The San Jose Sharks (22-22-5, seventh Pacific) will face their long-time rivals, the Anaheim Ducks (24-19-9, fifth Pacific), for the first of four quick-succession games scheduled between the two teams from now to April. Though it’s been awhile, the season series closely mimics the preseason, where the Ducks and Sharks clashed three times, the Sharks winning one of three. In those preseason games, we saw flashes indicative of a successful season for the Ducks, with rookies Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale on full display.
Since then, the Ducks have put together both good and bad stretches, at times entering the playoff team conversation, notably in December, when they sat at the top of the division. All in all, they’ve set themselves up to hold closely in the Pacific race, sitting just two points out of a Wild Card spot. So, yes, they’ve been successful, all things considered. That’s more than can be said of the Sharks, who are 10 points out of said spot.
But are the playoffs truly out of reach for San Jose, after getting just three points in their last five games? If the modestly successful Ducks are any indication of who the Sharks must be in order to compete for a playoff berth, then how important will this four-game series with their SoCal foes be?
Consider this: With 49 points, eight points behind the Ducks, the Sharks also have four games in hand going into Monday’s game. The Sharks will have to win those games in-hand to match Anaheim’s current 57 points to at least keep pace. Ahead of both teams, the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers sit just within grasp, both with 59 points.
The future of Sharks forward Tomas Hertl hangs in the balance approaching the Mar. 21 trade deadline, as his current contract expires after this season. No one except Hertl and his agent could know for sure whether he will extend his time in teal or exchange for a true contender, but it is believed that much of that decision depends on where the Sharks land in the standings after the next 13 games. And where they land also determines if they are playoff pretenders or contenders.
So — though it’s been said since before their two-week layoff earlier this month, if the Sharks believe they belong in the top-16, competing for the Cup, it starts with a win tomorrow night. With important divisional points on the line, we will probably see John Gibson in net, though Anthony Stolarz did a fine job in relief of Gibson against the Calgary Flames on Feb. 16, stopping 21 of 22 shots.
Ryan Getzlaf’s status
It is unclear whether or not Anaheim’s captain Ryan Getzlaf is in or out after being scratched against the Vancouver Canucks and Oilers last week. For now, he is considered day-to-day with a lingering, unspecified lower-body injury sustained prior to Feb. 17.
Getzlaf is a long-time foe who has always seemed to find offense against San Jose, putting up 27 points through 42 career games. If he does make an appearance on Monday, the Ducks will have to shuffle-back their current line set-up, which was successful last Saturday against the Canucks for a 7-4 win.
Logan Couture’s wings
When the Sharks played the Canucks last Thursday, Jonathan Dahlen was notably demoted to the fourth line, in favor of Matt Nieto, who moved up from his usual third-line role. Noah Gregor, who has occasionally played up alongside Couture, will also likely face demotion after losing an edge in overtime, which consequently led to a rush ensuing in the Canucks goal to put the game away.
Rudolfs Balcers is usually a reliable option to pair with Couture, though injuries have seen him in and out of the line-up altogether as of late.
With Alexander Barabanov, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier shoring up the first line, and not many considerable options to plug into the second line, who can help Couture generate some offense? The best-case scenario is a healthy Balcers, and a refocused Dahlen to bounce back, but getting creative and taking some risks with players down the line-up may start to make sense while playoff contention is fleeting.
Special Teams prevalence
The Sharks’ power play may not be the best, but their reliable penalty kill is clicking at 84.5 percent, sixth-best in the league. With skilled and elusive forwards like Zegras, Sonny Milano and Troy Terry, there will undoubtedly be some liberties taken against the Ducks. But with San Jose penalty kill powerhouses like Nieto, Andrew Cogliano, and shot-blocking leader Mario Ferraro, penalties are something the Sharks can afford.
On the other hand, the Ducks’ power play reigns as the fifth-best in the league, producing at 25.9 percent. They have many options, including the aforementioned players, plus seasoned specialists in Rickard Rakell, Kevin Shattenkirk and Getzlaf, if he draws in. For what it’s worth, the Sharks’ less-stellar power play is good for 19.5 percent, while the Ducks sit at a middling 82.3 percent effective kill.
A battle of which special teams will prevail will be a storyline to keep track of, and may very well be a deciding factor in the game.
Bold prediction: We will either see a roster move, maybe John Leonard or Joachim Blichfeld called up, who have been having recent success with the San Jose Barracuda, or a line-up move of a depth player like Andrew Cogliano to Couture’s wing.