Flames at Sharks Preview: Light ‘em up at home

The Flames will be a tough opponent for the Sharks, who are looking to snap another looming losing streak

The Calgary Flames are sitting at the top of the Pacific Division, with a 15-5-5 record, compared to the San Jose Sharks, who have been oscillating between the fourth and fifth position lately in the same division. The Flames are energetic, physical and full of fire, and will be a tough opponent for the Sharks, who will be looking to snap another looming losing streak.

The Flames’ last game was a 3-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. Goaltending has been a strong suit, with both Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar’s save percentages above a stellar .930, and forward Johnny Gaudreau leads his team with 28 points (9 goals, 19 assists) in 25 games.

Most of the Sharks’ games have been against teams outside of the division, so this will be an important rematch to show whether or not the Sharks can handle one of the best teams in the Pacific.

Can the Sharks bounce back?

After a burst of speed and three wins to start their five-game road trip, the Sharks finished it out with two frustrating losses, first in New York against the top-rated New York Rangers, and then again against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The reason those losses were particularly aggravating (especially to head coach Bob Boughner) is that for the most part, the Sharks were doing everything right. For the majority of those games, the Sharks were in control, with their puck possession and management looking as seamless as it ever has.

The problem is that tiny mistakes — little defensive miscues behind their own net, bad passes through traffic, miscommunication — can, and have cost them games. With the Sharks, it’s all about consistent energy. They’re not the most skilled, or fastest, or flush with generational talent. But what they can do is outwork a team, and that grinding, 60-minutes on their toes, full tilt hockey, when they’re showing up for each other on the ice and working hard in the corners is the winning formula.

The Sharks believe in themselves, and the locker room is confident and cohesive. The team can absolutely bounce back, but it relies on a true team effort rather than an individual performance from under-performing players.

What’s up with the Sharks’ scoring?

Okay, so I just said that if the Sharks are going to win, they have to win as a team. But there are a few players who have gotten off to slow starts, and it’s affecting the Sharks’ ability to consistently roll all four lines and rely on each for scoring. Nick Bonino has rediscovered his scoring touch, and he, Andrew Cogliano, and Matt Nieto are, for the most part, performing as expected, although I’m sure a slight uptick in offensive production would be appreciated.

The players who have been struggling slightly are stalwarts on the second line: Tomas Hertl and Rudolfs Balcers. Hertl and Balcers are fantastic players, and a slow season start doesn’t mean that they’re never going to reach that consistent goal-scoring pace. They’ve both been producing in ways for the team, just not as often as expected.

Hertl is third in points for the Sharks, with 14 points (9 goals, 5 assists) in 25 games, but the issue is consistency. Hertl will be the difference-maker in key moments but then can go whole games being virtually invisible. His plus/minus shows it, with a -7.

Balcers is the same way. Tons of potential and talent, but he has yet to hit his stride this season. He’s currently out with an undisclosed lower-body injury and is questionable for the game, but I have to wonder if the second line would have been switched up regardless, to try to get Hertl and Balcers going. Alexander Barabanov has been better than advertised, and despite the loss, he looked good together with Hertl and Noah Gregor in the last game.

Can Adin Hill hold down the fort?

Even without Adin Hill’s dwindling save percentage, currently, .901, which is better than it has been, James Reimer was the clear starter. Unlike some coaches, Boughner is a big fan of pre-selecting his goaltenders ahead of games, especially for road trips. Hill was never meant to start in the last three games of the road trip, but because Reimer was under the weather and slated to start against the Flames, Boughner wanted to give him a few more days. And Hill earned his second start after a fantastic performance against the Islanders.

Once you get over Hill’s uncanny ability to let in the first goal, Hill has the capability to be an NHL starter with some more experience under his belt, and so it’s important to give him enough NHL ice time to ensure his continued development. But by the Sharks’ last game against the Blue Jackets, the wheels were falling off.

It was the sort of game where you would expect a coach to pull the goaltender, but circumstances being as they were, Hill played out the rest of the game for the 6-4 loss. In practice this morning, Alexei Melnichuk was called up, signaling Reimer may still be feeling unwell. Expect to see Hill in net more than a typical 1A/1B goaltending tandem would play the back-up for the time being.

Bold prediction: It’s tough to bet against the first place team, plus it’s the Sharks’ first game back after their road trip. They’ll lose, but the pieces will be there for a string of home wins after.