The year 2022 is one both the San Jose Sharks (11-19-6, seventh Pacific) and the Philadelphia Flyers (11-17-7, seventh Metropolitan) would rather forget. Both teams have lost far more games than they have won. While not mathematically out of the playoff picture just yet, it’s clear that, barring a miracle, this is the last time these two teams will meet this season. For those keeping score, the pair last faced off on Oct. 23 in Philly. James Reimer made 30 saves for the 3-0 win.
Fast forward to today, where the Flyers are coming off a long break. Philadelphia has not played since Dec. 23, when they lost 6-5 to the Carolina Hurricanes. With nearly a week off, Flyers fans are happy to hear that the goaltenders are healthy. Starter Carter Hart was injured during the team’s Dec. 22 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Seth Jarvis bodied a Maple Leafs player into Hart, knocking him out of the game.
Carter Hart exits the game after Rasmus Ristolainen shoved Seth Jarvis into him. Friendly fire. pic.twitter.com/bfVdrfKGAB— Ryan Quigley (@ryanquigz) December 24, 2022
But Hart was back on the ice at practice following the Christmas break. Back-up goaltender Felix Sandstrom is also expected to return to the team after missing two games due to an illness.
With both goaltenders out against the Hurricanes before the break, rookie netminder Samuel Ersson earned his first NHL start. Head coach John Tortorella says it’s possible Ersson, Sandstrom and Hart will all accompany the Flyers to the West Coast.
On the front end, the Flyers are led by Travis Konecny, who has 32 points in 29 games this season. Konecny also leads the team with 15 goals.
The team brings some drama with them into town. Kevin Hayes, one of the team’s leading scorers, continues to live in Tortorella’s doghouse. The 30-year-old was a healthy scratch on Dec. 17 against the New York Rangers. Torts said he wasn’t happy with Hayes’ two-way game.
Meanwhile, Hayes told the media: “I’m never gonna say there’s a benefit to being benched. I’m sorry. I don’t think I should have been benched, but it’s not my decision. He’s a coach. I’m a player. He makes the line-up, he wants the best team on the ice to ultimately win, & that’s what he went with.”
The two have traded jabs in the media since the benching. We’ll see what happens in person on Thursday.
The four-goal conundrum
Until recently, it appeared that the Sharks were able to hang on for most games. Sure, the team wasn’t winning, but they weren’t getting creamed by the opponents, either. For the first 33 games of the season, San Jose kept things relatively close and never lost a game by more than four goals.
That’s changed. In two of the last three games, the Sharks lost to opponents by four goals apiece. On Tuesday night, San Jose lost 6-2 to the Vancouver Canucks. The team also lost 7-3 to the Calgary Flames on Dec. 20.
Players are well aware that the team’s defense needs work. Head coach David Quinn isn’t shy about calling out players, either. Following Tuesday night’s loss, Quinn told the media, “You’ve got to care about defending just as much as you do about scoring a goal. I think that’s kind of suffered from our end of it a little bit. We’ve got to get back to caring about defending.”
The defense may get worse before it gets better. Matt Benning left Tuesday night’s game after blocking a shot from Connor Garland. Benning tried to return in the third period, but could not. He’s one of the more productive players on the team; some would say he’s the second-best defender this season behind Erik Karlsson.
With Benning out, the defense is sure to suffer.
The Karlsson/Meier connection
Erik Karlsson is on a tear and Timo Meier is benefiting. Meier is on a five-game goal streak, having scored six goals over those five games. Karlsson is credited with the primary assist on five of those goals. On the sixth goal, Karlsson secured the secondary assist.
In what has otherwise been a depressing season for Sharks fans, Karlsson and Meier have been bright spots. The two seem to be feeding off one another, creating highlight reel plays, such as this one late in the third period against Vancouver:
Karlsson on another level
Speaking of Karlsson, it only makes sense that we continue to talk about the man who could be approaching record territory in March and April, and is in the midst of a 10-game point streak (2 goals, 14 assists).
Karlsson leads the team with 48 points (13 goals, 35 assists) in 36 games. If you stretch that out over an 82-game season, Karlsson is on pace for 109 points. Only five players in NHL history have broken the 100-point mark: Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, Al MacInnis, Brian Leetch and Denis Potvin. Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators came close last season with 96 points.
What’s more, Karlsson ranks sixth in the league in points as of Wednesday morning, and that includes all skaters. Many of those points have come at even-strength. In fact, he leads the league in even-strength points with 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists).
Everyone on the ice with Karlsson knows he’s playing at another level. Many of the guys have played with Joe Thornton, a first ballot Hall of Famer, and know when they’re watching something special.
Logan Couture told the media following Tuesday’s game, “Erik is at a completely different level right now than what I’ve seen in this league in a long time. Maybe Jumbo in his prime.”
Bold Prediction: This game comes down to goaltending. Hart starts for the Flyers, Kaapo Kahkonen starts for the Sharks. Both allow a lot of goals. Karlsson tallies four assists. San Jose still loses 6-5.