Sharks at Canadiens Preview: Byron on all cylinders

If Brett Kulak’s defense partner makes a great primary assist pass, can we call it a Petry dish?

The San Jose Sharks (3-5-1, 8th Pacific) continue their short but winless road trip tonight with a visit to the good-I-guess Montreal Canadiens (4-3-2, 5th Atlantic). Things have not gone according to plan so far for the Sharks, who sit in last place in the Pacific Division with seven points through nine games, one point behind the Los Angeles Kings, and four points out of both Western Conference wild card spots. Referring to how far a team is from playoff position in October is a little weird, but with games against the Toronto Maple Leafs tomorrow night, and the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins next week before our boys come home, their position seems likely to get worse before it gets better.

San Jose’s first overtime loss of the season visiting the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday gave us some things to be optimistic about, though. The Sharks controlled 59.72 percent of 5-on-5 shot attempts, Dylan Gambrell scored his first NHL goal, and the bottom-six controlled play well, as Gambrell’s and Joe Thornton’s lines mostly effectively minimized threats from Casey Mittelstadt and Johan Larsson.

On the other hand, the top-six was less effective as, for the second night in a row, teen heartthrob Jack Eichel pretty much had his way with the Sharks, earning a point on all of Buffalo’s four goals. Like last season, defense is still a problem, and the Sharks’ 3.53 goals allowed per game is sixth highest in the league. Also like last season, the fault isn’t entirely on goaltender Martin Jones, but it isn’t entirely not on goaltender Martin Jones either. Jones’ -4.34 goals saved above average is fourth worst in the league among starters (keepers with more than three starts), but the team isn’t doing him a whole lot of favors.

The team’s miserable overtime period on Tuesday night in Buffalo is a key example of the kind of play that Jones’ many defenders are pointing to, and they aren’t wrong. Head coach Peter DeBoer’s decision to start a 3-on-3 overtime period against Eichel, Samson Reinhart and Henri Jokiharju with 40-year-old Patrick Marleau seemed unwise, and the team’s inability to muster a single shot on goal in the extra time lends some credence to that conclusion.

Team captain Logan Couture did not mince words when pointing out the lagging changes of Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc that led to Brent Burns defending a 2-on-1 from Eichel and Reinhart, telling reporters, “It’s an inexcusable change. Two guys stayed out for long, looking for offense ... It’s a selfish play.” Labanc in particular was to blame for squandering a 2-on-1 opportunity as Erik Karlsson flew down the right wing to create the chance while Labanc seemed to wander off into the concourse for a pretzel.

Those kinds of mistakes were capitalized on by the Sabres, and, if not addressed, will likely be capitalized on by a Canadiens team that ranks ninth in the league in expected goals for and eighth in actual goals. These are not your grandfather’s Canadiens, the Habs of Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman, who won 15 Stanley Cups from 1955-1979. Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, and Jacques Plante haven’t played in some time. More relevantly, these aren’t really even your older brother’s Canadiens, the Habs of Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and P.K. Subban, who have all been traded away. The vaunted bleu, blanc, et rouge is now represented by the likes of WWE Superstar Shea Weber, apparent wily veteran Max Domi and three consecutive draft picks stacked atop each other inside of a trench coat Tomas Tatar.

After finishing the 2018-19 season as the definition of a playoff bubble team (Montreal finished with 96 points; more than the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, and Vegas Golden Knights, all of whom made the post-season in the West), the Canadiens were a trendy pre-season pick for a playoff berth for those gallant few who have yet to accept the Bolts-Bruins-Leafs Atlantic division hegemony for the eternal constant that it is. For now, those predictions are on shaky legs, as the Habs sit just outside the playoff picture (again), and if Tampa figures it out (probably) and Buffalo is for real (less probably), they could end up solidly fifth, hoping the Metropolitan division just eats itself.

It’s hard to draw much confidence from their most recent outing, a 4-3 loss on the road to the last place in the West Minnesota Wild on Sunday. Still, it was the second night of a back-to-back after a 5-2 win over the champion St. Louis Blues, and head coach Claude Julien’s decision to start back up netminder Keith Kinkaid for both contests may have played a role. Phillip Danault’s two goals gave him a share of the team lead with four, and Domi and Brendan Gallagher lead the Habs in points with nine.

Two points tonight would be massive for the Sharks. Combined with a Kings loss in St. Louis, it would pull the Sharks out of last place in the Pacific, and it would take a lot of the pressure off tomorrow night in Toronto, during the homecoming of Leafs legend Patrick Marleau. After that, a win over Ottawa isn’t out of the question, and the less said about Boston the better.

This trip is still salvageable, but it will have to start tonight.

How long can the penalty kill keep this up?

You may have heard already, but the Sharks’ penalty kill unit is among the league’s best, their 90.6 percent efficiency rate is second only to Vegas’ 90.9. It held strong against the Sabres’ league-leading-at-the-time power play, but the Habs present another strong challenge. At 27.3 percent efficiency, Montreal’s man advantage is sixth best in the league, and their top unit appears to be doing most of the damage, as Domi, Tatar and Jeff Petry lead the team in power play points with four each. Barclay Goodrow and Melker Karlsson lead the Sharks’ forwards in short-handed ice time, and made the most of it on Tuesday, making several great plays to slow the Sabres’ prodigious power play unit. They’ll have their hands full again tonight and tomorrow, and a successful showing in that department could be the key to keeping the dangerous forwards of la belle province off the board.

Can the Sharks best Carey Price? Like, at all?

Kinkaid may have started both games on the Habs’ recent road trip, but Carey Price is still the goaltender of Montreal’s present and future. In seven starts, Price has posted a .926 adjusted save percentage at 5-on-5, but has allowed almost one full goal more than expected. Expected goals are still a little wonky thanks to the NHL’s mishandling of shot location data during the beginning of the season, so a difference that small may not exist, or may even be actively misleading, and when dealing with a former Hart and Vezina trophy winner like Price, it’s probably best to give him the benefit of the doubt. Price’s numbers dip radically when the team in front of him is shorthanded (his .857 save percentage on the penalty kill is in the league’s bottom half), so the Sharks will really have to make hay on the power play.

Whose turn is it to ride shotgun with Tomas Hertl?

Over the past few years, the NHL has seemingly become a league where forward lines are made up of two players with chemistry and then they toss on a third guy. The Sharks are apparently no exception, with pairs like Logan Couture and Timo Meier supplemented by Labanc or Marleau, and Hertl and Evander Kane supplemented by Labanc (again) or, by turns, Lean Bergmann, Jonny Brodzinski, and, most recently, Noah Gregor. While Gregor looked very good in his NHL debut, spending just over 71 percent of his even strength ice time with both Hertl and Kane, and an additional four percent with Kane and Gambrell, by the end of the game the DeBoer blender had been turned to puree, and that spot on line two was given back to Labanc in the third period. Whether Gregor gets another shot in that spot is up for grabs, as both Brodzinski and defenseman Trevor Carrick were recalled from the AHL Barracuda in anticipation of the current five-game road trip.

Bold prediction: Timo Meier scores two power play goals, as does rookie Nick Suzuki, en route to a 3-3 tie after two periods. The Sharks break out in the third, as Nate Thompson, Nick Cousins and Ben Chiarot are all sent off for overlapping unsportsmanlike conduct double minor penalties for making fun of Karlsson’s kick ass pirate beard. On the power play, Brenden Dillon records his first ever natural hat trick over the course of 78 rollicking seconds. The Sharks skate to a 6-4 win, in time to face the big scary Leafs just 24 hours later.

Bonne chance, requins.