Sharks at Oilers Preview: A Hitch in time saves nine

Well, it saved eight so far.

The San Jose Sharks (20-12-7, 2nd Pacific) start a tidy little three-game New Year’s road trip tonight with a visit with the Edmonton Oilers (18-16-3, 6th Pacific). While the Oilers seemed to be revitalized by the firing of former Sharks head coach Todd McLellan and the subsequent hiring of the NHL’s third all time winningest coach and slowly melting popsicle of himself, Ken Hitchcock, they’ve fallen off of that hopeful wagon as of late, dropping five of their last six.

For a while, Hitch’s record with the Oilers promised to be more than the dreaded dead cat bounce, instilling a sense of defensive responsibility and structure that made the Oilers look respectable, and goaltender Mikko Koskinen look elite. In Hitchcock’s first 11 games behind the Edmonton bench, the Oilers were 8-2-1, compared to McLellan’s 9-10-1 start, and hope blossomed eternal. Their 1-4-1 stretch since then has soured that optimism, and the Oilers come into tonight two points out of the playoff picture after losing their last four in regulation.

Among the MVPs of the Oilers temporary season turnaround sits Koskinen, a KHL import whose play in the back up role earned him a starting job over apparent lame duck Cam Talbot. Koskinen’s .949 Save Percentage (SV%) at 5-on-5 in eight starts led the NHL during that span (among goalies with at least 150 minutes played), and his play saved 6.28 goals above average, also atop the league. Since then, however, Koskinen has rocketed back to the other extreme: 29 NHL goalies have played at least 150 minutes of their team’s last six games. Of those, Koskinen’s .906 SV% ranks 28th, just above Chicago’s Cam Ward and just below San Jose’s ... oh.

Koskinen’s troubles came to a head at home against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night. Vancouver scored on four of their six first period shots, and Edmonton’s crease sported a shiny new Talbot when the horn sounded to start the second. Talbot stopped all 14 shots he faced for the remainder, but it was not enough, as the Oilers could only manage to slip two past Jacob Markstrom. Further solidifying the extent to which Connor McDavid drives the Alberta club, he has recorded an assist on their last five goals, including both against the Canucks.

To further compound the Oilers’ woes, the Sharks welcome back Erik Karlsson tonight, after serving a two-game suspension for a hit to the head of Los Angeles’ Austin Wagner. San Jose’s win over the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday ended a three-game losing streak, so they’re surely hoping that Karlsson’s return can help them to build a new and happier one.

Thursday’s contest between the Sharks and Ducks was a chippy affair that highlighted, among other things, the dominance of one Brent J. Burns. Scoring the game winning goal in his 1000th NHL game, Burns led the Sharks in ice time at 29:15, shots on goal with six and recorded three hits and three blocks, to the tune of much merriment from fantasy players. One hopes that Burns’ goal on Thursday opens the gates for him, as he had gone 11 games without one entering the evening, dating back to December 2. Barclay Goodrow recorded three assists, Tomas Hertl’s empty net goal was his 200th NHL point and the Sharks handed the Ducks their fourth straight loss.

San Jose and Edmonton last met in November, just hours after McLellan’s ouster, and the Oilers provided their new head coach an overtime win in his debut behind their bench. McDavid recorded a goal and two assists, Leon Draisaitl’s goal 51 seconds into overtime was his third point of the night, and secured the win for the copper and blue.

Let’s hope both teams’ respective streaks continue tonight.

Which Sharks skaters will McDavid most embarrass?

In McDavid’s fourth year as an NHL pro, we’ve all learned that it’s no longer a matter of if he will do something incredible, but when. McDavid has recorded 310 points in 245 games, and this season it is even more obvious that the Oilers’ offense drives through him: with 54 points this season, the captain has registered a point on over half of Edmonton’s 104 goals to date, including assists on the team’s last five. With Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer debuting new lines every four shifts, it’s hard to predict who will draw the unenviable task of containing the phenom (other than Marc-Edouard Vlasic, of course) but they are sure to have their hands full.

Upon whom is bestowed the McDavid’s blessing?

McDavid’s wings have been a rotating cast since his draft day, but lately Draisaitl seems to have solidified his position on the young Canadian’s right. His left, however, is still a mystery. A who’s who of fringe relevant scoring wingers including Ty Rattie, Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Tobias Rieder, Ryan Spooner and, most recently, Alex Chiasson have skated alongside the captain, and that’s just this season. Chiasson had played well on the top line, and seemed to have crafted some chemistry there, until he absorbed an Adam Larsson slap shot with his right knee and left Thursday’s game in the first period. Chiasson has since been placed on injured reserve, leaving the sweet spot up for grabs. Will Hitch go back to one of McLellan’s experiments? One would think it may finally be time to give newcomer Valentin Zykov a try, but the Oilers placed him back on waivers yesterday, likely to make room for the return of Kris Russell. It’s been a precipitous fall for the highly touted Russian, who lasted just five games and three weeks since being claimed off of those very same waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes, but that is a story for another time.

Which Martin Jones will we see?

It seems like this is a common question among Sharks fans, as Jones’s play varies from game to game, period to period, even shot to shot. Thursday, Jones treated us to a great outing, making so many ten bell saves that he had to take a shot on himself just to see how hard it was to score. Still, as mentioned above, it’s not as if he’s suddenly figured it out — his 5-on-5 save percentage still sits among the league’s worst. If the Sharks are going to put together a real winning streak and separate themselves from the Pacific division pack, they’ll need Jones to play more like he did in the third period on Thursday, and less like he did, well, the rest of the year.

Bold prediction: McDavid does his McDavid things, and records two goals, and two assists. Sharks win 5-4 in overtime thanks to a three-point night from Timo Meier

The Sharks stay in Alberta to meet the Calgary Flames on Monday at 6 p.m. PT, while the Oilers concurrently host the Winnipeg Jets in their next at bat.

Note: This article was updated with information regarding the waiving of Valentin Zykov.