Red Wings at Sharks preview: So nice to Athanasiou again

Things haven’t been as bad as they’ve seemed for the Sharks, and tonight will show that everything can be OK again.

There may be nothing more like the San Jose Sharks than backing into a playoff position while idle amidst a season-worst five-game losing streak. Tonight, the Sharks (43-23-9, 2nd Pacific) will try the greatest trick they’ve ever pulled when they host the Detroit Red Wings (27-38-10): convincing the world that losing streak didn’t exist.

To do so, they’ll have to overcome their biggest obstacle to postseason glory. During the Sharks’ current slump, the team has taken the vast majority of 5-on-5 shots and created a higher share of scoring chances than their opponents. In that hopeful sign is not the blistering offense that has led the team thus far. Rather, the Sharks have relied mostly on their defense to drag them through this losing streak. During those five games, the team allowed the league’s sixth-lowest rate of both 5-on-5 shots and scoring chances against (Natural Stat Trick). The team still allows rogue scoring chances here and there, and losing Radim Simek’s defensive impact hurts, but the five skaters in front of goal have mostly played well. It appears no form of resolute defense can flatter a goaltending duo that has appeared hell-bent on saving just 86.8 percent of the shots on goal they face.

Together this season, Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have given the team a combined 31 quality starts, about 41 percent of the team’s 75 games (Hockey Reference). That means that 44 times this season, the Sharks have had to score a handful of goals or lose trying. The string of five losses is what happens when a team’s consistently powerful offense falls flat — as it has been since the beginning of February — with no signs of revival. Until now, anyway.

In the Sharks’ last six games, they’ve built a rate of at least three even-strength expected goals per hour or more (Evolving Hockey). For reference, the league-leading Carolina Hurricanes’ offense has pilfered the rest of the league to the tune of 3.11 expected goals per hour. There may be no brighter welcome sign for this struggling-to-emerge offense than the Detroit Red Wings’ defense. Paced by the likes of Danny DeKeyser and Filip Hronek, the Winged Wheel’s done nothing but kick up frictionless mud all season. In the month of March, the Wings have allowed the league’s third-highest rate of scoring chances and highest rate of unblocked shots (Natural Stat Trick).

Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Bertuzzi guide a feisty top-two forward lines. But relying on two fresh-out-of-college rookies and castaway veterans to fill in the blanks means Detroit’s offense has been as poor as its defense. To be fair, one may have said the same about the Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks.

There is no magical cure to reignite a trudging offense. There are no special incantations that revive goaltenders from the dead to recite. Instead, the Sharks must find a way to play as they have all season: behind an offense that littered the offensive zone with scoring chance after scoring chance.

Erik Karlsson is the team’s gamebreaker, and missing him for stretches surely makes everything worse. Even without him, and possibly without Joe Pavelski and Evander Kane — who were both absent from practice yesterday — the Sharks are deep enough and skilled enough to compete with just about any team in the league. They will need do so and find again whatever it was that sent them hurtling across the time and space of October-to-January leaving four, five, six goals at a time in their wake.

A well-rested team playing at home game against the damp blanket Detroit Red Wings should theoretically have no trouble regaining their previous offensive form, a form that seems to be creeping back as we speak. How this team reacts to a rough patch for their goal-scoring process will help signal what sort of prospects they have for a long spring.

What will DeBoer do with his fourth line?

Doug Wilson picked up Micheal Haley on waivers, and Pete DeBoer promptly played him for 14-straight games. During those games, Haley has been more often ineffective at driving play more often than he is helpful. His stranglehold on the final forward spot arrived at a momentary impasse when DeBoer inserted Lukas Radil back into the 12th man role. Though the fourth line of Haley, Barclay Goodrow, and Melker Karlsson has performed well enough together, they’ve failed to make much of an impact beyond how the team was already playing that evening. With Radil opposite Karlsson, the trio has routinely help elevate the Sharks’ 5-on-5 play. It’s clear Radil offers the team best bang for their buck on the fourth line. Soon, DeBoer should make clear who he thinks belongs there.

Can the Ryan — Burns pair learn to limit chances against?

So far, the reunion of Joakim Ryan and Brent Burns hasn’t been a disaster. It’s offered about what one might have expected: offense at the expense of defense. Much will depend upon how these two are able to limit opportunities against their helpless goaltenders. To date, the duo hasn’t quite figured out how to scramble the neutral zone and turn would-be entries away like the Simek — Burns pair did. The result, so far in their reprised relationship, has been to allow more goals relative to the rest of the team while together. The two have done so, miraculously, while also mostly enjoying an on-ice save percentage higher than the rest of the team’s (Natural Stat Trick). If this pair somehow figures out how to add defense to its already-potent offense, the Sharks’ middle pair becomes part of the solution once more.

Will the power play rekindle its love of goal scoring?

In the Sharks’ last 11 games, the team has scored just four goals in nearly 49 minutes of 5-on-4 power play time. During those 11 games, the Sharks’ power play has been an average unit generating shots and unblocked shots. They’ve managed to squeak out a top-10 rating in scoring chance rate generation, too. In any case, the current version of the man advantage has not produced results or good process (Natural Stat Trick). The unblocked shots opponents take against the Red Wings’ penalty kill are eight percent more likely than league average to go in (HockeyViz). If a team needs to score four or more goals per game, it will need its power play working better than the Sharks has recently.

Bold prediction: San Jose’s even-strength offense finds its footing again after a little time off. The Sharks’ don’t even need to fix their power play (yet) as they rattle off four even-strength goals behind standout efforts from Timo Meier and Gustav Nyquist in his first game against his former team.