With 33 games under their belts, you’d be hard pressed to find more statistically similar teams than the Detroit Red Wings (15-15-3, fifth Atlantic Division) and San Jose Sharks (17-15-1, sixth Pacific Division) this season. While the Sharks boast a slightly better record, larger parity in the Atlantic allow for the Red Wings to flirt with a Wild Card position with a bit more ease. The Pacific is fighting back from their reputation as the worst division in hockey and the Sharks have cooled off at the wrong time.
Unsurprisingly, the Red Wings can relate. Since returning from the extended holiday break, Detroit has lost consecutive games at home: 3-1 to the Washington Capitals on Friday and 5-1 to the Boston Bruins on Sunday. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Red Wings have been experimenting with a young roster and a COVID outbreak has tested their AHL depth with mixed results, depending heavily on the mood of their brand-new goaltending tandem.
It’s a relief for Hockeytown, who have been waiting and hoping the Detroit sports curse would finally move on from the team. The Red Wings haven’t qualified for playoffs since the year the Sharks made the Stanley Cup Final, and the three years prior were all first-round exits. Given that this is my hometown crowd and I have never seen a fanbase who gets more excited about zone entries, I think they might throw a parade if this year ends in a first-round loss.
The comparisons should also be a relief for Sharks fans; the similar positions they find themselves in are the results of several more years of despair in Detroit compared to the amount of time that San Jose has been rebuilding. Both teams are seeing the results of smart drafting and will have high-end young talent getting their feet wet in the next few years, but the Sharks have only missed playoffs twice in that same timeframe. The organization has been nothing if not adaptable.
But how similar are they, really? Both teams are being heavily out-shot at 5-on-5. When adjusting for score and venue at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes of play, the Red Wings have a shots-for percentage of 46 percent, while the Sharks are 47.58, putting the Sharks slightly closer to league-average, but not by much. As logic would follow, both teams sport a similar goals-for percentage (46.03 and 46.54, respectively), though Detroit sees a larger jump compared to league-average in expected goals-for per 60 at 5-on-5, indicative of their high-end shooting talent.
Among that shooting talent is the oft overlooked Dylan Larkin, who is still a spry 25 years old — one of 14 players age 25 or under on this season’s roster. Larkin leads the team with 59 shots at 5-on-5 and 83 shots at all strengths. The young captain also leads in goals (15), points (30), primary assists (11), power play goals (3) and rebounds created (12).
Larkin’s resurgence comes alongside two potential Calder Trophy finalists. Lucas Raymond, a 19-year-old Swedish winger, currently leads the NHL’s rookie scoring race with 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists). But that’s not enough, as 20-year-old Moritz Seider leads all rookie defenders (and ranks third overall in skaters) with 21 points (3 goals, 18 assists). Anyway, Jonathan Dahlen is ranked eighth with 14 points and he’s had COVID like 20 times, so he’s basically superhuman. Just throwing that out there for the voters.
Early starts are never kind on Pacific Division teams, but a 10 a.m. PT start is particularly cruel, as the Sharks found out in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Tonight’s game is at a more reasonable 4:30 p.m. PT/7:30 p.m. ET, giving the team more time to settle into their game-day routines and come out with fresh legs.
Facing a third game without defender Mario Ferraro has exposed the ways in which he has carried the Sharks’ defense. One of the places they’re really missing him is the penalty kill, where the 23-year-old ranks first on the team in shots blocked per 60 minutes (13.65) and second in hits per 60 (4.55). At 5-on-5, Ferraro has blocked a bonkers 73 shots, 24 more than Brent Burns in second place. He is very often the only defender remembering to play defense.
But more than that, our sweet perfect boy has wheels and can chip into the offensive efforts. At 5-on-5, he’s tied with Tomas Hertl with 12 rush attempts created, fifth overall on the team and third among defenders. He’s even taken a decent number of face-off draws for a defenseman and is among the team’s most-reliable in the faceoff circle, losing just 1 of 21 draws. The cherry on top is that he stays out of the penalty box, taking just three minor penalties.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the Sharks are missing while Ferraro is on COVID Protocol because the fact is that he does everything well. He might just be the team’s all-around best defender, which only further highlights how cooked players like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns are.
The effects are far-reaching, as head coach Bob Boughner told the media on Monday that the atmosphere of the locker room was different without Ferraro.
“Mario’s that guy that brings that noise and brings that energy and drags guys in with him. He wasn’t around last night and that’s no excuse, obviously. But you miss a guy that gets other guys around him going. He’s an infectious guy, so, definitely miss Mario and his energy.”
Ferraro can’t return until Wednesday, when the team plays in Buffalo, so there will be changes in the defense tonight, because Boughner can’t keep expecting different results.
No defense, just goals?
One bright spot in Sunday’s brutal loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins is that San Jose put up a more than respectable five goals, despite the early road start. For a team that has struggled to put up shots and goals, not to mention what it says about the team to answer back at a six-goal deficit, it’s the closest they can come to calling a loss an improvement.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Red Wings are in similar territory, with scoring concentrated to the top of their roster. If the Sharks can leverage their match-ups — something the coaching staff has struggled with managing when it comes to the Ferraro-less defense — there is plenty of opportunity to get good looks on goal.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Timo Meier and Tyler Bertuzzi going at it tonight. It’d make sense to me to match those lines and the two power forwards are likely to get on each other’s nerves.
When will James Reimer get a break?
Look, goaltending hasn’t exactly gone as expected in San Jose this season, but it’s largely been out of their hands. While Reimer was ill earlier in the season, Adin Hill had to step in as a starter for a longer stretch than anyone would’ve liked. Now Hill has landed on COVID Protocol and it’s Reimer’s turn to hold down the crease for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately it’s a circumstance a lot of teams are dealing with right now, and several teams are hurting for goaltending depth.
Zachary Sawchenko performed admirably in relief of Reimer on Sunday after the veteran allowed six goals in the first period, but after a day off, Reimer will likely slot back into net tonight. The good news is that four of those six goals were on high-danger chances. How it affects his confidence moving forward is a different issue, though.
Across the ice, Alex Nedeljkovic was in net for Sunday’s loss to the Bruins. Back-up Thomas Greiss played in the loss to the Capitals on Friday, so it’s anyone’s net.
Bold Prediction: Timo Meier Gordie Howe hat trick. That’s it.
* All stats courtesy Natural Stat Trick.