Penguins at Sharks Preview: Mind over Maatta

Looking for seven in a row against the reigning Cup champs. Sorry, force of habit.

In another edition of the 2016 Cup Final Rematch Spectacular, the Pittsburgh Penguins (25-14-6, 3rd Metropolitan) come to town to take on the San Jose Sharks (27-13-7, 2nd Pacific) tonight. Both teams are riding high: the Sharks are on a league-leading six-game winning streak, and the Penguins having won ten of their last twelve games.

San Jose has struggled to make up much ground in the suddenly and unpredictably ultra-competitive Pacific division, despite their recent success. The Sharks’ rise through the NHL’s standings has been flanked by the Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights, and all three teams are 8-1-1 in their last ten games. During that stretch, the Knights had a seven-game streak snapped by the Sharks and the Flames have won their last five.

Still, the Sharks are 13-2-2 in their last 17, and the three aforementioned teams have created a lot of space between them and the rank and file of the West; the Anaheim Ducks and their active 11-game losing streak (whee!) sit 13 points behind Vegas, and have dropped out of a playoff position entirely, ceding the two wild card positions to the Central Division Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild.

Pittsburgh’s recent success has offered a similar prize, or lack thereof, as they try in vain to catch Joonas Korpisalo and the Columbus Blue Jackets for second place in the Metropolitan. A 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday did not help their case, as the Kings ended Pittsburgh’s league-leading road win streak at six.

Long term, though, the Penguins have much to celebrate. On Dec. 27, general manager and Pepperidge Farm spokesman Jim Rutherford announced a six-year, $30 million Christmas present for top line left winger and live action Beavis impersonator Jake Guentzel. Guentzel wasted no time proving his worth this week: sitting on a six-game point streak during which he’s scored five goals and ten points, Guentzel was named the NHL’s third star of the week. With his career- and season-second hat trick against the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 11 and the Pens’ only two goals in LA on Saturday, Sidney Crosby’s newest Chris Kunitz surrogate grown in a lab in Cole Harbour may just be worth the $6 million AAV starting next season.

Not one to be satisfied with small moves, Rutherford continued to solidify his team’s future into January, locking up backup goaltender Casey DeSmith to a three-year, $3.75 million contract on Friday. DeSmith showed his gratitude by allowing four goals on 24 shots in LA the next day, but the question of whether he or Tristan Jarry will serve as the backup to Matt Murray for the rest of the season seems to have been answered.

Back in San Jose, Martin Jones made 27 saves to hold the Ottawa Senators to one goal in a 4-1 win at home on Saturday. While Erik Karlsson’s recent historic assist streak was impressive, he has now gone two straight games without so much as a single point, so he’s a bum, now. We should probably expect Jones to start tonight, allowing Aaron Dell to face the much weaker (though not that weak lately, as long as nobody watched that Calgary game (who am I kidding, of course nobody watched that Calgary game)) Arizona Coyotes tomorrow.

The Sharks and Penguins have not met since playing two games in ten days last January. The Penguins laughed last, winning a 5-2 contest in Pittsburgh on the back of a 40-save performance from Murray and a hat trick from Evgeni Malkin. It stood as the third straight win for a Penguins club that was just getting going after losing a 2-1 decision in San Jose the previous week. Malkin is well primed to be a thorn in the Sharks’ collective side tonight as well: he has two goals and ten points in a six-game point streak, and is just four assists shy of 600 in his career.

Winning one game in January won’t heal the scars of losing four in June, but it sure wouldn’t hurt.

Can the Sharks exploit the Penguins’ power play?

Yes, exploit the power play. Pittsburgh’s 25.8 percent efficiency with the man-advantage is more than respectable: it ranks fifth in the league (for reference, San Jose’s 24.6 percent is seventh, not too shabby), but the unit has recently been under fire for its lack of defensive prowess. With one in LA on Saturday, the Pens have allowed a league-leading ten shorthanded goals. Head coach Mike Sullivan was nonplussed: “It’s just carelessness. It’s a lack of diligence in the important parts of the rink. Even though we’re on the power play, we have to have some conscience defensively.” The Sharks have five short handed goals this season, in the upper half of the NHL, but not within sniffing distance of teams like Calgary or Arizona. Maybe they can take advantage of the Pens’ overly aggressive man advantage tactics and victimize Kris Letang again tonight.

Should the Sharks be spending more time in the shoot out woodshed?

San Jose’s 0-3 record in shootouts this season is the worst in the NHL. It’s entirely likely that the league’s chosen post-overtime gimmick is just that, and that tendencies in the shootout are not something about which a team as well-balanced as San Jose should be worrying, but those dumb gimmicks are still worth points. If the Sharks had won those three skills competitions instead of losing them, they’d be tied for first in the division, an enviable position come game 82. The difference between first and second in the Pacific is formidable this year, as it means the difference between a first round match up with Vegas or with one of Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, or any one of the other Pacific also-rans. There will be more opportunities to shore up that record before we finalize the standings, and the Sharks would do well to capitalize on them.

How will the Sharks’ ever-changing lineup manifest itself tonight?

Like a shape-shifting Lovecraftian homonculus stalking the night and feeding on dreams, the Sharks’ lineup has changed quite a bit from day to day, shouldering significant absences like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, to lesser, but still noticeable ones like Radim Simek. Hot hand Joonas Donskoi left Saturday’s contest after the first period, likely due to a high hit from Mark Borowiecki. Donskoi returned for the final 2:15 of the first period, but not for the second period, probably due to the very stringent and serious and respectable NHL concussion protocol.

The Sharks welcomed Braun back into the line up on Saturday, and Donskoi skated at optional practice yesterday morning, seeming optimistic about his return tonight. Vlasic skated as well, but with a wrist injury, that is less of a positive step than it is with a concussion. We’ll have to wait until closer to game time to confirm Donskoi’s inclusion, but Vlasic may be a few days yet.

Bold prediction: The Sharks continue their winning streak and create a losing streak for the Pens. New Pittsburgh acquisition Marcus Pettersson gets on the board with the ice birds’ only goal, and Tomas Hertl pots two for the boys in blue. Anyone attending tonight’s festivities should know that Rutherford’s suite is very welcoming and is fully supplied with sliced grapefruits and hard candies in small glass bowls carved to look like leaves.

The Sharks get right back to it tomorrow with a visit to Glendale and its Coyotes at 7 p.m. PST,  and the Penguins have two days off before visiting those very same Coyotes on Friday at 6 p.m. PST.