Panthers at Sharks Preview: Yandle with care

Prepare for the emotional return of Sharks legend Mike Hoffman.

A win over the visiting Florida Panthers (30-27-12, 5th Atlantic) on this hallowed most irrational day of the year would give the San Jose Sharks (43-19-8, 1st West) seven wins in a row, extending the league’s longest active winning streak, and a three point lead over the Calgary Flames for the Pacific Division title and — most importantly — the honor of beating the tar out of the second wild card and taking a nap through the first round of the playoffs.

The way the rest of the season shakes out, though, makes that no guarantee. The Sharks and Flames both have 12 games remaining and determining which team has an easier schedule is no small task, so let’s look at them side by side:

Sharks v Flames Remaining Schedule

TeamGames remainingHome gamesPlayoff opponentsBack to backsAvg opponents standings points (03/13)Very cool and nice boys

It looks like the Flames have an easier path by a slim margin, but let’s dig in a little deeper; it’s actually even closer than it looks. Sure, the Sharks have two back-to-backs remaining on their schedule, but one of them is against the miserable Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks (man, that feels good) next weekend. The other is a home split hosting the Vegas Golden Knights and Flames the following weekend, so mark your calendars for that. Calgary’s lone back-to-back features a road game against the Winnipeg Jets on the back-end, a win the Sharks just narrowly accomplished on Tuesday and no easy one at that.

If both of these teams keep playing like they have been this week, that March 31 game between the two contenders could be the difference between a road to Vegas and a road to the Cup. My palms are sweating just thinking about it.

Tonight, the Sharks face a team that should present little challenge compared to the high-flying Jets. The Panthers, while boasting one of the league’s top offensive lines, have struggled lately and all season, sitting nine points and three teams back of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot. All of that may be academic in an Atlantic Division led by the NHL’s very own Harlem Globetrotters: the Tampa Bay Lightning.

While Florida has won their last two contests (dominant affairs against the Minnesota Wild and Detroit Red Wings), it seems like a small blip after losing six before that (only two in regulation, so there’s hope!). We’re deep into the portion of the season where half of the teams are playing games that don’t matter to their immediate future at all and the Panthers are one of those teams. That makes them dangerous. Sandwiched between Tuesday’s Jets and Saturday’s Nashville Predators, this Cats squad looks like a classic play-down-to-your-competition-shorks trap game.

The Panthers will be hungry, having just tasted victory for the first time in some time, most recently in a 6-1 obliteration of the oft-obliterated Red Wings. It marked only the fifth time in franchise history that the Cats have scored six goals in two consecutive games (Sunday against Detroit and Friday in a 6-2 win over the Wild). The Panthers dominated play from the first shift, outshooting their visitors 15-3 (yes, three) in the first period and 43-20 over the full 60.

Luckily for Sharks fans, both Dryden Hunt and Josh Brown tallied their first NHL goals against Detroit, getting them out of the way a few days earlier than fate would have likely preferred.

The Sharks' win over the Jets on Tuesday was one of the more entertaining games of the season and held no small share of drama. The Sharks lost Radim Simek to injury early, Jamie Baker gave a powerful and emotional insight into his personal leave last season, Gustav Nyquist scored his first two real goals as a Shark, Joe Thornton passed Stan Mikita for sole possession of 14th place in all-time NHL points, Marc-Edouard Vlasic dominated 200 feet of ice and tallied a goal and three points and Joe Pavelski scored the game-winning goal with 3.8 seconds on the clock. I’m still exhausted and I don’t even remember the Jets.

Pavelski’s game-winner was his 37th goal of the season, getting dangerously close to his career best 41 in 2013-14. That will almost definitely lead to some uncomfortable conversations across Doug Wilson’s patented Contract Signing Desk, but for now, let’s just enjoy Captain America’s power. Unfortunately, the Flames dismantled the New Jersey Devils with six (6) third period goals en route to a 9-4 final that very same night, so no ground was gained.

Thornton is now the 13th leading scorer in NHL history and tonight he’ll take sole possession of 13th in total games played, as his 1555th game will surpass Jarome Iginla on the longevity list. The number of Sharks players scoring at a career pace is reaching a critical mass: Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc and many more where that came from. The Sharks are soaring, even without Erik Karlsson and Evander Kane in the lineup and, when the EKs return for the playoff push (if not sooner), the Sharks will be nigh unstoppable.

Tonight, though, the Sharks have to take care of business and avoid the fate visited upon them the last time these two teams met back in January. That game, a 6-2 whipping in Sunrise, turned largely on an accidental (we hope) high stick that Kane delivered, allowing the Cats to score two power play goals nine seconds apart to pretty much sink the whole friggin’ thing. It was the Panthers’ third straight win and the Sharks’ third straight loss, magnifying the impact of the absences of both Karlsson and Vlasic.

Calgary is idle tonight, waiting to play the New York Rangers tomorrow, so a win would give the Sharks a three-point lead in the division. That kind of comfort would go a long way toward locking up the preferable seeding, and helping me sleep better. Do me a favor fellas, put these Cats in their place.

How do the Sharks salvage a ravaged blue line?

With Simek’s injury Tuesday night, the Sharks are now down two minute-munching defensemen for the foreseeable future. While news about Simek seems optimistic at first glance, it stops short of offering any details or timetable for his treatment or return:

The Sharks’ depth has stepped up recently, though, with Kane’s absence not seeming to slow down the forward group. Meier and Hertl both have seven-points in seven-game point streaks, and the team’s third line of Nyquist, Marcus Sorensen and Thornton may be among the league’s most dangerous depth trios. With Joakim Ryan waiting patiently in the wings, expect him to spend some time with Brent Burns for a few games and, hopefully, fill Simek’s already large shoes.

What’s going on the Florida crease?

The reign of the ageless wonder Roberto Luongo in the Panthers’ crease may be prime for usurpation. That usurper’s name? Samuel Montembeault (mon-tem-bo). After being recalled from the AHL on Feb. 27 to spell the injured former Shark James Reimer, Montembeault has taken the league the division Florida almost fifteen percent of Florida by storm, winning the hearts of dozens. Even that may be hyperbolic, as the 22-year-old’s .904 save percentage in three games may not strike fear into the hearts of Sharks forwards, but in two starts (the aforementioned dominations of the Wild and Red Wings) Montembeault has posted a .936 at all strengths and a high danger save percentage of .889, second in the league among goaltenders who have started their last two games. It’s about as small as sample sizes get, but the youngster is making a case for more time in what has become yet another lost season, desperate for a hopeful narrative.

Does one line a hockey team make?

Well, no.

But the Cats’ top line, while not enough to alter their season-long fortunes, is plenty enough to give the Sharks fits in one horrifying night. The top trio of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov has been the best combination in the league for the past month. Barkov and Huberdeau lead the league in scoring since Feb. 17 with 24 and 22 points in 13 games, respectively, including a goal and an assist each on Sunday. Barkov, the team captain and perennially underrated superstar, leads his squad with 77 points, one shy of his career high, and his 30 goals is already a career best. Huberdeau was named the NHL’s first star of the week ending last Sunday, has already cleared his career points total with 74 and is one assist shy of tying Victor Kozlov for most in Cats history at 53.

Vlasic will need to have another transcendent performance tonight to keep these kids at bay, but if he can, the Sharks can almost definitely handle Florida’s anemic scoring depth: only five Panthers have scored 40 points, compared to San Jose’s nine. Shut down Barkov, and you shut down the Panthers.

Bold Prediction: The Sharks cannot silence Barkov, at least, not completely. Sasha scores a goal and adds two assists, but the Sharks’ middle-six is too much for the little kittens, and the home squad wins their seventh in a row, 5-3.

The Sharks stay home to greet the visiting Nashville Predators on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., while the Panthers head South to meet the Kings earlier that same day, at 1 p.m.