‘The San Jose Sharks playoff push’ is a dying phrase. After Tuesday night’s 4-3 shootout loss at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks, the Sharks have dropped all four games to divisional opponents following a two-week layoff in early February. Subsequently, their losing streak extended to seven-straight, putting them just four points ahead of where they were after their last regulation win came against the Washington Capitals, back on Jan. 26.
There was more hope than expectation to turn this ship around tonight, after adding forward Ryan Dzingel from a waiver claim ahead of the Anaheim loss. No knock on Dzingel, who had a solid game and provided some freshness to the forward-group. But if the Sharks were one waiver-wire pickup from being contenders, we would have seen such a move happen earlier than it did.
Other changes made include Jasper Weatherby being recalled to center the fourth line, defensemen Radim Simek swapped in for Ryan Merkley, and Jonah Gadjovich for Jeffrey Viel, who together seem to be tag-teaming the enforcer role in the line-up.
Within the confines of the game, Dzingel, Simek and Gadjovich seemed to be positive additions: Dzingel, for example, recorded two shots on goal (SOG), racking up power play time on the second unit. You can sense the offensive touch in his game, which is an upgrade on many up-front options.
Though it’s a small sample size of his 17 minutes on the ice, it seems his offensive-zone patterns allow him to occupy different areas on the ice — and the chances that come with it — than the Sharks are used to. It’s diversity for an offensively-struggling forward-group, which is a good thing.
Simek and Gadjovich, meanwhile, added some much needed physicality to the contest: Simek in his curtailing of the Ducks cycle-game and forecheck success, and Gadjovich in keeping the opposition accountable. After a few games of seeing Gadjovich and Viel swap back and forth, I’d say that though similar, Gadjovich adds a bit more toughness where Viel does skill.
Other standouts included Alexander Barabanov, who did a great job of carrying the puck through the zones — probably a big catalyst for the success of his line-mates in Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl — as well as Noah Gregor, who had some great puck retrievals by way of his speed.
James Reimer, too, played a solid game in net, but it’s becoming all too apparent that fatigue is becoming a factor in his game. He was beat on three of 29 shots, good for a .897 save percentage (SV%) on the game. The goals were great chances indicative of an Anaheim team with many weapons down the line-up. In this game, Rickard Rakell was a the man of the hour, scoring two goals in regulation and the dagger that put the game away in the shootout.
On the other side, backup Anthony Stolarz was noticeably fresher, with a more impressive 40 saves. It’s been a common strategy for opponents to play their back-up goaltenders against the stagnant Sharks, to soak up some time and prevent fatigue in their starters, much like what we are starting to see with Reimer. Stuart Skinner of the Edmonton Oilers and Logan Thompson of the Vegas Golden Knights are some examples, with a 1.000 SV% and .972 SV%, respectively, in recent games against the Sharks.
On a positive dig, Brent Burns was instrumental, as he was in on all three goals. He generated many chances with his big shot, which can usually be counted on to slice its way through traffic. One caveat is that it’s not every night that Burns is this successful. Most teams anticipate they’ll have to defend against Burns’ shot, making the team’s offense seem one-dimensional, even with Meier and Hertl being consistent weapons this season.
The fact remains that the Sharks simply don’t have enough game beyond that surefire option to generate chances from the point, and specifically when Burns is on the ice. I’d expect the Ducks to be more prepared in that respect when the Sharks face them again in just a few weeks on Mar. 6.
As a team, the Sharks did much of what they could to exert their control on the game. In the first period, they threw everything on net, outshooting the Ducks 13-7. That effect petered out later in the game, as the following periods were relatively even in SOG. With the addition of overtime, where the Sharks had all seven shots on net, the final tally was 43-29, a Sharks edge, going into the shootout. They recorded just eight missed shots compared to the Ducks’ 23.
They also did a decent job of breaking out the puck and avoiding icings, an area that has concerned this season. In 2021-22, San Jose has been one of the worst teams when it comes to icing the puck, committing a total of 234 icings through the season, averaging about five icings per game.
In particular, the first pass out of the defensive zone was reliably successful against the Ducks, as the Sharks had no icings in the first period. Like their shot efforts, they broke away from this good habit in the second period, where they recorded all four of their icings against. Promisingly, they got back on track, with no icings for the rest of the game.
Lastly, they won the special teams battle, going 1 for 5 on the power play and a perfect 4 of 4 on the kill. In particular, the penalty kill has been a staple to any success the Sharks have had this season, while the power play has lagged behind. But on Tuesday, the skater-advantage produced at least a goal, and seemed to show a bit more groove than what is usually a static and at times disconcerted effort.
The team’s ability to clean up in certain areas, go to work on the details and execute strategy on any given game echoes something head coach Bob Boughner said about this team before their early-February break, “We’re sort of never out of a game ... I think that teams in the league know that it’s not an easy game. We’re tough to play against and we play the right way.” In that respect, Boughner has been right.
But Boughner also said something else in early February: “We know we can’t win one, lose one on the way in. We have to go on some stretches here.”
As this game indicates, the stretches have gone the other way. For all the little battles won within the confines of this game, the Sharks are still losing the long game of the 2021-22 season. They are doing what they’ve always done right on the penalty kill, but not doing enough to improve the power play. They exert their game, but seldom for a full 60.
And for the fourth time in a row, the game went into extra-time, and the Sharks came out with only half the points. Positives in their game are a cold comfort in the face of a campaign slipping further and further away from a return to contention. As it stands, the Sharks are still largely unequipped for that. They’re slowly becoming a mere challenge in the narrative of a true contender to get two points on the night.