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Sharks at Golden Knights Preview: Glass half full

Before the season started, if someone were to travel back from the future, replete with asymmetrical goggles and a coat made entirely out of aluminum foil, and tell you that this meeting would see the San Jose Sharks (10-11-1, 7th Pacific) and Vegas Golden Knights (11-9-3, 3rd Pacific) just four points apart, that probably would not have come as a great shock. Nor would it that the Knights sat on top of that gap. What might have been surprising is that the NHL’s wildcard standings show six teams crammed into that four point slot (technically, the Dallas Stars have one more point than the Knights, but the Central Division is stronger than the Pacific, and standings are wacky, so they’re in the first wildcard spot).

That four-point distance means that, with a regulation win tonight, the Sharks could jump up to third in the division, passing Vegas with a tiebreaker due to having played one fewer game (assuming the other three Pacific teams lose later today (which they might (this division is a very sad one))). After San Jose’s recent demoralizing loss to the division-leading Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday, though, that may seem like a tall order to those members of the Sharks’ fan base prone to recency bias and histrionics (hi, hello, nice to meet you all).

That loss had good things to build on, though, good things that were largely undone by the sub-par play in the Sharks’ zone and by goaltender Martin Jones who, much to the team’s chagrin, repeatedly showcased his new move: falling on his face with his arms outstretched like a punctured wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man. The Sharks largely played well overall in the first period, recording 53.92 percent of shot attempts and 54.66 percent of expected goals at 5-on-5, but Edmonton’s early depth goals seemed to break the home team’s spirit, paving the way for Connor McDavid to play the hits at full volume and record three points (dude has 17 points in his last five games. Sometimes Connor just happens to people, you know?).

Tonight will determine whether that loss, breaking a six-game winning streak that briefly dragged the Sharks back up to a .500 record, was a sign of tragic things to come or simply a bump in the road back to respectability. Similarly, the Knights’ 6-0 win over the Calgary Flames on Sunday broke a five-game losing streak, and they followed it up with a confident 4-2 thrashing of the reeling Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, marking the first time they’ve won consecutive games in exactly a month. Does this mean the Knights have finally found the swagger that we all expected them to display from the off-season, or is it a brief window of competence in a lost season? We’re hoping both latters are true, and that these teams’ last two meetings won’t be a prediction of their next two.

It’s not the first time in the storied and illustrious history of the Vegas Knights that they’ve stumbled out of the gate only to straighten the proverbial wobble out enough to make the postseason: Vegas recorded an 8-11-1 record during their first 20 games of the 2018-19 season before winning 10 of their next 13 to land back on their feet. Of course, that season had the ready made excuse of Nate Schmidt’s absence due to his suspension for failing the league’s performance enhancing drug test being tragically framed and unjustly vilified. This year, they’ve no such excuse, unless we count Valentin Zykov’s absence due to his suspension for failing the league’s performance enhancing drug test being Russian.

There are reasons to believe the Knights will turn this around, though, and probably more of them than there are for the Sharks. Taking a quick detour down spreadsheet-head-watch-the-games-nerd lane, Vegas’ adjusted 5-on-5 shot share of 52.39 percent is sixth best in the NHL, as is their expected goals for share of 53.33. Tragically and symmetrically, their actual goals for share of 45.05 is sixth lowest, powered there by a seventh from the bottom PDO of 0.981, in turn powered by a fifth lowest shooting percentage of 6.93. It seems pretty unlikely that Very Good Players like Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Max Pacioretty, among others, suddenly forgot how to shoot good, so those latter two numbers are bound to regress upward. It only remains to be seen if they do so in time.

Right now, the Vancouver Canucks sit in the second wild card spot in the West with 24 points through 22 games, after cooling off from their very hot start and recording just two wins in their last ten. Still, that puts them on pace for 89 points, one fewer than the Colorado Avalanche’s 90 in 2018-19 that made them the lowest seeded team to make the postseason. In order for the Sharks to hit 90 points, they need to earn at least 69 (hehe) (Editor’s note: Nice.) of the 120 possible remaining points, a 94.3 point pace. That’s not impossible, and not nearly as daunting as it would have been two weeks ago; last season’s Knights and Dallas Stars both earned 93 points total.

The Sharks and Knights last met for three consecutive games at the very beginning of the season (one of which was both squads’ last exhibition contest) that saw the Sharks out-scored 9-2, putting up an adjusted 5-on-5 shot attempt share of 41 percent and an expected goals share of 36 percent. Some of that may have been attributable to the absence of Evander Kane, who was suspended at the time for abuse of an official in both squads’ final preseason game, but considering the ease with which Ryan Reaves seems to bore into Kane’s psyche, we can’t assume something similar won’t happen tonight.

A bounce-back from Tuesday’s debacle would be a boost to all our confidence in this team’s ability to turn this season around, and a vote that the Sharks can hang with the contenders in the league as well as its Detroit Red Wings less skilled squads.

Go get ‘em, fellas.

What’s wrong with Tomas Hertl?

After missing the end of Thursday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks and a less-than-stellar performance on Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings, Hertl appeared to exacerbate what was left of a mystery injury on a collision with Oscar Klefbom in the third period of Tuesday’s game against the Oilers. While the coaching staff and Hertl himself both promise there’s nothing to worry about, any concern about the Czech superstar’s health is massive. If Hertl is out for any length of time, it’s not hyperbolic to worry about the team’s season being fully lost.

Has Mark Stone found his mojo with Cody Eakin?

Stone’s ice time with center Cody Eakin has climbed over the course of the last few games: the trio they form with Jonathan Marchessault recorded third line minutes the night they were put together against the Chicago Blackhawks four games ago, and first line minutes against the Leafs on Tuesday. Generating chemistry with Eakin might be what unlocks Stone’s potential, as he’s scored in both of Vegas’ last two wins after going pointless in the six preceding games and goalless in seven. If Stone can become a threat again, Vegas could have three truly dangerous scoring lines, and their climb back up the division standings is all but guaranteed.

Does Marc-Andre Fleury fire coaches now?

One could make the argument, if one were particularly inclined to accept fun but spurious and myopic narratives (hi, hello again), that Marc-Andre Fleury ended Mike Babcock’s tenure with the Leafs with this save on Tuesday night.

You can see where this is going, if Fleury is making other teams’ coaching decisions, maybe he can do us a favor while the Sharks are in town.

Bold prediction: The Sharks get back on the horse: goals from Kane and Timo Meier prove to be the daggers in the third period as they power the visitors to a 4-2 win in Sin City. The tyranny of #2orfewer continues to wreak its havoc on all of our hearts and minds.

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