The San Jose Sharks get back into action tonight, praying to get back on track after recent abysmal performances. They head into Buffalo, New York to take on the Sabres for the second and final time this season.
The last time these two teams met was on Nov. 2, 2021, when the Sharks prevailed with a 5-3 final score. That was also in the midst of the team’s first COVID-19 outbreak which led to four of their six defensemen being call ups from the AHL San Jose Barracuda.
Ironically enough, the Sharks are now missing two of their regulars from their top-four defensive core, as both Erik Karlsson and Jake Middleton will miss tonight’s game due to injuries. In their place, Jaycob Megna and Ryan Merkley are expected to play together, which was a consistent duo when they last suited up for the Sharks back in November.
This has been yet another season of rebuilding for the Buffalo Sabres, unfortunately. The team currently sits with a 10-17-6 record and are on a four-game losing streak. Buffalo moved on from superstar Jack Eichel and now lacks any sort of game-changing talent to get out of this rut.
A bright spot for the Sabres this season has been the development and growth of forward Tage Thompson. He was once a highly-touted prospect, and was even moved as part of the deal that sent Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis, but had struggled to find his game leading up to this season. So far this season, he’s put up 12 goals and 10 assists through 33 games, along with a 0.70 wins above replacement (WAR). He’s going to be a player to watch tonight, having recorded 2 points in two of his last three matches.
In net for Buffalo is Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. The Sabres have used five separate goaltenders so far this season, but with injuries impacting the line-up, it appears as though Luukkonen is pulling ahead with the starting role. He was selected 54th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft and currently holds a 2-3-2 record, a .927 save percentage and 1.12 goals saved above expected (GSAx).
The Sabres currently have 11 players on injured reserve and COVID Protocol, including a large portion of the team’s top-six. There’s no better opportunity for the Sharks to get back on the right track than tonight.
Stop the bleeding
The Sharks need to find a way to stop the bleeding tonight. Through their last five games, the team has allowed 28 goals against, an average of 5.6 goals allowed per game, and let me tell you, it hasn’t been because of goaltending.
San Jose is going to need more from their defensive corps. Fewer pinches, more positioning and more of a game plan. They’ve often been found scrambling out of position, and it’s led to disaster.
The Sabres currently rank 26th in the league in goals per game. There’s no reason the Sharks shouldn’t light them up.
Adin Hill gets the nod, Sawchenko may back him up
Bob Boughner told the media that James Reimer is dealing with some things, and Curtis Pashelka of Mercury News says it sounds like the team is deciding whether to put him on injured reserve due to a lower-body injury, which means we will see Adin Hill in net for the Sharks tonight.
Hill hasn’t had the season he had hoped for since arriving to NorCal, possessing a 6-9-0 record and .897 save percentage. He hasn’t recorded a save percentage over .880 since Dec. 7, 2021. This will be Hill’s first ever game against the Sabres.
Zachary Sawchenko may end up backing Hill up tonight. The 24-year-old came in relief for Reimer in the barnburner game in Pittsburgh on Sunday, saving 20 of 21 shots but falling short of the comeback win in his NHL debut. It’ll be interesting to see if he ends up getting a start in Reimer’s absence. The Sharks don’t play any back-to-backs for a while now, but if Hill falls off the wagon, we could see Boughner look to Sawchenko.
Domination in the faceoff circle
Don’t be surprised if we see the Sharks generate the majority of their scoring chances off offensive-zone faceoffs tonight. The Sabres have been horrible in the faceoff circle this season, while the Sharks rank top-ten in the league.
While the team is without Couture, they will still have Tomas Hertl and Nick Bonino, both of whom have been well above 50 percent in that aspect this season.
I’m not the type of person who values faceoffs a whole lot, but I’m just saying, we could see it come to the Sharks’ benefit tonight.