The San Jose Sharks got the blunt end of the stick that marked six-straight losses the Arizona Coyotes faced before going into last night ... or rather, they got the sharp end. The Sharks faced the blade for four goals-against, two at the hands of Coyotes’ rookie forward Jan Jenik, for a final score of 4-2, ‘Yotes.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort. Despite the long odds of making it to the postseason, the Sharks have been playing some impressive hockey recently, considering the pendulum nature of the season.
Many teams who are on the cusp find a way to put everything out on the ice around this time of year, hoping to force their way into a Wild Card spot. The Sharks are not that, nor are they playing that way. But as of late, they have at least rallied around a palpable camaraderie in the locker room, perhaps, incentivized by a brighter future to come.
Coming into Arizona, the youngsters were not quite as impactful as in the previous game, but they still played a palatable game. Perhaps highlighting the point: Scott Reedy is riding his first multi-game point streak after redirecting a shot from Ryan Merkley, on what has been an impressive rookie-studded second power play unit.
The big guns also got on the board in the form of a Brent Burns goal. James Reimer didn’t play the greatest overall game, but he made enough stellar saves to give his team a chance of winning for the majority of the time — and after the past few years of Sharks goaltending, it’s hard to complain.
Furthermore, we saw accelerated development in Noah Gregor and the aforementioned Merkley, who seem to be coming into their game. Gregor led the way in zone entries with his speed, while Merkley continues to become a more poised and adequately rounded defenseman with every game.
But the Sharks needed more goals than just the two they earned, only one of which came off the effort of a core veteran. Despite the solid performances in this game, the team needed the stellar performances of Reimer and the rookies that we saw against the Anaheim Ducks.
For what it’s worth, it’s fruitless for any club to expect their rookies to contribute in every game. The Sharks’ core may have been found wanting in a guy like Timo Meier, especially after coming off a hat trick in the previous game. Yet, despite all of the fanfare surrounding the guy, and Meier having the highest-producing season of his career, he’s not on par to be Auston Matthews-level, at least not yet.
In other words, Toronto Maple Leafs’ Matthews is a bonafide star, while Meier is still just a starlet: Meier’s admirable 0.5 goals-per-game average (30 goals in 60 games) is a far cry from Matthew’s 0.8 mark (49 in 61 games), which is to be expected from a generational talent in Matthews. If the team is looking to the future, they still need star-power in their offense.
As for Reimer, it was a bit of a surprise to see the Sharks’ tried-and-true starter play first against Arizona in a back-to-back, instead of against the much more formidable Colorado Avalanche tonight. Given that he stopped 28 of 29 in an athletic contest against the Ducks in the game previous, more weight is added to the argument that he should have gotten the night off against Arizona.
So how were the Sharks to pull off a win? All the team had to do was replicate what Arizona’s previous six opponents had done: exact their game and eventually outscore the Coyotes, who had just nine goals in their previous six games. The Sharks, after all, were one of those six teams who outscored Arizona, by a mark of 4-2 on Mar. 20.
But none of that accounts for the sentinel that was the Coyotes’ netminder Karel Vejmelka. No slight on Vejmelka, who is rightfully recognized for 39 saves on 41 shots, many of the extraordinary variety. But in terms of stumping the Sharks, it may not be as cut and dry as a solid night in net for the Coyotes.
Consider the larger body of work by Vejmelka this season: He’s logged 39 starts, with an admirable .906 save percentage (SV%), but a 3.38 goals-against average (GAA), facing an average of about 33 shots per game. Compare that to last night’s game: .951 SV%, two goals against on 41 shots — last night’s performance is a fortunate outlier.
He’s also a rookie, who has started the majority of Coyotes’ games this season but is otherwise mostly inexperienced, like many of the goaltenders the Sharks have faced this season.
In fact, in the 13 games the Sharks have played so far in March, they have faced their opposition’s back-up goaltender for the majority, a total of nine times: Anthony Stolarz, Cal Peterson (twice), Spencer Knight, Pavel Francouz, Karel Vajmelka (twice), Mike Smith and Lukas Dostal. Of those nine games, the Sharks have won just three.
There are some considerations, as Smith is not inexperienced, but a true back-up, Peterson is arguably soon to supplant Jonathan Quick for the starting position, and Knight is probably the best goaltending prospect in the league, but the argument is the same: the Sharks struggle to score, even against lesser competition in net.
Three ringing posts can attest to that — Tomas Hertl hit two posts and Logan Couture hit one during the game — but beyond that were many chances that looked good but just could not convert.
It wasn’t a hard game to watch for Sharks fans, as there were plenty of dominant stretches between whistles where San Jose was in possession and generated the majority of chances, but it was painful during the stoppages to see most of those chances amount to nothing.
Losing to a last-place team never feels good, but considering the situation the Sharks find themselves in at this point in the season, it’s probably best not to dwell in the divot for too long. San Jose’s scoring struggles are well-documented at this point. The most recent stat cited as of late has been that the Sharks have just six skaters with double-digit goals on the season. The bottom two of that list, Alexander Barabanov and Erik Karlsson, both with just 10.
But the trouble of not-scoring is a two-pronged problem: not being able to generate chances, and not being able to finish when chances are there. If this game is a checkpoint, it shows that the Sharks are at least able to solve half of the problem.
To solve the other half will probably mean an attack on two fronts: further development of potential-wielding youngsters like Gregor and Merkley, and targeting a bonafide scorer in the off-season.