Sharks at Ducks Preview: Once more into the breach

See you in September.

The San Jose Sharks (12-20-7, seventh Pacific) end the bye week against Southern California rival, the Anaheim Ducks (11-24-4, eighth Pacific). This will be the fourth and final game of the regular season between these teams. Anaheim has won two of them, 6-5 and 5-4, both in a shootout. San Jose won 6-1 in the last game at Honda Center, securing Eetu Makiniemi’s first career win in his first NHL start.

The Sharks won against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, allowing Chicago to score twice before scoring five unanswered goals to further bury the ‘Hawks in the standings. Prior to San Jose’s win against the moribund Blackhawks, they had lost six of seven with the only win coming against a Minnesota Wild team that was looking forward to getting home for the holidays.

Anaheim is coming off a 2-0 shutout of the Dallas Stars on Wednesday night. John Gibson was perfect with 35 saves, while Adam Henrique and Mason McTavish scored in the first period and the team held on for a win against the best team in the Central Division. After a very poor start to the season, the Ducks are starting to find their stride a bit. The team has gone 4-5-1 over the last 10 games, with wins against the Stars, Vegas Golden Knights, Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens.

In the chase for Bedard, the Sharks are sitting five points behind the Ducks, each team playing its 40th game of the season. San Jose will need to try to gain some ground, but the schedule will toughen up soon, with an upcoming extended East Coast swing and several tough home match-ups. The Ducks will be going on a mini East Coast trip, but also have several winnable games against the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets coming up. Watch for the Sharks to make a move up or down the standings this month.

Radim Simek missed Sunday’s game and has not been seen at practice this week. Nick Cicek was recalled from the San Jose Barracuda, so don’t expect to see Simek this weekend. Nikolai Knyzhov has been seen at practice wearing a normal practice jersey. His original timetable to return from an Achilles tear was February and it looks like he is well ahead of schedule. Knyzhov will likely get a conditioning stint in the AHL, where he can play for 14 days and isn’t subject to waiver claims. He would still count against the Shark’s roster and cap during this time.

Ducks forward Derek Grant has been considered day-to-day since Dec. 5, and Jamie Drysdale and Isac Lundestrom are both on injured reserve.

The return of Hertl and Meier

Based off recent practice reports, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier (Kevin Labanc is there too) are expected to play together on Friday. The pair have been an absolute force, with Meier currently on pace to smash his career high of 35 goals that he set last season.

Hertl hasn’t seen the same goal production that he did last season when he potted 30 goals for the second time in his career, but sits just under a point-per-game pace right now, which would have him flirting with a career-high 80 points. Hertl’s underlying metrics are much better this season — last year, he ranked seventh on the team with a 48.99 percent share of shots and attempts (Corsi for percentage, or CF%), but crossed the 50 percent mark this season, controlling play with a 54.41 CF%. Hertl ranked thirteenth on the team in total probability of all goals, shots and misses (Expected Goals for percentage, or xGF%) at 48.50 percent last season. This year, he’s up to third, with 55.62 xGF%.

Hertl got paid last year with a shiny eight-year extension and now he’s working on setting up his Swiss linemate for a new contract of his own. As long as both stay healthy (and playing for San Jose), they should be paired together.

Fear the Five: 5 things we learned in December

Special teams battle?

Anaheim’s power play has been abysmal this season, operating at 16.1 percent for the year. Over the last 10 games though, things have started to click a bit. During this time, the team’s notched six power play goals and are about middle of the pack at 21.4 percent. San Jose’s penalty kill has started to see some cracks, finishing the month of December with a 69.2 percent kill rate and the once mighty penalty kill fell to third in the NHL.

A key to improving is young studs Mason McTavish and Trevor Zegras developing and building chemistry. Zegras hasn’t made the jump that many expected of him this season, after scoring 23 goals and 61 points last year. He’s tallied 29 points so far, with nine of those coming on the power play. If the Ducks' power play can start to find its groove with McTavish and Zegras clicking, that could go a long way in Anaheim rising from doormat to berserker to finish the season.

While the Sharks' power play has been efficient, scoring at least one goal every game in the month of December except the Stars game, the penalty kill has to be worrisome. If the struggle continues against the Ducks, it might be time to panic.

Rust vs. Rest

The Sharks got a much-needed break following one of the toughest schedules to start the season — including opening the season on a trip to Europe and seven sets of back-to-back games out of the 39 the team has played. That’s 36 percent of games so far as either the first or second game of a back-to-back and that number will go up to 39 percent by the end of the weekend.

Will San Jose be able to establish their game quickly in the first and go from there? So far this season, the Sharks have outscored opponents 38-37 in the first period and the goal differential deteriorates by the period, with a -6 in the second and a -17 in the third.

The Ducks, meanwhile, have earned that -68 goal differential:

If the Sharks can play even hockey for the first period, they should be able to retain advantage as the game wears on. If the Ducks score a couple of quick ones early, the Sharks could be looking forward to a quick plane trip back to San Jose and a date with the Boston Bruins.

Bold prediction: The Sharks come out flat and give up a power play goal. They fight back in the second period, but the Ducks score late to win it 4-3.