning Flames (okay, maybe not the Blues).
Central (get it?) to Colorado’s success this year has been the play of their top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and captain Gabriel Landeskog, who sit first, second and third on the team in scoring and who account for 41 percent of the team’s offence (105 of 256 goals). Additionally, Tyson Barrie’s 59 points are the most from a Colorado blueliner since Ray Bourque recorded that same amount in 2000-01. With one more, Barrie will hit 60 and be the highest scoring Avalanche defender since Sandis Ozolinsh put up 68 in 1996-97.
The Sharks likely have a little less to worry about from Colorado’s top end talent tonight, though, as Rantanen has missed the last seven games with an upper body injury and may not return for one game before a few days off. Prized college free agent Alexander Kerfoot has taken to his opportunity on the top line with aplomb, scoring four goals and eight points in six games before going pointless on Thursday. Even without their Finnish sensation, Colorado’s top line has offense to spare, and the Sharks will have to shut them down in much the same way they failed to shut down Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on Thursday.
Still, as head coach Peter DeBoer said in his postgame presser Thursday night, “We won, I’m not going to overthink it.” One might expect that to be kind of integral to the job of the head coach, but far be it from one to cast aspersions on another’s responsibilities. The 3-2 win, meaningless as it was, over the Western Conference’s favorite whipping boys still meant something to a team in full tailspin. Brent Burns became just the sixth player in NHL history to score 80 points in a season for the first time at age 34 or older and with two primary points directly off of offensive zone faceoff wins, seems to be re-establishing himself as a force after two pointless games (for Burns, that qualifies as a cold stretch).
Joe Thornton’s assist on Marcus Sorensen’s early goal was his 1064th, bestowing upon him sole possession of eighth in NHL history, passing his number-sake, Steve Yzerman, in the process. The Oilers, technically eliminated from the playoffs on Monday, but for all practical intents and purposes eliminated from the playoffs some time in late 2006, lost their fifth in a row, and are pretty much just playing to get Draisaitl to 50 goals so they can all go home.
The Avs only needed one point against the Jets on Thursday to punch their ticket, but they got both just in case. The comeback win, during which Colorado never led, was a nail biter until the end, featuring the home squad killing a too many men penalty in the final minutes of a tie game to ensure at least one point. As has been the case in the team’s recent history, goaltender Philipp Grubauer dominated, stopping 34 of 36 Winnipeg shots throughout. More on him later (ooh, a tease).
The Sharks would undoubtedly love to replicate their last game against these same Avalanche(s), a 4-3 win at home on March 1. That win pulled the Sharks within five points of the Pacific division title, during a simpler and kinder time when that was still possible. Sorensen recorded two goals, Joe Pavelski recorded two points and Gustav Nyquist played his first game in teal (literally, it wasn’t his first Sharks game, but he wore white before). Interestingly, the Avalanche were one point behind the Stars for the first wild card position in the West and that has changed not one bit.
A win over the Avalanche tonight will do nothing. The best the Sharks can hope for is to force Colorado to play Calgary in the first round for some reason, if Dallas loses in regulation to the Minnesota Wild tomorrow. Still, none of that seems to matter too much with the possible absence of Meier looming over what promises to be a very difficult postseason run. By the time this is published, we may know what there is to know about Meier and it could all be moot, but how healthy he really is will likely still be in doubt.
Win or lose tonight, the health of Meier and Erik Karlsson will be the biggest determining factors for San Jose’s hopes this season. Well, that and Martin Jones.
Who will play the Game of Jones?
There is no real need to continue to dissect the unacceptable play of Martin Jones this season; his save percentage is league worst, his goals saved above average is league worst, his low danger save percentage is worryingly low, et cetera. But, in the Game of Jones, you spin or you lie, so how can we spin this into something that doesn’t make us cry in a corner until October?
Jones’ postseason save percentage is .926, a massive leap from his regular season rate of .911, and the sample size isn’t prohibitively small. Jones has played 42 playoff games over his five years in the league, and that success is something to which we’ll need to cling if we’re to have hope in the Sharks’ fortunes.
On the other end of the ice tonight, Philipp Grubauer is on fire. With a 7-0-2 record in his last starts, Grubauer has posted a .953 save percentage and a 1.63 goals against average in that span, ranking first and second, respectively, among goalies with at least six starts in that time frame.
The odds that the Sharks coaching staff gets Aaron Dell in net tonight are not insignificant, but his numbers aren’t much better than those of his superior officer, so the Sharks will have to find a way to solve Grubauer in a way that eluded the Arizona Coyotes, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks (twice) ... you know, I think we’ll be fine.
About that big Golden elephant in the room ... ?
The Sharks will need to focus on tonight, and not get too distracted looking ahead to the cold and monstrous edifice looming before them that is the Vegas Golden Knights, but that doesn’t mean we can’t. Eight points behind the Flames and six points ahead of Vegas in the standings, the Sharks are locked into the second seed in the Pacific division, guaranteeing them a first round, at-home match up with the aforementioned Knights of gold. Much has been said and written about the danger that a healthy Vegas squad poses to a decidedly unhealthy Sharks crew and the question that is often being asked is this: can the Sharks win this round?
Well, sure, any team can beat any other team on a given night, but the deck seems to be pretty heavily stacked in favor of the proverbial house on this one. The Knights are a different team since adding Mark Stone at the trade deadline: since Feb. 25, Vegas is second in shot attempts per 60 minutes with 65.54, fifth in shot attempts against per 60 minutes with 51.29 (San Jose is fourth with 51.24), first in high danger shot attempt share with 57.74 (!) and seventh in save percentage at .919 (San Jose is, perhaps depressingly predictably, last with .877). Their 11-5-2 record since that date is fifth best in the NHL, and their propensity for high event hockey is bad news for a team with shaky defense pairs and shakier goaltending.
The Sharks will need every bit of help they can get, even if it comes in the form of momentum off of a clean, meaningless win against a wild card team fighting for position.
How closely is Pierre Dorion watching this year’s draft lottery?
Lest we forget, the Avalanche have the Ottawa Senators’ first round pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, a bounty they were awarded for celebrated Columbus Blue Jacket Matt Duchene. Now that, with the Jackets’ win over the New York Rangers last night, the playoff entrants are all officially set, we can all start our think pieces on the Senators’ decision at last year’s draft to hand this pick away. When faced with the decision on the draft floor to draft Brady Tkachuck third overall or to surrender that pick in favor of giving up the first in 2019, did the Senators make a mistake by electing the latter?
Let’s dig in. Any judgment of Dorion’s decision needs to be grounded in the information he had at the time to be fair, but that caveat isn’t needed to defend the decision. The odds that Ottawa would pick at third overall or earlier this season, from last year’s draft, were far from probable. First, it was not a sure thing that the Senators would finish last in the league and secure the best possible lottery odds. Sure, they’d be a lottery team, that was a safe bet, but they’re only five points behind the Los Angeles Kings as it stands, and after going 4-2-1 in their first seven there was a fair bit of hand wringing on the other end of the debate.
So, even assuming they’d land in last place (which they did (which was pretty unlikely even with the terrible roster they had (which is a non-factor in assessing the decision at the time anyway))), that would (did) land them (or Colorado) a 49.4 percent chance to pick in the top three. Even in the best (worst?) case scenario, Ottawa would be giving up a third overall pick for a less than 50 percent chance at a different third or better overall pick. If you’re of the mind that a player like Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko is worth that risk, well, they’d have just a 35 percent chance at picking one of those players in the top two.
So, when this year’s draft lottery rolls around and Bill Daly flips up a golden card with a very sad Senator on it, and a nation weeps at the tragedy that one decision in 2018 wrought on their very souls, remember these few paragraphs and know that, despite Colorado’s border on a surefire decades long dynasty, there was nothing the Senators should have done differently.
Except, you know, every other decision before or since.
Bold prediction: Without knowing what twists and turns the Sharks lineup will take on a meaningless last game, it’s hard to be too specific, so I’ll shoot wide. Aaron Dell stops 36 of 38 shots, Melker Karlsson scores a goal and an assist, Micheal Haley fights Nikita Zadorov, Semyon Varlamov falls asleep on the bench watching Game of Thrones reruns on his tablet and Sharkie accidentally knocks a child down 11 stairs in section 104.
Oh, and the Sharks win.