Predators at Sharks Preview: Best in the West

The Predators will arrive on the second day of a back-to-back set for their second of three meetings against the Sharks.

The Sharks (9-6-3, 3rd Pacific) are back in action tonight against the league’s current top team, the Nashville Predators (13-3-1, 1st Central). The Predators are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, including a five-game winning streak going into their shootout loss against the Anaheim Ducks last night. More ominously, last night was their only road loss so far this season.

The Sharks overcame the Predators back in October, but it was close and high-scoring. The final score was 5-4 with the Sharks scoring three of their goals in the last period. Nashville has kept that tight-scoring pace, averaging 2.12 goals against per game, the fewest in the league, while scoring 3.35 goals per game themselves. While we might not see the same volume of goals as last time, Nashville’s league-leading +21 goal differential suggests they’ve had a significant edge in out-scoring their opponents, making this a tough battle for the Sharks.

The good news for the Sharks is that while not out-scoring their opponents as clearly as Nashville, they’ve been out-shooting them pretty significantly. They’ve taken the second-most shots on goal, with their 139 shot differential ranking third in the league. More shots means more opportunities and more time with the puck. It’ll be important for the Sharks to hang on to that tonight.

Though the depth of the roster struggled, the Sharks’ top line seemed to click in their last outing against the Calgary Flames: each of Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane and Joonas Donskoi scored at least two points in the win.

Get on the Power Play

Despite being an overall elite team and having some of the league’s best defensemen not named Karlsson and Burns, the Predators’ penalty kill is pretty bad so far, currently ranking 23rd overall. It’s as effective as that of the Chicago Blackhawks, who just fired their coach last week, and less effective than those of the Detroit Red Wings (25th overall in the standings) and the Los Angeles Kings (blessedly dead last).

The Predators allow a lot of shots really, really close to the crease on the penalty kill. The Sharks take a lot of shots really, really close to the crease on their power play. The power play may be the best way for the Sharks to get on the board against Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros.

Getting there could prove to be an issue, however: the Predators have taken 64 fewer penalty minutes than their opponents so far this season. The Sharks are still taking fewer than their opponents, but their -22 differential is a lot less of an edge.

Keep the Predators out of the zone

The Predators are obviously dangerous on the attack. Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Kyle Turris, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm all have over 10 points so far. Viktor Arvidsson is on Injured Reserve as of yesterday, but the Preds still have plenty of power on the roster.

The Predators have the fifth-best 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league, and their high danger shooting percentage is ninth (via Natural Stat Trick). So letting the Predators sit in their offensive zone seems like a bad idea.

In On the Forecheck’s game preview for last night, Bobby Misey wrote that the Preds “seem to generally do a poor job of setting up in an opponent’s zone.” That’s good news for the Sharks, but they can’t rely on past trends. The Predators have the personnel to be a major threat if they get that aspect of their game rolling.

Goalies need to step up

Both the Sharks’ goalkeepers are putting in below-optimal numbers so far this season. Neither goalie has an overall save percentage above league average — there are goalies I’ve never even heard of who are higher on the list than Jones and Dell. Backup Aaron Dell has a higher save percentage than Martin Jones, but has also seen fewer starts.

Jones is coming off a solid performance against Calgary, making 28 saves and allowing one goal.

Pekka Rinne leads the league in both save percentage and goals against average so far. Whichever Sharks goalie starts, he’ll have a tough time matching Rinne, but hopefully a solid performance will be good enough if the Sharks can get good offense.

Bold prediction: Kevin Labanc will get on the scoreboard. His name is fun to say/type.

The last meeting between the Sharks and Predators showed that the Sharks can win this match up. Make this one a reminder.