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Predators at Sharks Preview: Looking for a fight

The Sharks have their work cut out as they face a determined Predators team with a postseason to work toward.

Matt Benning #5 of the Nashville Predators skates against Jasper Weatherby #26 of the San Jose Sharks during an NHL game at Bridgestone Arena on October 26, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s no secret that the San Jose Sharks (24-24-6, seventh Pacific) are solidly out of playoff contention, or that the wins have been hard-fought and few and far between as of late. The Sharks are currently sitting five spots back from a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

For the Nashville Predators, (30-20-4, fifth Central) it’s a completely different story. The team owns the second Wild Card position — at least for now — which means that every game is another opportunity for them to solidify their playoff berth.

In other words, the Sharks are going to have their work cut out for them, as they face a determined (and motivated) Predators team who have a postseason to work toward.

A constant barrage of injuries has made the Sharks’ roster a revolving door, particularly on the blue line. Rudolfs Balcers, who’s been unfortunately plagued by the injury bug all year may or may not be in the line-up, but for the D-corps, Erik Karlsson, Jaycob Megna, Mario Ferraro, and of course, Nikolai Knyzhov, are for sure out, while Nicolas Meloche is banged up, but still in the line-up. Santeri Hatakka was recently called up to shore up the defense, and will likely make his way into the line-up.

A fluctuating line-up can lead to inconsistencies in defensive coverage and a lack of overall communication and on-ice chemistry, as teammates get used to reading each other in-game scenarios on the fly. Compared to the Predators, who are rolling with a largely healthy and consistent roster, the Sharks will have to be extra careful when it comes to making sure they’re not out of position in the defensive zone or getting caught below the goal line.

The good news is that both teams are on equal footing in at least one area; their most recent games were both losses. The Predators lost 4-3 to the Seattle Kraken on Wednesday, while the Sharks lost the day before that, 3-1 to the Vegas Golden Knights.

How important will special teams be?

Short answer? Essential.

If there’s one aspect of their game San Jose has figured out, it’s special teams. The power play goes through explosive ups and downs (and right now is more up, than down), and the penalty kill is far exceeding the league average, sitting at 86.23 percent over the NHL average of 79.58 percent. It’s a good thing that the Sharks’ penalty kill is so deadly, because the Predators’ power play has been their strong suit as of late, rolling at 24.10 percent.

The Sharks have been struggling to score goals at 5-on-5, and have been depending far too heavily on their power play to spark momentum. While having flourishing power play and penalty kill units are fabulous, it doesn’t cover up for the fact that the Sharks are being consistently outplayed at even-strength scenarios.

Everyone’s favorite subject: Goaltending

It’s no secret that goaltending has become both exponentially better and more stressful this season. Adin Hill and James Reimer have been the dynamic duo, but as the season has worn on, it’s clear that Reimer is the favorite. Taking the lion’s share of starts, combined with Hill’s lingering injury and the coaching staff’s hesitance to play Zach Sawchenko meant that eventually, Reimer was going to be overplayed, which unfortunately ended in an injury.

Wow, who would have seen that coming?

Adin Hill is reportedly on the mend (spurred on by Reimer’s injury, no doubt) but until he’s regularly practicing and sitting back-up, there’s no real idea of when he’ll be back to full-time capabilities. And there’s no word on exactly how long Reimer could be out, either.

Sawchenko has been stellar in his two relief games, but for some reason, he has yet to see an NHL start. To flesh out their goaltending depth, the Sharks acquired Alex Stalock in a trade that sent future considerations to the Edmonton Oilers. Stalock is 34 years old, an NHL veteran and familiar face for the Sharks, but he’s certainly no James Reimer.

By virtue of circumstance, the Sharks are most likely going to be forced to start Sawchenko at some point. The question is, with Stalock in the picture and Hill’s recovery turning a corner, when that will be.

How much does the trade deadline have to do with it?

The NHL trade deadline is March 21, and without the playoffs to look forward to, it becomes an even more haunting specter for under-performing players and teams. Each game now affects a players’ trade value and/or presence on a team, and every win or loss will be factored into how San Jose approaches the deadline.

Tomas Hertl has yet to have his contract extended, although his camp are engaged in discussions with the team to do so, but with a slew of young talent and no playoffs yet again, it’s clear that the Sharks will make some sort of alteration to the roster in the coming months, in order to find their missing link. There’s no intention from management to stage a rebuild, so the next steps will be more about adding to the team than subtracting, but not sinking so much into acquiring short-term workhorse players like a playoff team might, either. Think of the Sharks’ current weaknesses — goal-scoring and defensive depth — and mid-range, mid-tier players who satisfy those needs are who they’ll be looking for. It’ll be a question of who will be given up in order to take those strides forward to ensure a playoff spot ... next season.

Bold prediction: It may be more wishful thinking, but I predict that Sawchenko gets the start, Hatakka and Jonathan Dahlen draw back into the line-up, and the Sharks win.