Predators at Sharks Preview: Forsberg and seven years ago

These teams didn’t exist.

The San Jose Sharks are back, baby! The Sharks are back. What’s that you say? Too presumptuous too soon? OK, well, the Sharks are on their way back? No, still? They have at least looked good lately, anyhow. We can stick with that. After beating the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild in two high-scoring games, the San Jose Sharks (6-10-1, 7th Pacific) are on just their second winning streak of the season.

During the Sharks’ last four games, they’ve been outshot at 5-on-5 just once (last night during a score effects-induced turtling) and produced two of the team’s three games all season in which the Sharks generated a higher share of dangerous shots (expected goals or “xG”). A lot of that is the fluff of moral victories, sure. Losing games you should’ve won while sitting in the division’s basement is like getting “I’m sorry” texts from your ex months after you’ve broken up: most likely too little too late, generally unhelpful, and does nothing for your future prospects.

Yet here we find ourselves, enjoying the weekend after two wins in a row, wins fueled by inspired lineup changes and unlikely heroes. Tonight, the Sharks host the Nashville Predators (9-5-2, 2nd Central), the same team that handled San Jose 5-2 in Nashville in October. Nashville’s record is impressive. Peel back the team’s layers and you find something slightly less convincing. Through 17 games, Nashville has taken 51 percent of all 5-on-5 shots (after adjusting for score and venue). That’s the league’s 14th-best mark or, hey, the 16th worst. You pick. They’re average!

If things get going for Nashville, the quality of shots the Predators produce will sting the Sharks. The team has generated the eighth-highest ratio of expected goals this season. Its offense isn’t firehose good, but Nashville does take a lot of unblocked shots. The eighth-best mark, to be exact. San Jose’s defense is still reintroducing itself to old friends. The team’s goaltending is shaky at best. Even spending a few prolonged minutes in a shot-filled defensive zone could prove fatal.

Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, Rocco Grimaldi and Mikael Granlund stand out as Predators who have been on the ice for a higher rate of dangerous shots than their teammates. Those four play on different lines, so you’re looking at a forward group that gives you at least one person to worry about no matter which trio is on the ice. Behind those four, the pair of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis have been the only defensemen to regularly keep pressure on opponents’ goalies.

If there is a major weakness in the visitors’ lineup, it’s that first-line center Ryan Johansen is currently being propped up by his wingers Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. How Swede it is to have linemates like that. If Tomas Hertl can give Johansen trouble the Sharks might just neutralize Nashville’s best scoring threats in the process.

Is this the start of something special?

It would be quite the turnaround if the Sharks found their way anywhere near the playoff race this season. If that dream is to come true, they’ll have to start climbing now. Shuffling forward lines gave support to those who needed it and removed burdens from the shoulders of others.

Radim Simek’s reinsertion along the blue line has been a blessing already. He plays defense even when Brent Burns wanders and, most importantly, has the coaching staff’s trust. If these groups continue playing well together, head honcho Pete DeBoer will be more likely to evenly distribute minutes. All of that will go a long way toward inching the Sharks back to the promised land and keeping them fresh for when they arrive.

But, it’s early in this new Sharks era. Two wins against poor teams might not mean anything. A strong performance against a better team might make a trend.

How good are Timo Meier and Hertl together?

Much has been made of Tomas Hertl’s early-career transitions between center and winger. Little has been said about just how well the almost-26-year-old has driven play no matter where he’s lined up. His new linemate, Meier, is a prolific shot-generator in the middle of a bumpy start. Playing these two together and moving the team’s remaining shot-drivers alongside captain Logan Couture has so far been a stroke of genius.

Up through the blowout against Vancouver, the Sharks’ offense was one of the least effective in the entire NHL. During the last two games, the team created dangerous shots at rates its rarely seen this year. If this kind of offense continues, the Sharks will rocket back toward the top of the league. Hertl, Meier, and Barclay Goodrow have been on the ice for a rate of expected goals more than double that of the next closest forward. Meier and Hertl have climbed onto the first page of the league leaderboard in individual expected goals. Teammate Evander Kane awaits them near the top of that list. Meier and Hertl together (and Kane) might drag this offense back to its former glory all by themselves.

Can the Sharks win at 5-on-5 again?

San Jose has outscored its opponent at 5-on-5 just four times this season. They won three of those games and lost the fourth by one goal. It kind of smells like we have a recipe for success cooking here. Against Nashville’s penalty kill, the Sharks will have to double their portion of even-strength effectiveness. The Preds’ 4-on-5 kill allows the 10th-lowest rate of unblocked shots in the league. Those shots tend to be harmless, too. Nashville’s man-down units allow just the fourth-lowest rate of expected goals.

It’s not easy to see a scenario where the Sharks either don’t draw many penalties or can’t solve the visitor’s defense during special teams. If that’s the direction this game takes, winning the 5-on-5 game will become that much more crucial.

Bold prediction: The Predators’ top-four defense group has mostly told buzzing forwards to buzz off. But just mix one part Yannick Weber or Matt Irwin with ice, and you’ve got yourself insta-offense. Those guys play against bottom-six forwards, so I fully expect Joe Thornton to get Marcus Sorensen a hat trick or something wild like that.

(Thank you to Evolving Hockey and Natural Stat Trick for the data contained herein).