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How to (not) mount a comeback

The Sharks have now found themselves facing a goal deficit after the first period in consecutive home games. What were the differences between how these games played out?

Minnesota Wild Center Nico Sturm (7) keeps the puck out of danger during the NHL pro hockey game between the Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks on December 9, 2021 at the SAP center in San Jose, CA. Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The last two San Jose Sharks games have ended with similar scores, though the team fell on opposite sides of the win/loss column. How does a team rally from a 3-1 deficit against the Calgary Flames on one night, to falling flat in an attempt to come back from a 3-0 deficit against the Minnesota Wild and losing 5-2 two nights later?

Both of these games happened at home, which makes them a decent direct comparison in terms of competitive advantage. Both opponents had the previous night off, having last played a road game two days before playing the Sharks. The Flames, however, were on the end of a four-game road trip through California and Vegas. The Wild were only on the second game of a four-game trip, so there’s an argument to be made that Calgary may have been less cumulatively rested.

That argument doesn’t hold much weight when looking at shot pressure through the game, my first stop at identifying the differences in performance.

Shot pressure chart Calgary Flames at San Jose Sharks Dec. 7, 2021
How to read this chart
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz
Shot pressure chart Minnesota Wild at San Jose Sharks Dec. 9, 2021
How to read this chart
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz

There’s a huge difference when playing from behind while trading goals, such as Tomas Hertl’s first period goal ruining any shutout bid early on against Calgary, versus trying to recover from a three-goal deficit — especially when, as against Minnesota, it easily could’ve been 5-0 heading into the third period.

Death would be kinder than this series of plays:

Those pings both curse and vex me.

Despite both first periods ending with a one-goal deficit, Kevin Labanc striking iron at the end of the first period against the Wild had to be a demoralizing way to head into the second period while down 1-0, instead of 2-1, with a goal from Hertl.

How the rest of the game develops from there is where things are more interesting.

Another similarity I want to point out is that through their last six periods of hockey, the Sharks have only led in unblocked shots and attempts (Corsi) percentage at 5-on-5 in one period, and that was the third period against Minnesota, which the team entered down 3-0. What we often see in games where a team is protecting a lead in the third period is that they will shift to a more defensive style of play, rather than make offensive risks, so the opposing team will often pull head in shot share share, throwing everything they can at the net.

We saw this in the Calgary game, as the Flames had been outshooting and out-attempting the Sharks all game, their foot was on the gas in the third period while San Jose protected their lead. Against Minnesota, it was the Sharks who found themselves too far behind and had to rely on the Wild pumping the breaks in order to finally break through and score.

When looking at shot pressure like this, if goals were removed, one would expect that the Flames and Wild both should’ve won those games, as they were clearly dominate, with the aforementioned third period aside.

The difference lies in the matchups in these games.

Here are the shift charts from the Calgary game:

Calgary Flames shift chart against San Jose Sharks on Dec. 7, 2021. Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz
San Jose Sharks shift chart against Calgary Flames on Dec. 7, 2021. Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz

The Sharks’ third line of Nick Bonino, Matt Nieto and Andrew Cogliano (are we calling them the SpaghettiOs line? because that should be a thing) were sharing a lot of ice time with the Erik Karlsson and Jacob Middleton pairing, which is a trend on the season, giving those five skaters the bulk of defensive responsibilities.

Against the Flames, that group was matched against the Flames’ second line of Blake Coleman, Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane. This matchup favors the Sharks so much that the third line was the team’s most successful collective offensive effort at 5-on-5. The third line posted a Corsi-For percentage (CF%) of 57.14 at 5-on-5, meaning more than half of the time that line was on the ice, they had the edge in in unblocked shots and attempts. They were the only Sharks line above 50 percent, while conversely, the line they were paired against was the only Flames line below 50 percent.

Part of what the Flames were trying to do was put out Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson against the Karlsson/Middleton pairing more than I’m sure head coach Bob Boughner would have preferred, as you can see Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Nicolas Meloche taking shifts after the Zadorov/Gudbranson pairing would go out. But before that change could be made, the Flames took advantage of the end of those long shifts for the Sharks’ top pairing with a couple of grinders.

Before I get to the visualization, I encourage you to check out Micah Blake McCurdy’s explainer on how to interpret this chart, as it can come off a bit intimidating and he breaks it down extremely well.

How to read this chart
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz

The Middleton/Karlsson pairing is clearly taking on a lot of defensive duties at 5-on-5, which doesn’t offer as much space for Erik Karlsson to do his thing offensively, which is why exploiting those long shifts was so important to the Flames’ offensive efforts. Meanwhile, the pairing of Mario Ferraro and Brent Burns have more room to generate offense, putting up as many scoring chances for (12) as they defended against. Unfortunately, the first two Flames goals came against that pairing.

While the fourth line — Jonah Gadjovich, Jasper Weatherby and Lane Pederson — didn’t get much in the way of offense, they were largely utilized in the defensive zone against the Flames’ fourth line and shut them down effectively.

Special teams were huge in propelling the Sharks past the Flames, but at 5-on-5, they were getting good defense, not to mention goaltending — the Flames put up 16 high-danger chances for at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick.

So why couldn’t they pull a repeat when the Wild out-played them, too?

Minnesota Wild shift chart against San Jose Sharks on Dec. 9, 2021. Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz
San Jose Sharks shift chart against Minnesota Wild on Dec. 9, 2021. Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz

Remember the death sequence earlier? That was in the midst of three consecutive Wild power plays that resulted in two goals. Probably not a good idea to let them have that much open ice for that long.

This resulted in the Sharks breaking up line combinations much earlier in the game than would be expected, as special teams were seeing heavy minutes and the time had to be spread around. In turn, the Wild were able to keep all four of their lines together throughout the game.

As good as the Sharks’ third line was matched against the Flames, they were mostly bad; good in limited action against the Wild’s top line of Kirill Kaprizov, Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello in the first period, but they didn’t see much time against that line as the game wore on. Instead, sent out against the Wild’s bottom-six, the offense on that line dried up, as they were very simply out-skated by the speed that Minnesota works through their depth.

Another unfortunate trend between these two games is that at 5-on-5, the Sharks’ second line of Tomas Hertl, Alexander Barabanov and Noah Gregor isn’t generating enough offense and that can’t be the line that spends all of their time playing back on their heels. Over the last two games, they’ve generated a 30.77 Corsi-For percentage against the Flames and a team-low of 22.22 against the Wild at 5-on-5. They also didn’t generate a single high-danger scoring chance at 5-on-5 against the Wild.

The Hertl line saw some chances against the Wild’s fourth line and second line, but spent the majority of the game getting buried by their third line.

How to read this chart
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz

And of course, as much as it’s too simplistic to say Tomas Hertl was the sole reason the Sharks won against the Flames, the same can be said for pinning the loss against the Wild on Jacob Middleton but ... well, woof.

To cut him some credit, having both Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns and only one Mario Ferraro is a real problem. Middleton is going to face a lot more shots and attempts against because he’s on the ice with Karlsson, who plays high risk, high reward hockey.

Still, taking two minor penalties changed the course of the game and his individual relative Corsi-For percentage (how the team played with him on the ice versus without) at 5-on-5 was the worst of all Sharks defenders at -13.72. On the defensive side, he did have 1 hit and 3 blocked shots (the most on the team), but that also signals that the Sharks don’t have possession of the puck when he is on the ice, which is not how his partner Erik Karlsson’s ice time is best spent.

Conclusions?

  • It seems like Boughner is trying to get more offensive opportunities and favorable matchups for the Bonino-led third line, and has been somewhat effective. However, that has put the second line in defensive situations more often and I’m not sure I’m a fan of that trade-off, especially as they get big special teams minutes. Teams that are a little heavier in their bottom-six will create favorable matchups for the Sharks’ third line, while teams with speed will skate circles around them.
  • High-danger chances at 5-on-5 seem to be coming from the Sharks’ top line and fourth line fairly reliably.
  • Give Middleton the night off against the Dallas Stars. The chemistry is clearly there for the Burns and Ferraro pairing, but Middleton isn’t quiet there yet and teams are taking advantage of that.
  • It’s not just about momentum — it’s obvious that having a successful second period is going to create a very different third period than a three-goal hole — but being forced to break up line combinations early in the game causes the Sharks to scramble. That said, it can also create beautiful things, like the three minutes of Dahlen, Hertl and Meier playing together and coming together for a goal. Stop making Hertl play defense, he doesn’t want to do it. He wants to score goals with the kids.
  • I have to give credit to Adin Hill, but most of that credit can be summed up as: “Thank you for not being Martin Jones.” In both of these games, he had a perfect 5-on-5 save percentage in low- and medium-danger chances. Is the bar on the floor? Absolutely. But if Hill will let in goals, the high-danger ones are high-danger for a reason. He’s not letting in a lot of soft shots, and given that he’s unexpectedly had to assume the role of the starter for a handful of games, his performance hasn’t been too shabby.
  • The top line has been extremely good in all situations. No notes. Jonathan Dahlen for the Calder.