Sharks at Panthers Preview: Don’t go breaking Reinhart

What was once only a tricky road trip with a usual back-to-back in Sunrise and Tampa Bay has become a gauntlet of Cup contenders.

The Florida Panthers (30-9-5, first Atlantic) joined the NHL just two seasons after the San Jose Sharks (22-19-2, fifth Pacific) and the two teams could not have had a more different journey since. The Sharks have spent most of their time in the league staying competitive, only missing the playoffs a handful of times in their history, but the Panthers have only made the postseason a handful of times, never making it much further than the second round.

Surprisingly, both teams still have exactly one Stanley Cup Final loss — the Sharks with a slow burn to the eventual 2016 run, while the Panthers burned bright in their third season in 1996 and largely stayed out of the postseason afterward. The end result of no Stanley Cup is the same, but until recently, it wouldn’t be controversial to say that being a Sharks fan has been more fun than caring about one of the league’s more forgotten teams.

The last two seasons, however, the Panthers have slowly crept their way up the standings. The state of the hockey world has made it difficult to judge a team’s trajectory, but in the first full season since 2018-19, Florida is proving that they aren’t screwing around. That quiet improvement has bloomed into full-blown dominance, topping the league with 65 points and 30 wins through 44 games. Even dumping their coach in the midst of an eight-game win streak to open the season hasn’t slowed the club down.

Since the new year, Florida has lost just three times: twice in regulation during last week’s five-game road trip, and a shootout loss in Dallas early in the month. In 13 games during the month of January, the Panthers put up fewer than four goals just three times, twice resulting in a loss, and the other being a 2-1 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks. They’re currently on a two-game winning streak, scoring a combined nine goals against the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights.

The Panthers are continuing their legacy as the anti-Sharks by being everything that exposes the weaknesses in San Jose’s game. The high-powered offense could feast upon the cornucopia of turnovers San Jose provides, and risky defense could leave little between shooters and netminder James Reimer. Florida boasts 18 skaters with double-digits points, including Radko Gudas, which should be a crime. There are very few skaters on the team who haven’t gotten on the scoreboard when given a sufficient chance.

Last night, the team hosted the Pacific Division-leading Golden Knights. Though Zach Whitecloud put Vegas on the board first, Florida closed out the opening period with a tying goal, and laid on three more unanswered goals for the 4-1 win. Sam Bennett netted two goals, including the game-winner, while Aleksander Barkov notched a goal and an assist. Both players have been a force, in a three-way tie with Anthony Duclair to lead the team in goals, with 18 each. Bennett has already recorded two hat tricks this season.

Aaron Ekblad has also stepped up this season. The 25-year-old defender has had some bad luck throughout his career, but this season, he’s second on the league’s best team in points, with 39 (10 goals, 29 assists) in 42 games — fifth in the overall defender scoring race in points, and third in goals.

It is Cup-or-Bust in Florida right now, and what was once only a tricky road trip with a usual back-to-back in Sunrise and Tampa Bay has become a gauntlet of contenders.

Score early, score often

Have I given up on the defense? Pretty much.

The team just doesn’t have enough options. Half of the defense is aging, expensive or injured, while the others are inexperienced, replacement level, or Mario Ferraro and Ryan Merkley. Save Doug Wilson pulling a Doug Wilson (complimentary), I just can’t see a way out of the results of Doug Wilson pulling a Doug Wilson (derogatory).

Accepting that the defense is what it is leaves the Sharks with a team that lives and dies by their goaltending. The best thing the forwards can do to support their goaltender? Keep the puck moving at the other end of the ice.

The Panthers’ record speaks for itself, but breaking it down by situation, the team has only lost at home three time this season. All three of those losses came when the opponent was leading after two periods, which hasn’t been a situation the Sharks have found themselves in too often. The only option is to stay out of the defensive zone entirely and throw every possible puck at the net.

Special teams nightmare

If ever there were a game to stay out of the box, it would be this one.

Florida’s power play ranks 12th in the league, converting 20.7 percent of the time. It’s definitely not the strongest part of their game and it isn’t infallible — when looking at shots for per 60 minutes, the Panthers lead the league at 5-on-5 with 36.58 per 60, but they drop to 24th in the league in shots for rate on the power play, with 48.3 per 60 (for comparison, the Edmonton Oilers lead with 70.93, and the Sharks rank 20th with 53.88). Still, Florida has netted 29 of their 177 goals on the power play, and the Sharks’ penalty kill (83.3 percent successful, ranking sixth in the league) can’t slack off.

More worrying, however, is the Sharks’ anemic power play. Surprisingly, San Jose does not lead the league in shorthanded goals against — that honor goes to the New Jersey Devils, with 7 — but they are in a three-way tie for second, with 6. Meanwhile, the Panthers do lead in the league in shorthanded goals for, with 7 so far in the season. Not only are the Sharks not scoring on the skater-advantage, but they’ll be facing the team most likely to make them pay for being sloppy with the puck at 5-on-4.

If they can’t clean up the power play into something that is at least shooting, if not scoring, then the Panthers are going to take the special teams battle with ease. Probably best to just not draw or take any penalties and keep this a 5-on-5 battle.

Sunshine State Jumbo Joe

If this game has been on your radar, it’s probably because it’s the first glance we’ll get of Jumbo Joe Thornton with his new club. The last few years have slowly seen the leadership group in San Jose seek opportunities elsewhere, as former captains Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton have all left the Bay Area.

Thornton might hit the hardest of all, at least for me personally. The 42-year-old helped create the identity of the modern Sharks and his jumbo presence is noticeably absent in the Sharks’ locker room after joining the Toronto Maple Leafs last season. Because of last season’s structure around COVID regulations, however, the team has yet to face their former teammate.

Since joining the Panthers in free agency, Thornton has been living his best life, playing occasionally (he’s been in 22 of the team’s 44 contests so far) and providing 4 goals, 2 assists and good vibes. Three of his goals came on the power play. The Sharks had the cap space to keep Thornton around in that same limited capacity, making it all the more tough to see him thriving elsewhere.

Tomorrow won’t be as emotional as it will be in March when the Panthers come to visit San Jose, but it can’t be easy to play against a long-time teammate, leader and friend for the first time.

Bold prediction: San Jose’s offense fires on all cylinders, but both teams allow more than five goals en route to a Sharks loss.