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Sharks at Penguins Preview: Early start against East Coast enemy

It’s been a long time since the Sharks have lost to the Penguins, and San Jose will hope to keep it that way.

Pittsburgh Penguins Left Wing Zach Aston-Reese (46) skates with the puck while San Jose Sharks Defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) defends during the second period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks on January 2, 2020, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the San Jose Sharks ride a two-game winning streak, they head into PPG Paints Arena for the first time since January 2, 2020, making it exactly two years since the team has visited Pittsburgh. The Sharks won that game 3-2 in overtime thanks to a 36-save performance from Aaron Dell and points from Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. Yeah, it’s been a while.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have had themselves a fantastic season. After seemingly everybody wrote the team off and projected a slow decline this off-season, they’ve begun the campaign with a 17-8-5 record while riding a seven-game winning streak. The main reason for Pittsburgh’s success has been their depth stepping up while their star players have been injured. Sidney Crosby missed the start of the season, Bryan Rust missed a couple of weeks and even Evgeni Malkin has yet to make his season debut, but that hasn’t mattered.

Jake Guentzel, who many have seen as a “complementary piece” to Crosby, has shown everybody that he is a top winger in the NHL on his own, scoring 15 goals and 27 points through 24 games this season, arguably the most valuable player on the Penguins thus far. As for their depth pieces emerging, they have players like Evan Rodrigues, who has tallied 23 points through 30 games, as well as Danton Heinen, Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger stepping up offensively. This forward core was expected to worsen when the team lost Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev, but it’s only gotten better.

The bad news for the Penguins? They’re currently missing a ton of those players. Malkin, as mentioned above, is still out, as is Rust. Carter, Blueger, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Kasperi Kapanen and Tristan Jarry are all out with COVID-19. At the same time, Sam Lafferty suffers from an undisclosed illness, and Jason Zucker and Jake Guentzel are set to miss the next few weeks too, allowing the Sharks to take on a much weaker line-up than usual in Pittsburgh.

In net for the Penguins, we’ll likely see Casey DeSmith. Usually, Jarry has taken the reins in net, with Vezina-caliber play this season, however, due to his COVID-19 status, he’s unavailable. DeSmith hasn’t had the best season, possessing a 2-3-1 record with a .905 save percentage, below league average.

A nice little fun fact here: the Sharks and Penguins have a combined 11 players in the line-up that were a part of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final series. Sharks forward Nick Bonino was on the Penguins’ team that broke the hearts of all hockey fans in Northern California.

Will Sharks’ success against Pittsburgh to continue?

Yeah, the Sharks lost to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final, but the Penguins haven’t taken down San Jose in 1,432 days since the 2017-18 season. If you can’t process how long ago that was, Joel Ward was still wearing a Sharks jerseys back then.

Admittedly, the Sharks have gotten to avoid the Penguins for a year and a half due to a global pandemic, but still. They had four straight wins against the team until the league stoppage in 2020, so that’s something.

East Coast, Best Coast?

This season the Sharks are 9-6-1 against Eastern Conference teams, while 8-8-0 against Western Conference teams, which shows maybe they perform better outside of their division this season.

To make this even better, the team is 5-2-0 when traveling to the Eastern Conference teams this season, showing that they have been able to shake off the time zone change and traveling fatigue quickly and not let it affect their game, which is a significant strength for the teams outside of the Eastern time zone.

Reimer expected to start

James Reimer is expected to get the start for the Sharks, with Adin Hill still on the league’s COVID-19 Protocol. He has a 4-4-2 record and .914 save percentage in his career against the Penguins.

Reimer has recorded at least a .920 save percentage in five of his last six games. He’s been great for the most part, and the Sharks will need that from him again, especially with Hill out. Zachary Sawchenko is serving as San Jose’s back-up goaltender and has zero games of NHL experience.

Bold Prediction: Bonino nets the game-winning goal in overtime against his former team.