The San Jose Sharks (14-25-9, seventh Pacific) continue the road trip, heading to Hockeytown to take on the Detroit Red Wings (19-18-8, sixth Atlantic). These two teams played on Nov. 17 in San Jose in a back-and-forth affair until the Red Wings were able to score four goals in the third period to win 7-4. Erik Karlsson logged one of four of his 4-point games that night, notching a goal and three assists as the Sharks stormed back from a 4-2 deficit, falling short of pulling out a win.
Since then, the Red Wings have seen the season turn downward with a six-game losing streak right before Christmas. Detroit has hit a “soft” part of the schedule right now, but aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities, dropping games to the Arizona Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers — all teams below Detroit in the Bedard Standings.
One of the biggest stories coming out of Hockeytown recently has been goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic being placed on waivers. Coming off a 2021 Calder Trophy finalist season with the Carolina Hurricanes, he was traded to Detroit that off-season for veteran netminder Jonathan Bernier and a third-round pick in the 2021 NHL draft (Aidan Hreschuk). Nedeljkovic went on to sign a two-year, $6 million deal with the Red Wings.
The Ohio native has struggled in Detroit, posting a .898 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.41 goals against average (GAA) in 68 games. This season, Nedeljkovic has posted -11.1 goals saved above expected (GSAx), the seventh worst in the league. Between his play and his price tag, no other teams took a flyer on the young netminder, and he was reassigned to the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins.
Heading into this game, the Red Wings are dealing with a few injuries. Filip Zadina has not played since Nov. 5, after breaking his leg blocking a shot. Tyler Bertuzzi is day-to-day and doesn’t have a shot ... at playing in this game, since he isn’t practicing.
Matt Benning missed the Sharks’ last game with an illness. Injured defender Nikolai Knyzhov has been sent to the San Jose Barracuda for a conditioning stint. He can play with the Barracuda for 14 days before being recalled. He is expected to play with the Barracuda on Wednesday, as they visit the Henderson Silver Knights.
What’s the deal with Kevin Labanc?
Kevin Labanc has been a healthy scratch for the last four games. Head coach David Quinn said that they were not seeing the game the same way and that Labanc had “lost his swagger.” Labanc has totaled 10 goals and 15 points in 43 games this season, and seemingly had found a role with Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier.
Quinn is going to have to make a decision on the 27-year-old winger, who has one more season of his four-year $18.9 million deal. Usually, veteran players might be benched for a game or two to send a message to the player, but are given a chance to right their wrongs. Labanc, who is in his seventh season with the Sharks, still hasn’t had a chance to enter the line-up. If Labanc has lost favor with Quinn, could he be a surprise trade at the upcoming deadline, as a team looks to add more scoring to the middle-six?
A good offense or a bad defense?
Surprisingly, San Jose has been able to score (not including the Boston Bruins game) this season. The team currently ranks fifth in the league with 105 goals at 5-on-5 goals. The issue is that they are the second-worst team in giving up goals at even-strength, with 126.
The Sharks are more than happy to give up chances at even-strength and their goaltenders have not been able to bail them out. The Red Wings rank near the bottom of the league in goals with 85, but are middle of the pack defensively, only giving up 95 even-strength goals.
The question is this: can the Red Wings take advantage of the opportunities they are given, or will the Sharks netminder bail them out once in a while?
On Saturday, the Sharks were demolished by the Blue Jackets in the second and third periods by giving up 22 scoring chances (the Sharks posted 12) and 22 shots (the Sharks, 11). Offensive juggernaut, Columbus, was able to dominate the pace of play in these periods to help spark the comeback. If Detroit can copy Columbus’ formula and make San Jose spend a lot of time defending, the Sharks have shown they can’t do it on a consistent basis.
Time to worry about Hertl?
While every player goes through scoring slumps, Hertl is on one right now. He has gone scoreless in his last five games and scored one goal in his last 11 games.
Playing with Timo Meier has many advantages, but Hertl is clearly not the first option on the line, as Meier commands the shots. Hertl has become much more of a facilitator, tallying 28 assists. He set a career-high last year with 34 and could be on his way to match that before the All-Star break.
With so much attention on Karlsson and Meier when they are on the ice, Hertl should look to be a little more selfish and shoot the puck a bit more. His shooting percentage this season (12.8 percent) is a touch less than his career average (13.6 percent). He is averaging 2.36 shots per game this year after averaging 2.5 last year. If Hertl can start contributing more in the scoring department, it should ease the pressure off of Meier and Karlsson.
Hertl has typically struggled against Detroit, having only scored 1 goal and 5 assists in 15 career games. Now would be a great time for Hertl to remember his scoring touch.
Bold Prediction: Hertl and Meier both score, but the Sharks collapse late in a 4-2 Red Wings victory.