The Pittsburgh Penguins (24-15-9, fifth Metropolitan) host the San Jose Sharks (14-29-11, seventh Pacific) on the second night of a Sharks back-to-back. The road trip hasn’t been all too nice, as San Jose has suffered from lapses of compete, endured losing battles and faced some of their toughest opposition through the month of January.
The Penguins blue line is finally healthy again, with Kris Letang and Jeff Petry back on the ice, the former who signed with Pittsburgh during the off-season. But with such weighted names out with injury for significant swaths of the season and only recently cleared, the Pens haven’t exactly had the run expected at the onset of the season.
At current moment, the Penguins are coasting the playoff horizon, having gone 3-0-3 in the past six games, five of which have gone into overtime or a shootout. Evidently, they’re showing some lethargy around the edges of the line-up. Franchise icons like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Letang have withstood the test of time — even in 2023 — but the supporting cast hasn’t been quite as strong as in recent years.
Recall the likes of deep draft enigmas like Jake Guentzel (77th overall, 2013) and Bryan Rust (80th overall, 2010) climbing the Pittsburgh ranks to become mainstays on the top-6, the most recent years haven’t yielded any gems of the production-value quality quite like in the latest Golden Age of the 2010s.
Instead, general manager Ron Hextall has looked to free agency, plucking Petry (once Shea Weber’s second-in-command in Montreal) and Rickard Rakell from the highest ranks of Anaheim’s forward corps, to punch up the star power. While these pick-ups have been serviceable (32 points for scorer Rakell and a 0.5 point-per-game average for defender Petry), they have a cost. The problem is this: with the pressure of making one last Stanley Cup push while the core remains, Hextall may be looking for a little bit more.
The trade deadline looms, as if on cue, but the coffers in Pittsburgh are empty. Tristan Jarry, Kasperi Kapanen and Jan Rutta — who command a combined salary of $9.45 million — sitting on injuries with no clear line-up replacements is just fuel added to the fire. On the other side of that are our Sharks, bless their souls, who with every consecutive loss seem more and more likely to part with one or some of the team’s most valuable stars.
The Sharks are having a difficult time lately, going 0-4 halfway through this road trip. In what may have been the biggest heartbreak so far, San Jose became the second team since 1970 to lose in overtime after scoring an empty-net goal, coming against the Carolina Hurricanes last night. The first team to receive that honor? The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks.
The second night of a back-to-back stands an opportunity for quick redemption. Pittsburgh have given up 17 goals in the past five games and back-up netminder Casey DeSmith holds a 7-9 record. But with the ways things have been going lately, we may just as well expect to see the Sharks’ latest rabbit out of the hat that pits them on the wrong side of history.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic may be available after missing last night’s game due to illness. New acquisition Jacob McDonald skated in Vlasic’s place against Carolina. In addition to Jarry, Kapanen and Rutta for Pittsburgh, Josh Archibald remains day-to-day with a lower body injury.
House of pain?
The Sharks are 7-3 in the last 10 games at Pittsburgh — in Civic Arena, and the newer PPG Paints Arena — since 2009, but dropped the most recent match-up, which occurred about a year ago and ended with a 2-1 Penguins’ victory. Prior to that, the Sharks possessed the previous three wins, but that was from 2018 to 2020. The Sharks were much different teams in those years. To be frank: San Jose hasn’t been this bad since their entrance into the league.
So what will it be? Another tally to the left in a what has been a relatively friendly building, or just stick with current zeitgeist of sucking at all costs? I’d opt for the former, and leave the heartbreak for the Feb. 14 rematch at SAP Center upcoming. This team desperately needs a shot of serotonin.
The current slump coincides with cold-ish streaks from the team’s biggest stars. Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl and Erik Karlsson have a combined six points since the beginning of the winless streak. Goaltenders James Reimer and Kaapo Kahkonen have a combined .863 save percentage during that span.
Kevin Labanc was a healthy scratch for four games earlier this month, with inconsistency in play cited as a reason, but he rejoined the line-up recently after the departure of Matt Nieto. Labanc’s situation perhaps represents a number of Sharks players who sit on the roster fringes, constantly experiencing strings of starting and sitting throughout San Jose’s 2022-23 season. Jonah Gadjovich, Scott Harrington, Nick Cicek, Evgeny Svechnikov and Noah Gregor are others who find themselves frequently and uniformly on the cusp, portraying the point that head coach David Quinn just can’t find what he’s looking for.
Evander Kane’s tumultuous run with the franchise came to a close ahead of the season, but the beginning of the end was marked by the idea that he was leader in production for the team, but a negative impact on team culture. With the dissolution of his contract, plus a new coach and management, it was thought that this season could be the Sharks’ last hope for a fresh start. But the wheels are spinning in place.
So where does the fault lie? No one likes to play the blame game, but if the Sharks complete the winless eight-game roadie that they’re on track for, it’s almost certain that there will be some sizable changes in the line-up or a possible trade deadline deal on the horizon.
Is this rock bottom, or ... ?
This Sharks road trip that started on Jan. 21 has been more like a traveling circus, with each night featuring a new act — or rather, a new way for the team to lose.
Though some of the losses have been of the blow-out variety, as seen in Boston, there have been just as many defeats taken tooth-and-nail. Last night, the Sharks held the ‘Canes to just two goals on 29 shots with less than two minutes remaining in the game, before Sebastian Aho brought the game within a goal. Three shots later and the game was tied.
#SJSharks have lost 11 games this season in which they led in the 3rd period (includes OT/SO losses), most in the NHL. #NHLStats #HockeyTwitter #SJSvsCAR— Darin Stephens (@SharksStats) January 28, 2023
The bottom line is that the Sharks have to close out on third periods, and specifically, the waning minutes of the game. With average goaltending absent a starter and a rather even goal differential, the Penguins may very well be opponents that the Sharks find a cache of early goals on, again — and the lead to give up. But with the dangerous Tampa Bay not too far away, the Sharks can’t afford to have lightning strike twice.
Bold prediction: One more heartache won’t make the heart break in Pittsburgh. 4-3 loss, but Michael Eyssimont will continue his ascendence with another goal and the Sharks will have something to build off of moving into Tuesday’s match-up.