Kings at Sharks Preview: A tight race for playoffs

Increasing goal-scoring will be a huge focus for the Sharks against the hot Los Angeles Kings.

The battle for playoff spots has begun, with the Los Angeles Kings (20-13-5, second Pacific) and San Jose Sharks (20-17-2, fourth Pacific) occupying the grey area of a potential Wild Card spot. The Pacific Division is notoriously wide-open, and the Kings and Sharks have been trading wins and losses back and forth to crawl up the standings, leap-frogging over each other every week.

Currently, the Kings have a slight edge in the standings over the Sharks, with just four points separating the two teams.

The Kings started the season at a more sedate pace, but as the season has been progressing, so have their wins. Out of their last six games, the Kings have won four, by a margin of at least two goals in every game, and some more. The Kings’ goals for are sitting at 18th in the NHL with 106 — just one mark above the Sharks, with 105.

Goals-against is another story. The Kings’ are sitting at around seventh in the league with 96, while the Sharks have 117, which places them as 21st. Goals-against is as much a team stat as it’s about the goaltenders, and with the Sharks having a recent string of defensive issues and goaltender injuries, it makes sense that the Kings, who are quietly solid in net, have been keeping their numbers down.

It’ll be a question as to who will be in net for the Kings. Jonathan Quick and Cal Peterson are the clear number one and two goaltenders, but back-up to the back-up Garrett Sparks has started in two games thus far. Quick is sitting with a .921 save percentage, while Peterson has a .904 save percentage. Either option could be in net against the Sharks.

Special teams are another story. They’re a significant point of weakness for the Kings. The team’s power play percentage is well below the league average (16.81 percent, with the league average being 20.22 percent), and their penalty kill is 75.49 percent, compared to the league average of 79.78 percent.

In contrast, the Sharks’ special teams have regularly been a point of pride. Their power play has dropped the past week and is sitting at 17.02 percent, but the penalty kill is the stuff of legends, with an 82.29 efficacy rate.

Timo Meier currently leads the Sharks in points, with 39 points in 33 games. Anze Kopitar has been turning back the hands of time and is leading the Kings with 33 points in 37 games.

When I asked head coach Bob Boughner what positive trends he’s noticed from the Sharks in the past few games that they’ll be looking to take into the game against the Kings, he pointed out that the Sharks have been playing fast, particularly through the neutral zone and in transitions, and how effective this speed has been in generating offensive chances and successful zone breakouts.

He also mentioned that the Sharks haven’t been giving up much defensively, and both speed and defensive coverage will be key against the hot Kings team.

The Sharks have won four out of the past six games, they’re hungry for a playoff spot, and all signs are pointing to this game being an equal match, which leads to some important questions to answer for the Sharks.

Will Adin Hill start his fifth game in a row?

Adin Hill isn’t necessarily the best after a string of starts, and with James Reimer only recently returning from a lower-body injury, the Sharks’ goaltending options aren’t plentiful. Sawchenko is a regular for the San Jose Barracuda, but he’s only appeared in one NHL game — his NHL debut — in relief for Adin Hill against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In relief, Sawchenko was solid, even in the midst of a losing battle, and his efforts posted a .952 save percentage. It’s a small sample size bolstered by all the anxiety and adrenaline an NHL start will give a player, so it’s unlikely he’ll make it off the Sharks’ taxi squad, where he was re-assigned ahead of the game against Pittsburgh, to start for the Sharks.

James Reimer was released from injured reserve ahead of the game against the Penguins, but it’s too soon to say how ready he is to be back on the ice starting games with the regularity he had been prior to his injury. He’s been skating in practice, but with just one more game left on this leg of the homestand, it might be worth it to give him another game sitting on the bench to rest. But, according to Boughner, Reimer is still an option against the Kings, depending on how he’s feeling.

How big of a problem is their lack of goal-scoring?

As simple as it sounds, goal-scoring really is the key to success, and ever since the Sharks came back from the holiday break, several players have been snake-bitten, with young stars Noah Gregor and Jonathan Dahlen included. The past two games against the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been losses only because of a lack of goal-scoring, which can be immensely frustrating for a team who feels as if they’re doing everything else right and deserve a better outcome than another loss.

Boughner said it himself; “If you’re only scoring one goal a game, then you have to be perfect on the other side of the puck.” Despite the team’s defensive game being a high point this past week, like Boughner says, “the margin of error is very small when you’re not scoring.”

Boughner specifically cited the power play as a spot that needs some TLC, and how an early goal to prompt momentum is huge for the Sharks. They’re spending significant time in the offensive zone, and are getting into traffic, but are struggling to fully capitalize upon rebounds and finish chances. “We did a lot of good things, but the only thing we didn’t do is score.”

The good news is that San Jose never quits, and they’ve been able to bounce back, period to period, even when they’re down a goal, which is more than can be said about Sharks teams of past. In the last few games, the Sharks have had a huge amount of high-slot chances — around 15 for the game against the Rangers, according to Boughner — which means the Sharks are doing something right in front of the net. It’s about being able to put it into the back of the net every time there’s an opportunity.

How important are the points right now?

The playoffs loom ever closer and though we haven’t hit the halfway mark in the season just yet, with certain fringe teams heating up, the points matter even more, especially for a Sharks team struggling with consistency. There’s a lot of hockey left, and there are a lot of positives to take away from the past few games, even if the team is going into tomorrow’s game having lost two in a row.

Boughner had this to say about the Sharks’ current play: “Anytime we get away from our identity is when we have some trouble, but if we keep playing like this, we’re in every game, no matter who we play, and giving ourselves a chance to win.”

At this stage in the season, points matter more and more each game, and the players are preferring to focus on the games they did win, and what they excelled at, versus spiral about their losses. As Mario Ferraro pointed out after the Penguins game, “We[‘ve] played two really good games” and “there’s a lot of hockey left.”

Bold prediction: Since it’ll be my parents’ first hockey game, I’m predicting that the Sharks will pull through for me and win, 5-3, over the Kings. There might even be a Tomas Hertl hat trick in there, just for fun.