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Sharks at Kraken Preview: Squid Game

Battle of the sea creatures, part two. Their turf this time.

Chris Driedger #60 of the Seattle Kraken dives on the puck in front of the net against the San Jose Sharks in a regular season game at SAP Center on December 14, 2021 in San Jose, California. Photo by Amanda Cain/NHLI

You never want to play against a team with confidence in hockey. It’s the only sport where I truly think the competitive level and pure drive can be more important than skill. Before Monday night, this would’ve been a good thing for the San Jose Sharks (21-17-2, fourth Pacific), who will be visiting the Seattle Kraken (11-23-4, eighth Pacific) on Thursday night. The Kraken’s last win at that point had come on Dec. 14, over a month ago. However, the league’s newest team may have a little bit of a spark, as former Sharks Ryan Donato and Joonas Donskoi contributed to a shootout victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday to snap the team’s losing streak.

These two teams seem to be on opposite sides of each other thus far into this season. On the home bench, the Kraken had lofty expectations, thanks to the Vegas Golden Knights’ storybook inaugural season in 2017-18, but have failed to perform up to those standards. They currently hold the fourth-worst record in the entire NHL, dead last in the Pacific Division.

Seattle has been decimated by bad goaltending, and some of the team’s draft-day decisions have come back to haunt them (ahem, Vladimir Tarasenko was available for free). Let’s not forget that despite their recent win, the Kraken have gone 2-10-2 through their last 14 games played, and are one of the few teams in the league that I’d say have already been eliminated from playoff contention, albeit not mathematically.

A pretty glaring problem that immediately sticks out for the Kraken is goaltending, and it’s been a reoccurring issue all season long for them. They invested $9.4 million into the crease between Phillipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger this past off-season, and it has completely collapsed on them. The tandem has combined for -30.98 goals saved above expected (GSAx) and a league-worst .875 save percentage. It’s hard to feel bad for them, as they’re a new team and all, but you’d have to think that if the team had at least league-average goaltending, they might’ve been in the hunt for a playoff spot still.

But as the Sharks have learned time and time again, you can never take an opponent in the NHL too lightly, and the Kraken are no exception. Seattle boasts plenty of slept-on forward talent with the likes of Jordan Eberle (who is their lone All-Star this season), Jared McCann, Yanni Gourde and Morgan Geekie. By my count though, none of them have scored five goals in an NHL game.

Do you know who else they have? Joonas Donskoi. Wouldn’t it just be hilarious if he scored his first goal with the Kraken in game number 39 against his former team? It couldn't possibly happen ... right? Right?

As for the Sharks, many expected them to be a bottom-feeder among the NHL, contending for the likes of Shane Wright, Matthew Savoie and Brad Lambert. While there are still some glaring problems, the team has definitely exceeded expectations for the season and are currently sitting in a Wild Card spot above teams like the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, and Winnipeg Jets, with a chance to move in second place in the division with a win. San Jose has been rolling, with a 4-1-1 record over their last six games, earning nine of a possible 12 points.

This is an especially important game for the Sharks to win, as they’re playing one of the worst teams in the league before heading into the hardest part of the 2021-22 schedule. After this game, they’ll face the Tampa Bay Lightning (twice), Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes, before they finally face a non-playoff team again. The upcoming stretch will show if this team is a real contender, or an easy push-off in the first round of the playoffs.

The Sharks also gave us a pleasant surprise of two power play goals against the Los Angeles Kings on Monday. If they feel like turning that into a streak, they can be my guest and take advantage of the Kraken’s weak penalty kill. It’s already in the bottom half of the league, a weak 78 percent, and they’re now without Brandon Tanev and Jaden Schwartz due to injuries. Just a thought, though, no pressure.

Can we expect another big game from Timo Meier?

For starters, if you’re a Sharks fan in 2022, you can expect a big game from Timo Meier every single night. Even if he isn’t playing, just expect it, I’m telling you.

But seriously, the 2022 All-Star ranks eighth in the entire league in points, with 45 (20 goals, 25 assists), and he’s crept into the top-10 in goals after that historic game against the Kings. Through his last seven games, Meier has been over 50 percent in expected goals (xG%) in six contest, as he’s continued to be a factor each and every night.

Bob Boughner told media that “Timo deserves all the credit” on his re-emergence this season, and I have to agree. He was constantly in the doghouse, being benched and criticized in media, now he’s proving everybody wrong.

I think it’s time we start treating him like a superstar, so yeah, don’t be surprised if we get another big game out of Meier.

Can the defense step it up?

Listen, we all had fun on Monday. It was a great night for Meier and a big win over a division rival, but I think it seemed to overshadow a real problem, which has been an issue all season long: the Sharks defense.

The team posted a 34.65 xG%, their third-worst single game all season long. They were outshot by over 20 shots on goal, and if it weren’t for Meier’s one-man effort, it may have very well been a blowout for the Kings, rather than for the Sharks.

The Sharks are a good enough team to beat the Kraken, even without top-notch defense. But the Lightning? Panthers? Hurricanes? It just won’t cut it, so the defense has to be better and Seattle is an opportunity to get back on track and tighten up in the defensive zone.

A much more heated matchup incoming?

The last time the Sharks and Kraken played was Dec. 14, 2021 — which was the last time Seattle had won a hockey game, up until Monday.

In that game, there was just one penalty, a minor for holding. No fights, no really big scraps after the whistle, and it was kind of just a quiet throwaway game that was quickly forgotten about. A month later, I expect that won’t be the case in this one.

The Sharks will want to get revenge after losing 3-1 in their first meeting, while the Kraken will want to put on a show in front of their home crowd and build off of that win against Chicago. Expect chaos between these two teams that I think will build into a rivalry in the coming years.