Sharks at Blackhawks Preview: A visit to the Windy City

The Blackhawks are everyone’s least favorite team in the NHL, and the Sharks are looking for a bounce-back win.

The Chicago Blackhawks are everyone’s least favorite team in the NHL, if only for their organization’s deplorable mishandling of abuse allegations and toxic environment. Just a reminder, the Hawks are still in active litigation. They’ve also struggled on the ice and by all accounts are a terrible team, so for the San Jose Sharks, this is a winnable game.

The Blackhawks aren’t so bad that they won’t put up a fight, but with a 7-11-2 record, 16 points in the standings, and sitting seventh in the Central Division, the Sharks have to be feeling pretty confident entering the Windy City. The Sharks have gone 10-9-1 (21 points) and are fifth in the Pacific Division.

The Blackhawks are rolling with their interim head coach, Derek King, and are coming off a 3-2 overtime victory over the down sliding St. Louis Blues on Friday. Chicago’s point-leader is (unsurprisingly) Patrick Kane, who has 18 points (6 goals, 12 assists) in 16 games. The Blackhawks are, however, missing MacKenzie Entwistle, Riley Stillman and Stanley Cup winner Tyler Johnson to injured reserve. Johnson in particular is a huge loss to the team’s offense.

Marc-Andre Fleury and Kevin Lankinen have been competing for the net, although neither has started the season on the right foot. Fleury has been taking the lion’s share of starts (13 to seven for Lankinen) Whichever goaltender is in net almost doesn’t matter; the Sharks will need to test them early and generate more shots on net, regardless of how high-quality they may seem. You never know what a struggling goaltender might let in.

Any off-ice updates?

Doug Wilson, the general manager of the Sharks, has taken a temporary leave of absence due to medical reasons (non-COVID-related). It is suspicious timing, given the Evander Kane situation, though the event itself isn’t suspicious. Reportedly Wilson has been dealing with a lingering cough since September, and that was why he chose to step back from his duties briefly. I would assume, however, that he still has a hand in what will be done with Kane’s contract, along with assistant general manager Joe Will, who is filling in for Doug Wilson in regards to day-to-day operations.

As for whether or not Jonathan Dahlen will be back in the line-up, he is still listed as questionable for the game, and he did travel with the team to Chicago. If Dahlen does not make his return to the lineup against the Blackhawks, he will most likely be game-ready by Tuesday, when the Sharks visit the New Jersey Devils.

Who will be in net?

James Reimer is the undeniable starter for the Sharks and he is assumed to be in the net against the Blackhawks. While Adin Hill had a great beginning to the season and still holds a lot of untapped potential, it’s clear that he still has room to grow and is best suited for a backup role at this point in the season. Hill is confident on higher danger shots, but still struggles with softer goals. Without a steady defensive net-front presence in front of him, Reimer’s veteran presence and at one point league-leading numbers are a much safer bet than Hill.

While Reimer was pulled in the last game against Toronto, the move was meant to be a wake-up call for the rest of the team and was in no way a reflection on his performance up until that point. While Hill has shown he can be a confident and capable netminder in high-stress games, I think the Sharks will begin to transition Reimer to take more and more starts as the season progresses. Out of the 20 games the Sharks have played thus far, Reimer has started in 12 and Hill in 8.

Are special teams as bad as they looked last game?

The good news is that the penalty kill for the Sharks is just as good as you think it is, and at one point, the Sharks had the best penalty kill in the NHL. Their penalty kill success rate has dropped slightly against teams with strong power plays, such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, but so far their penalty kill isn’t something they have to worry about.

The bad news is that their power play has languished in the standings the past few games. The power play isn’t in freak-out territory yet (it’s just a few points below league-average) but a struggling power play can knee-cap a team, especially when they are down late in a game, the same way the Sharks were against the Leafs. Had San Jose been able to capitalize upon their power plays, it could have been a different result. However, the Sharks were unable to set up any significant breakout, which was less due to the Leafs’ defense and more a statement on the Sharks’ hesitancy and incompatibility.

I wouldn’t expect the Sharks’ power play to improve between their last game and today. It’s going to take some line shuffling to find a group that works — more than the extra time spent in practice.

Bold prediction: The Sharks shut out the Blackhawks, because anything less would be a moral loss and embarrassing. Also, I don’t generally condone fighting, but I think we’d all be okay with some physicality in this game.