Stars at Sharks Preview: Taking advantage of lack of depth in Big D

Dallas is Joe Pavelski’s team, but the one-line team should allow for favorable matchups for the Sharks.

The last time the San Jose Sharks played the Dallas Stars, Andrew Cogliano was wearing victory green. It’s safe to say things are a little different on both sides of the ice than they were on Jan. 11, 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the pair only say each other once in the 2019-20 season, and did not meet in 2020-21, which only saw intradivisional play.

In the exactly 23 months since, the Stars have been on a bit of a rollercoaster. After a Stanley Cup Final appearance when the 2020 postseason resumed, the team started the 2020-21 season with a decimated roster. An early outbreak of COVID resulted in a compact schedule that was further compacted by storms in February that caused power outages throughout Texas. With no time to breathe, let along get healthy, the Stars were bumped out of the playoff race in the shortened season.

The 2021-22 season returned to as close to a normal season as the NHL could, and the Stars were determined to get back on track. That’s easier said than done.

Dallas sits sixth in the Central Division, four points out of a Wild Card spot. The return of the Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues to the division means the Stars’ only real chance at getting back into the postseason will be by the skin of their teeth. So far this season, Dallas has gone 3-3-1 against Pacific Division teams, and 4-7-1 on the road.

Needless to say, the Stars are frustrated. Coming into SAP Center tonight, they’ve been handed consecutive losses to start this road trip; first 5-4 to the Vegas Golden Knights, followed by a 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, getting shutout for the first time this season on Thursday.

If one thing is certain in Dallas, it’s that this is now Joe Pavelski’s team. The last time these two teams faced off, the only Stars goal came from what had once been the duo of the NHL, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but those two, along with Alexander Radulov, have been slow to get things going this year. Instead, it’s Pavelski taking the reins, leading the team with 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists). Winger Roope Hintz is also coming into his own, leading the team with 11 goals on the year.

The Stars are one of the older teams in the league, but the two 37-year-olds on the roster in Pavelski and veteran defender Ryan Suter — who signed a four-year deal with the team in free agency after being bought out of the 13-year contract he signed with the Minnesota Wild in 2012 — are huge pieces of the Stars’ success. Suter has tallied 14 points (3 goals, 11 assists) so far this season.

That said, the Stars will need more effort from their depth. The team has a net 0 goal differential and the shutout by the Kings will start to become a trend if the team can’t get more scoring.

Give up giving up the first goal

If Sharks fans have visceral reactions to goaltender Adin Hill continuing the allow the first goal early on, it’s because we have been conditioned by years of watching Martin Jones do exactly that. And if fans have that reaction, I can’t imagine there isn’t some sort of familiarity with veteran Sharks players too (Alexa, play “That Funny Feeling” by Bo Burnham).

But not only is Hill not Jones, the Sharks are different now too. The rallying effort of the last few games has had varying levels of success, but the fact that it exists is proof enough that this Sharks team is not going to lay down and get rolled over just because they allowed the first goal.

Still, it won’t hurt for the Sharks to strike early. Get that momentum early on, so that as the game goes on, they don’t necessarily have to maintain that offensive pace for 60 minutes to pull themselves out of the hole.

Better matchups at 5-on-5

An advantage of the Stars struggling right now is that their line-up is being moved around, in attempts to elevate scoring in the bottom-six. Tyler Seguin is centering the team’s third line and if Sharks head coach Bob Boughner line-matches the way he has been, I imagine Tomas Hertl’s second line will share a lot of ice time with them.

The last two games have highlighted how matchups can make or break the Sharks’ third line of Nick Bonino, Andrew Cogliano and Matt Nieto. Looking at the Stars’ bottom-six, the speed we saw in the bottom-half of the Wild’s line-up isn’t present, which should allow for better offensive opportunities for the Sharks’ bottom-six. Seguin can turn on the jets, and will be a sneaky skater to watch out for, but the depth matchups look more favorable for the Sharks in this game.

Getting better defense from the defense

If we can’t clone Mario Ferraro, the Sharks simply need more of their defenders to defend.

Jacob Middleton had a particularly rough outing against the Wild, and has struggled to defend next to offensive power house Erik Karlsson, resulting in Karlsson being forced into more defensive situations, which is not ideal for a Norris-caliber defenseman.

Part of this also means the Sharks need to take fewer penalties, to keep their defensive players from being exhausted and overwhelmed. Having multiple offensive-minded players on the blue line is a gift the Sharks have long struggled to figure out. The defense needs to be tighter and it needs to start with the players who are expected to hold down the ice while their opponent wheels the puck around. The Stars are going to be desperate for a goal, and the Sharks have to be able to shut them down.

Bold Prediction: I think we’re due for a goaltending showdown. A 1-1 game will go to a six-round shootout, where Pavelski nets the only shootout goal for Dallas, and the Sharks take a 2-1 shootout win.