Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov now leads his team with 12 points, and when — with 57 seconds to go in regulation and the game knotted up at 3-3 — it appeared as though the San Jose Sharks would shut out the perennial star, there he was again.
It could have been the second night this week that the fans were rewarded with tacos, after the team won their first home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday. The fans at SAP Center were gearing up for another overtime, an area where the Sharks have done well, when Kucherov scored his third goal of the season to put the game away and cap the Lightning’s California swing with two of three wins. Tampa Bay now hold a six-game winning streak over San Jose dating back to Jan. 20 2019. So, Kucherov ... that’s who.
The Sharks never held a lead against the Lightning, but managed to tie it up at three-a-piece off a late goal from Erik Karlsson on the power play. Even the Karlsson sauce wasn’t enough mustard for an upset, so treats will have to be postponed until Monday.
But not all the action happened that late. Goals came at happy-hour rate in the first period of the early-afternoon contest. First was Lightning defender Victor Hedman’s tally, 32 seconds into the game. Karlsson was not to be outdone as the resident Swedish superstar defender, netting his fifth of the season on an unassisted goal. Ross Colton retook the Lightning lead at 13:44 on a dangerous-looking second power play unit.
Nico Sturm got on board again five minutes into the middle frame for his fifth of the season, but the Lightning were playing keep-away with the lead, highlighted by Alex Killorn’s goal and his second point of the game. Karlsson’s second goal came on the man-advantage well into the third. Then came Kucherov’s heroics to take the lead for the third and final time of the contest.
Aside from Killorn, two other Tampa skaters posted a multi-point game: Brayden Point (two assists) and Brandon Hagel (two assists). The Sharks’ Tomas Hertl tallied two assists himself. Andrei Vasilevskiy had a slight-edge in goaltending, saving 24 of 27 for a save percentage (SV%) of .889. James Reimer started for the Sharks again and held a .846 SV%, making 22 saves on 26 shots.
Playing against a club that has placed first, first and second-best in the league’s top tournament for the past three years, it shouldn’t be too hard to cut losses this game. Let’s take a look to see how the Sharks measured up to our expectations:
Is this Erik Karlsson’s team?
Following the departure of Brent Burns, Karlsson has taken on the role of bonafide play-driver on the blue line. His two goals against Tampa earn him a team-leading total of six on the season. He also leads in points, with 11, while Logan Couture trails second with seven.
Scoring unassisted in the first, and then on the power play late in the game shows that he’s finding ways and moments to score in what is otherwise an offense that has been dragging its feet. Not to mention, all three of the wins so far have come off of the stick of Karlsson, who is tied for first in the league with three game-winning goals.
Before Karlsson was a Shark, it was all Burns. When they were Sharks together, Burns slightly outpaced Karlsson with 0.73 points-per-game (PPG) through four seasons, over Karlsson’s 0.67 PPG (2018-2022). Burns played 79 more games than Karlsson over that span, with Karlsson averaging about 50 games per season since 2018, mostly due to injuries.
As prolific as Burns’ scoring was, it could be argued that the player was a bit domineering when it came to taking offensive chances. We saw it with Mario Ferarro, one of Burns’ more-recent partners during his time in teal, who reportedly mostly deferred to Burns on taking shots during their time together. It could be that we are now seeing how it might have also affected Karlsson, who at times both split and shared offensive-zone starts and power play minutes with Burns in the past. But that’s an analysis for another day.
It’s a lot to ask for — even for a two-time Norris Trophy winner — and it’s often a snapshot method of seeing the future, but Karlsson has produced at a pace of over a point-per-game in this early season, which is historically the best start of his career. His current production translates to about 90 points over 82 games, which would eclipse both of his Norris Trophy seasons. If he can keep it up, not to mention stay healthy for the majority of the campaign, the fate of the team will very much be in his hands.
Erik Karlsson's been oh so good this season.— NHL (@NHL) October 29, 2022
He now has 10 points in 11 games! pic.twitter.com/5zs1OMjrIh
Lightning off to a slow start?
No Johnson, Verhaeghe, Joseph or Gourde yesterday. Ditto Ryan McDonagh. Anthony Cirelli and Zach Bogosian were also out. There were so many new faces — Cole Koepke, Nick Perbix, Cal Foote — replacing the forgone pieces in what has been such a dominate Tampa squad in recent years.
But there’s still a lot of firepower hanging around. Hedman, Kucherov and Point all put points on the board, making the feared Bolts look every bit as lethal as they ever been. Vasilevskiy, too, was solid on a per-usual 24-save performance. Not even in the upper-echelon of Tampa’s talent is Killorn, the longest-tenured Bolt who happens to be a career Shark-killer:
This is all to say that though the Lightning started off the season slow, they’re now firmly in the collective van of the Atlantic Division, at least temporarily leapfrogging the Maple Leafs yesterday with 10 points. The only team visibly out-pacing Tampa are the red-hot Boston Bruins, who sit at the top of the division and league with 16 points. It’s still great news for a streaking Lightning squad, who will start a four-game homestand next.
Charged up Reimer?
The Sharks goaltender who survived the season-long duel against Adin Hill last year saw his power levels drop a decibel or two against a team that has historically had his number; Reimer is now 7-12-4 in the past 25 match-ups against Tampa Bay. Though his save percentage has been a saving grace, the .923 SV% through six starts he held going into the game was a non-factor against the Lightning.
His .846 mark comes off a fairly light load of 26 shots against. It marks the second-fewest shots he’s seen in a game this season, and especially pales in comparison to examples such as the 45 he faced against the New York Islanders and the 30 saves he made to pull off a shutout against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Despite all this, it’s no big story concerning teams with split-starters. Goaltenders can’t be expected to be perfect and holy guardian angels through the highs and lows of a full season. Besting the Leafs earlier in the week, Kaapo Kahkonen is champing at the bit, so it may be time to give him a taste of California rivalry against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday’s upcoming game.
Just like last season with Hill, it seems that Reimer will have to battle the younger counterpart with his experience for starts, at least in the early goings.
- Long Beach native Matt Nieto is still playing with Couture and Alexander Barabanov, and it’s an opportunity he’s taken advantage of. Again, he had a rush chance that was turned aside, but not without some difficulty by Vasilevskiy. It seems like Nieto is always good for at least one of those since he’s been elevated. Though his three-game point-streak ended, his wheels were still on display, and those wheels have been good enough to play against world-class competition so far. He now has a goal and three assists through 11 games. Keep an eye on him.
- Even though it was a loss, the Sharks once again played one of their better games against one of the league’s best teams. I won’t say they played their absolute best — much of why the team stayed in this game was Karlsson taking matters into his hands — but as a whole, they’ve gone from being competitive throughout games last season to showing flashes of outplaying the opposition through 11 games this season. One such example was Karlsson’s game-tying third period goal, followed by the Sharks taking the next power play eight minutes later, with eight minutes remaining. That’s a span of eight minutes where San Jose could have taken the lead and won the game. Either way, it’s a steady progression from a non-starter being handled easily by not only the best teams, but a majority of teams, two years ago.
- Karlsson’s early production, with today’s game as evidence, has pundits rethinking their assessments of the star defender. The hocus-pocus going around about Sharks players being on the market have many have been dreaming of Karlsson trade-scenarios. To me, his success so far just relays the earlier notion that the Sharks are Karlsson’s team and that they won’t part with him easily, especially with no clear candidate to succeed him in what he does. Despite the early market appeal, his contract will be hard to move without eating some salary. I simply think there isn’t an offer out there that will get general manager Mike Grier to bite, given the circumstances of the team so far. I’m sure there will be more media mess circling around this point as he continues to dominate.