Wild at Sharks Preview: Zucker punch

Two underperforming teams with well-regarded coaches and bad goaltending and big long contracts face off, but which is the real Sharks? Quick, ask them something only the real Sharks would know! Is it Micheal or Michael Haley?

For the second time in as many games, the San Jose Sharks (5-10-1, 7th Pacific) are presented with an opportunity to climb back to respectability by banking what should be two easy points against a struggling 11-point Central division team; this time, it’s the Minnesota Wild (5-9-1, 7th Central). While both teams sit in the seven spot in their respective divisions, the Wild are last, while the Sharks sit just atop the Los Angeles Kings, thanks to the Western Conference’s temporary asymmetry. In league standings, though, Minnesota sits just above San Jose, thanks to holding a game in hand over our good good local boys.

The Sharks are finally rolling, having snapped their five-game pointless streak with a dominant (mostly) win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, as Radim Simek’s return promises to save them from the ignominy for which they were heretofore destined. That’s right, the Sharks’ problems are over, for that win over the bottom-feeding ‘Hawks was the first step on a historic climb from nine points in 15 games back up to the playoffs.

Snark aside, a win over the bottom-feeding ‘Hawks is a lot better than a loss to the bottom-feeding ‘Hawks and, while the Sharks’ playoff odds are still slim, they’re less slim than they were two days ago, and we should take time to absorb the little victories. The Sharks need five more wins in a row to get back to .500, and their next five dates include four home games and three teams outside of the current playoff picture, so with some confidence from Tuesday’s win, racking up ten points in those games is improbable, but not inconsiderable.

And what a win it was. At the halfway mark of the second period, the Sharks were out-shooting the Blackhawks 23-3, which is good in that it showed an ability to play some of the defensively responsible hockey that had been lacking in the season’s early goings, but not so good in that it failed to address the club’s seemingly permanent concerns about goaltending.

Indeed, those concerns reared their ugly head late in the game, as starter Martin Jones, lover of drama, allowed two goals in 1:08 late in the third to bring the ‘Hawks within one. Neither goal was an egregious lapse on Jones’ part, but for a goaltender who has yet to post league average numbers over the course of a full week this young season, it left the winning team with some of the same old question marks headed into the locker room. Any time the in-house reporters have to scramble to remove your name from the top spot of their three stars ballot, something has gone wrong.

The return of Simek seems, though, to be going according to plan. To add to the team’s 29-9-3 record with Simek in the lineup last season, they now are 1-0-0 with him this year. He was hardly eased back into the lineup either: in his first game back after injuries to his ACL, MCL, and meniscus back in March, Simek recorded 20:35 of total ice time, third on the team to Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, both of whom received power play time. Almost all of Simek’s ice time was spent with Burns (Simek spent just under 30 seconds with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but that was likely due to dynamic change situations), the partner with whom he spent 82 percent of his even strength ice time last season, a move which allows the rest of the Sharks’ defense corps to solidify, and which allows head coach Peter DeBoer to finally banish poor Tim Heed to the shadow realm.

At forward, despite the absences of DeBoer favorite Melker Karlsson and CW star Dylan Gambrell, ice time seemed a bit more even, with fourth liners Lean Bergmann, Lukas Radil, and Noah Gregor bringing up the rear at around eight minutes, which may be explained away by their line being the only one with negative possession numbers on the night. If that kind of spread can be replicated against a one-line team like the Wild, the Sharks’ bottom nine should be able to capitalize.

That one line is the Wild’s top trio of Eric Staal, Mats Zuccarello and Jason Zucker. While earlier in the season, Staal looked like his late career resurgence in Minnesota was over, tallying just one assist through his first seven games, he hit a vein when combined with the Zs, and has recorded ten points in his last eight. The Wild are all but finished this season, and for the foreseeable future, but there is some youth and talent on this squad: beyond the top trio, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba make a formidable defensive duo, and Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon are not to be taken lightly either.

The Wild’s unenviable (trust us, we know) record is largely due to a miserable 2-8-0 record on the road, a trend that the Sharks can hopefully take advantage of tonight.

Has Bruce Boudreau lost his mojo?

The coach who is perhaps best known for regular season success and playoff failure seems likely to miss the playoffs for just his third season out of 12 in the NHL, fourth of 24 in professional hockey, and the second year in a row. Boudreau has won (deep breath) the Commissioner’s Trophy as head coach of the Fort Wayne Komets for the top coach in the IHL, the Jack Adams trophy as head coach of the Washington Capitals for the top coach in the NHL, the Kelly Cup as head coach of the Mississippi Sea Wolves in 1999, the Calder Cup as head coach of the Hershey Bears in 2006, and has a 0.640 point percentage over the course of 13 NHL seasons with three different teams, second best ever among coaches with ten or more years’ experience (Scotty Bowman’s 0.657 over the course of 30 years is madness). Just about the only thing he hasn’t won is the Stanley Cup.

So what’s the deal with the Wild’s current point percentage of 0.367? This may well be the worst team Boudreau has ever coached, and that’s saying something, but they’re not likely to sit at that point rate all season, especially with a bench boss with this kind of pedigree.

Which team’s goaltending can blow it up first?

If we’re holding up mirrors, we may be inclined to see Minnesota’s performance in net as a reminder not to be too harsh on their coach, but that requires more questioning of our own narrative biases than I’m comfortable with, so let’s not.

Still, after starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk seemed to thrive behind Boudreau’s defensive systems over the course of the last five seasons, recording a 0.920 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average in 317 games over that span, he’s been dreadful so far this year. Dubnyk’s 0.883 save percentage is better than just four goaltenders who’ve played more than five games, and his -6.33 goals saved above average is sixth from the bottom overall, just 0.2 expected goals better than someone whom I shan’t name for kindness’ sake, but whose name rhymes with Martin Jones.

Fancy stat heads have been pointing at Dubnyk for years as an average goalie benefiting from an above average defensive structure, and it seems like that structure has failed him so far this young season. He’ll bounce back for streaks, for sure, and he isn’t likely to lose his starting job with none other than Alex Stalock breathing down his neck, but the Sharks may have a real opportunity to juice their struggling 5-on-5 output against a team whose even strength numbers are similarly in the toilet.

Can either of these teams buck the cyclical nature of a salary cap league?

Struggling goalies and hot-seat coaches are not the only similarities between these two clubs: both are in situations that look dire for some time to come, on the down slope of their ability to contend, carrying long and expensive legacy contracts, but without the Cups to point to to justify their existence. The nature of any salary cap sport is one of rises and falls; teams build contenders to get as many whacks at a luck-filled championship spectacle as they can before falling back into rebuild territory, some teams win three Cups in six years while others don’t win any. The Vancouver Canucks saw their window close years ago, and are just now starting to crack it back open. The Sharks and Wild (and Winnipeg Jets) may be the saddest part of the changing of the NHL guard that occurs every season, and their cap situations look similarly dire.

Both of these teams should be desperately clinging to relevance this season, and both are probably doomed, but whichever one wins tonight can take one step toward a last gasp at a championship. And only one of them still has lottery hopes upon which to fall back if they fail.

Bold prediction: I’m feeling good about this one, friends! The Sharks pour it on early and often against a beleaguered Wild crew, scoring three in the first period (all from Patrick Marleau, because sports don’t make sense), allowing three in the second (because Jones has that nose for drama), and four more in the third, winning 7-5.