Half way there, a look back and a look ahead
@ 4:00 PST
25-11-5, 55 points 26-13-6, 58 points 3rd in Western Conference 2nd in Western Conference
Second City Hockey
When the game between the Sharks and Blue Jackets ended last night in Columbus, San Jose sealed their forty-first game of the year with a victory. Victories haven't been rare lately, as San Jose has just one regulation loss (and four overtime losses) in their last fifteen games. Earning points in fourteen of your last fifteen games is no small task, and after a stretch where the Sharks looked utterly beatable, they've been been virtually unstoppable lately.
There have been ups, there have been downs. But all in all, the sum of those ebbs and flows has been positive. The Sharks sit at third in the conference, but are only three points behind Chicago and four points behind conference-leading Vancouver with four games in hand on each. If the Sharks split the four games they have yet to play, they'd be in a tie with Vancouver for the top spot in the West.
This half way point milestone gives us a chance to reflect upon the forty-one games played so far this season. There have been a few things that the Sharks haven't done so well, the fact remains that these things haven't had much of an effect on the season so far, at least from a points earned standpoint. For your mild enjoyment, let's take a trip down memory lane together. Somehow, I'll find a way to take 2.460 minutes of hockey (not including OT) and sum it all up with six bullet points.
We'll start with the negatives and move on to the positives.
Negative One: The special teams haven't been too special. Over the last few years, the Sharks have been heavily dependent on their ability to convert on the power play and prevent goals while shorthanded. This season, neither unit has been all too great, with the power play coming in at a 17.7% success rate (17th in the NHL) and the penalty kill sitting at an abysmal 76.9% (28th in the NHL). While San Jose has been able to survive these deficiencies so far, it's something that's not becoming of a team that's competing for a Cup.
Negative Two: On the whole, sixty-minute efforts have been hard to come by. The Sharks are second in the league when it comes to putting the puck in the net during the second period, with 53 second period tallies. However, in the first they've only put 28 past opposing net minders (26th in the NHL), and just 33 in the third period (24th). This may not be the best indicator of effort, but it's a good way to show that the Sharks have had trouble getting out of the gate. It's also a good way to show that the third period efforts have been a bit flaccid.
Negative Three: The top-six has left a bit to be desired. Martin Havlat is the biggest culprit here; his two-goal season coupled with a fluke injury makes him the poster child for disappointment. Joe Thornton and Ryane Clowe haven't been bad, but they are falling a bit short of high expectations. And Benn Ferriero, although he's scored a few goals, doesn't belong with the company of players he's been matched with so far this season. On the whole, it's been an average year for the top six.
Positive One: Things are trending up. It may be a factor of the all the wins clouding my judgement, but I can't find a single player who hasn't gotten better as the season has progressed. The special teams are improving slowly but surely as well, and the team is winning like crazy. The third and fourth lines have rounded into form, the defense is playing well, and the Sharks are getting goals from up and down the lineup. Patrick Marleau is on fire.
Positive Two: The goaltending has been incredible. Currently, the Sharks are fifth-best at goal prevention in the NHL, allowing just 2.3 goals per game. A big hat-tip goes to the defense, which has played excellent hockey as of late, but the lion's share of the accolades go to Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss. In 32 starts this year, Niemi has a 2.26 GAA and a .920 save percentage, while Thomas Greiss has been a fantastic backup; in nine games played, Greiss has a 2.22 GAA and a .922 save percentage. If Niemi keeps up this play, it would be hard not to name him the team MVP for the second straight year.
Positive Three: There are literally 50 more positives I can think of.
The Sharks get their first test of the second half tomorrow as they face one of their rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks. While the rivalry may have lost some of the sting that it held last year, this is still a great game between two great teams that should be a pleasure to watch. The Blackhawks are fast and dangerous, and the Sharks will try to use their size to slow Chicago down.
The Sharks may run into some issues doing that, however, as they'll be coming off a back to back before heading into the United Center... the second time they have had to do that this year. The schedulers are not too kind.
Still, a win is possible despite the circumstances, and I wouldn't put it past the Sharks the way they have been playing. It would be a great step forward for a San Jose team which has made so many lately.
Prediction: Sharks win 3-1. Goals by McGinn, Couture and Burns.