Sharks at Wild Preview: Missing Middleton

Is a winning streak too much to ask?

The San Jose Sharks (4-9-3, seventh Pacific) are on the eve of the only stop in Minnesota this season. The Sharks will take on the Minnesota Wild (7-6-1, fourth Central) following the team’s second regulation win of the season. The Wild defeated the Seattle Kraken by a score of 1-0 on Friday night in Seattle. Minnesota has been through some ups and downs so far, but is looking to carry the momentum from the last two games into the Sunday match-up. Friday night’s game marked the 28th NHL franchise that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has shut out, making him the league’s first goaltender to do so.

The Wild made some big moves in the early off-season. In late June, forward Kevin Fiala was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for defender and University of Minnesota captain Brock Faber and a first-round draft pick. On the first day of July, general manager Bill Guerin signed former Sharks defender Jacob Middleton to a three-year, $2.45 million contract, and the next day, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury inked a two-year, $3.5 million deal. Soon after, goaltender Cam Talbot was traded to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for goaltender Filip Gustavsson.

With the large majority of the team’s core locked up with multi-year deals, Minnesota was pretty quiet for the rest of the off-season, quietly trading defender Dimitry Kulikov to Anaheim in late August, and the roster was mostly set.

In the 2021-22 season, the Wild finished with a 53-22-7 record (113 points), enough to secure second place in the Central Division. With a wild card berth in hand, the Wild took on the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs, losing the series 4-2. Although disappointing for fans, some of the team’s young talent shined in those six games. Of those who played in all six postseason games, Middleton led the team in shot attempts percentage (Fenwick For) at 66.9 percent, while averaging just under 17 minutes on ice per game.

The 2022-23 season started slowly in Minnesota. For Sharks fans, the story might look a little bit familiar — the Wild lost the first three games of the season, earning the first win in overtime. Similarly, the Wild seem to have found a scoring touch, while only shut out twice in 14 games. However, Minnesota found a way to keep more goals out of the net than the boys in teal have, resulting in just a few more wins. The Sharks’ 2.75 goals for per game is just a hair blow the Wild’s 2.79, placed at 25th and 26th in the league, respectively. Both teams are also averaging over 30 shots for per game.

These numbers seem to suggest this match-up will come down to goaltending. Despite the differing records, Fleury and James Reimer boast a save percentage of .905 and .906 respectively, each with one shutout on the season.

Is the second-period nightmare over?

The second period haunted San Jose for quite a few games to open the season. However, the last few outings, we’ve seen a completely different second-period team. In Friday night’s contest against the Stars, the Sharks scored two goals in less than two minutes, which turned out to be the only goals of the period. The Stars put 11 shots on net to the Shark’s three, holding the team off for over 18 minutes following the two quick goals, but the defense was solid enough to give James Reimer a chance.

Despite giving up two goals in the second period against St. Louis, Tomas Hertl netted his third goal of the season. Last weekend against Anaheim, the Sharks again scored the only two goals in the second period. The team has certainly learned how to score during the second period.

Meanwhile, the Wild have given up four of their last six goals in the second period. Maybe this game is a test of the second period will, maybe it’s a coincidence, but the second period continues to be one to watch.

How to build momentum?

For a team that has only won four games, all fans can hope for is an improvement from game to game. Ideally, momentum builds after good games and improvement continues into the next until something akin to a streak begins. The Sharks unfortunately haven’t quite hit the point of a streak, but continue to look to build on positives.

San Jose has seemed to struggle in terms of building momentum between periods. This can be difficult as a team that tends to give up goals in the final two minutes of the period — exemplified in the last three games, where the team has given up four goals within the last two minutes of a period.

Alternatively, the Sharks have found ways to open periods with quick goals. Tomas Hertl’s goal against Dallas came just 29 seconds into the third period. You could say it was the result of the energy that came from Logan Couture’s fight at the end of the second (momentum doesn’t only come from scoring goals). Even in the second period against Dallas, Couture’s line found ways to capitalize on the momentum of Timo Meier’s goal just 36 seconds prior. If the team can find a way to carry the energy from the Dallas game into Minnesota, we just might be in good hands.

Can the skaters support the netminder?

This isn’t really about whether or not the goaltenders can prove themselves, more of whether they have the opportunity to. Unfortunately, the Sharks seem to have a bad habit of leaving the goaltender out to dry. While unblocked shot attempts aren’t always a result of this, according to Money Puck, the only Sharks defensive pairing who has played more than 30 minutes together with an unblocked shots against per 60 minutes in the top 30 of the league is Mario Ferraro and Erik Karlsson. The top defensive pairing by time on ice (TOI), Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Matt Benning, doesn’t even crack the top 100.

Luckily, the Wild’s top line by TOI, Middleton and Jared Spurgeon, comes in at 142nd league-wide. The top forward line by TOI, Kirill Kapirzov, Freddy Gaudreau and Mats Zuccarello, has posted 44.7 unblocked shot attempts for per 60 minutes and 2.33 expected goals per 60. Can the Sharks’ defense keep the Wild’s top forwards under that? Playing solid defense and supporting the goaltenders is a good place to start.

Bold prediction: San Jose will record the first back-to-back wins of the season. The starting goaltender will record a point and Oskar Lindblom will score his first goal of the season.