Sharks at Ducks preview: Kase Creek power play

The Ducks’ man advantage unit has about as good odds of success as we’d have at the casino, anyway.

Winners of four in a row, the San Jose Sharks (8-10-1, 7th Pacific) head south for one game to take on the Anaheim Ducks (9-8-2, 6th Pacific) tonight, before coming back home for two more as they close out the month with five of eight at home. To illustrate both how far behind the Sharks fell during the tragic mistake we call October and the difficulty of climbing in the standings in a league that gives out loser points, San Jose’s four-game winning streak heading into tonight combines with Anaheim’s four-game losing streak to place the Sharks three points back of the Ducks in the topsy turvy bucket of entropy that is the Pacific Division.

The Sharks seem to finally be figuring it out, likely due in no small part to the return of Radim Simek. Simek brings a sense of stability to the Sharks’ defensive corps (and is a pretty good player in his own right), a stability that has freed up the team’s forwards to the tune of 17 goals through their four recent wins. Maybe the combined ignominy of three of those four teams gives you pause as to the credibility of San Jose’s recent success, as the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and Edmonton Oilers combine for eight wins in their cumulative last 20 games, but three of those wins were over these Ducks, so even that bodes well for the Sharks’ fortunes tonight.

These Ducks appear to be nothing less than a disaster. Losers of four straight, the Ducks have just three wins in their last 11 games after racing out of the gate with six wins in their first eight. Recent absences of their two top defensemen, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson, probably contribute to their recent slide, but either could return tonight, as the team initially announced Manson would miss the Ducks’ recent road trip, and Lindholm is eligible to be activated off of injured reserve as of today.

Those two players, crucial though they are to Anaheim’s fortunes, were healthy and playing for the nine games preceding these last two, and the team could still only manage three wins, so even if both are back, which seems doubtful, the Sharks have another two points sitting on the table for them to take.

If the Ducks’ last game is any indication, those points will be sitting there right up until the final buzzer. Hosting the Detroit Red Wings is usually a nice respite in 2019-20, but not for the Ducks, who blew a two-goal lead en route to a 4-3 overtime loss to the Wings, pride of the bottom two Central division teams. After scoring two goals in under a minute in the second period and being granted a power play for a failed Detroit challenge, the Ducks had an opportunity to turn their recent fortunes around and hammer their lead home, but instead chose to drop that opportunity, and the rest of the game, to one of the worst teams in the league.

On the other side of the tape, the Sharks are coming off of a dominant 6-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers at home on Tuesday night on the strength of six different Sharks goal scorers and a Barclay Goodrow Gordie Howe hat trick (including a one-sided fight with Edmonton’s Brandon Manning, which immediately made Goodrow Connor McDavid’s secret best friend). The Sharks’ defense can still use some work, as they allowed an uncomfortable amount of decent chances from dangerous areas, but Martin Jones was up to the task (mostly) and six goals will carry the Sharks to a victory most nights (don’t tell Jones I said that, though).

On one hand, tonight bodes well for a streaking Sharks squad, setting them up against a Ducks team in free fall, but on the other, one wonders if the Ducks will be hungry to avenge their fowl and feathery brethren and will come out with some extra tenacity in front of their home fans. On the other other hand, that’s probably a dumb narrative device that’s only useful in predicting games that are already over: the Ducks are pretty bad and, four-game winning streak notwithstanding, the Sharks are still three straight wins away from .500, a mark only nine teams failed to meet last season, and four points out of the West’s second wild card spot. They look much better, but need to keep playing like they’re desperate and beat the teams that good teams beat.

To what ridiculous degree can the Sharks pad their penalty kill numbers?

As has been well covered here and elsewhere, the Sharks’ penalty kill unit has been a consistent source of optimism, even in the darkest of times. San Jose’s 91.4 percent efficiency while shorthanded is the best in the NHL, but according to these nerd numbers I found, some of that could be playing above their weight class.

Measuring by opportunities against per 60 minutes on the penalty kill, the Sharks are in the top ten in the league in shot attempts, expected goals and scoring chances, but just barely: sitting eighth, ninth and ninth, respectively. The success may be coming from a league-second-best and probably unsustainable 1.094 PDO, powered by a league-best 0.944 save percentage. If “league-best” and “save percentage” in the same sentence referring to the Sharks makes you a little wary of future performance, you’re not alone.

Challenges to that four-man unit may have to wait, though, as the Ducks come into tonight’s game sitting on the league’s second-worst power play, converting at just an 8.2 percent efficiency. In 49 opportunities, the Ducks have just four goals, three fewer than Evander Kane has had by himself this season. The Ducks’ power play has declined in productivity in each of the five years since they led the league in man-advantage goals with 56 in 2015-16, and they’re currently on pace for 17. That will probably accelerate with a hot game here and there, but it doesn’t look likely to happen tonight.

What’s wrong with Real Life American Super Hero John Gibson?

Gibson has been one of the best goaltenders in the league for years now, but so far this young-but-not-that-young season he doesn’t seem like himself. Since taking over the Ducks’ starting gig from Frederik Andersen in 2015-16, Gibson’s rank in goals saved above expected (GSAx) according to Evolving Wild has gone from 18th to fourth to first for both of the last two seasons among all NHL goalies. This year he sits 21st, with a GSAx of 0.25, pretty much average, allowing for some variance.

Yes, the season is still young, and the Ducks’ defense is injured and awful, but when Anders Nilsson’s GSAx is 0.56 playing behind the Ottawa Senators in five fewer games, there may be a problem there. As a Sharks fan, this may be an opportunity to pile onto the score sheet, but as an American, a down year for John Gibson threatens the very core of our national consciousness.

Which team is the real Anaheim Ducks?

Way back in September, we predicted a slight bounce back season from the Ducks that would see them gain a bit of ground on last year’s abysmal 80 point finish, but still miss the playoffs in a top heavy Pacific division. In October, they looked like they’d pass that mark by a mile, playing at a 93 point pace, but so far in November they look terrible again, and their point pace for this month to date is a difficult to believe 66. Which of those teams shows up tonight will tell us something, but the Sharks should still be in must-win mode, and neither Ducks team should present too great a challenge for a Sharks team that is playing as well as they have been lately.

Bold prediction: If the Sharks beat the Oilers by three right after the Oilers beat the Ducks by four, the Sharks should beat the Ducks by seven. Knowing San Jose’s shaky goaltending, though, they’ll probably allow at least three, so let’s say that the Sharks beat the Ducks soundly by a conservative score of 11-4, on the back of hat tricks by both Timo Meier and Dalton Prout, because this dumb stupid sport does not make sense.