When the San Jose Sharks (21-23-4, 6th in Pacific Division) meet the Colorado Avalanche (25-15-6, 3rd Central) tonight at the Pepsi Center, there won’t be any lack of familiarity on the ice. These teams played six games against one another in the second round of last year’s postseason, with the Sharks earning the series victory en route to the Western Conference Final. Former Shark (and Long Beach native) Matt Nieto will be reunited with his former teammates, while recent cap casualty Joonas Donskoi will unfortunately miss his first appearance against San Jose since departing in free agency — he’s in concussion protocol.
Tonight’s matchup is the first of a three-game season series between the teams, with the Sharks and Avalanche each hosting a game in March; San Jose will undoubtedly be hoping to replicate the results of last season’s series, as they claimed victory in all three meetings.
While that may seem like a tall order for a San Jose team that has regressed significantly since they last played the Avalanche, they have shown distinct improvement of late, going 4-2-1 in the month of January, including a 2-1-0 record since captain and leading scorer Logan Couture went down with an ankle injury.
Aaron Dell, the ‘unofficial official’ starting goaltender, has effectively seized the net from beleaguered counterpart Martin Jones, stringing together several solid outings and helping keep the Sharks afloat on a tough road trip which saw them play in Pittsburgh, Columbus and Washington D.C. Evander Kane has gotten hot at the right time, scoring four goals in his last five games, and Erik Karlsson has continued to produce offensively from the blue line, tallying six points (1 goal, 5 assists) over that stretch.
They’ll need that sort of scoring pace to continue as they take on an Avalanche team who has very little margin for error in an incredibly tight Central Division race. The Avalanche, led by the transcendent talent of Nathan MacKinnon, find themselves trailing the Dallas Stars (who just handed them a painful overtime loss) by a single win. However, they’re motivated by both the carrot and the stick, as the old expression has it, as they lead the Winnipeg Jets by the same thin margin. This is of additional importance, considering the Jets, who hold the final wild card position in the Western Conference, are tied in points with the newly Peter DeBoer-led Vegas Golden Knights.
In short, the Avalanche are teetering dangerously close to the edge of non-playoff contention — a fact you can be sure isn’t lost on the locker room.
Shut Down Limit Nathan MacKinnon
While the Avalanche, who score the fourth-most goals-for per game in the NHL (3.57), have plenty of firepower on offense, they posses no greater weapon than the individually dominant Nathan MacKinnon. Even limiting MacKinnon, who leads the Avalanche in goals (27), assists (41), and (by extension) points (68) is a herculean task, and the Sharks will need to have an appropriate game plan if they’re to prevent him from taking over the game. Teams across the league have struggled to do so, evidenced by his place among the NHL’s scoring elite (third in the NHL in points, fifth in goals, and sixth in assists).
Test Their Depth
After Nathan MacKinnon’s aforementioned team-leading 68 points, there’s a pretty steep drop off: Cale Makar is next with 33, and Mikko Rantanen leads forwards with 31. Donskoi, who won’t play, follows with 29. The Sharks would be wise to focus on shutting down Colorado’s top line (featuring both MacKinnon and Rantanen) and forcing the Avalanche into a battle of depth scoring.
While Colorado is still capable down their roster, with the likes of Andre Burakovsky, Gabriel Landeskog and Nazem Kadri waiting in the wings, the Sharks’ best chance at earning a victory comes from forcing one them to try and be the hero, rather than one of Mackinnon or Rantanen.
Play with Urgency
As previously mentioned, the Avalanche don’t have any room for mistakes at this point in the season. While the argument can be made that it’s still pre-All-Star break, when the playoff race is shaping up to be as tight as it appears to be, playoff teams need every point they can get — being a No. 3 seed rather than a No. 4 seed could be the difference between a second round exit and hoisting the Stanley Cup.
For Colorado, that means capitalizing on opportunities to beat teams like the Sharks, who are vulnerable (missing their leading scorer) and lower in the standings. Expect them to be locked-in and playing with intensity in front of their home crowd, especially considering they’re looking to rebound from a heartbreaking overtime loss to a division rival they closely trail in the standings.
For the Sharks to leave with two points in hand, they’ll likely need to survive an early game push from a younger, more motivated Avalanche team, and respond with the same type of energy — as it stands now, the Sharks don’t have any room for error themselves.
Bold prediction: Aaron Dell earns a signature win, repeatedly stoning MacKinnon and Co., and guiding the Sharks to a 2-1 victory.