Sharks at Senators Preview: A mid-off in Canada

“Mid” might even be generous.

The San Jose Sharks (8-14-4, seventh Pacific) will take on the Ottawa Senators (9-13-1, eighth Atlantic) to wrap up the Canadian part of this four-game road trip. These two teams met for the first time this season nearly two weeks ago, when the Senators came to San Jose. The Sharks earned just the second home win of the season in that match-up, but since then neither team has been all that hot. The Senators have gone 3-2-0, including overtime wins against both the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers. The Sharks are 3-1-1 in that time, with a 4-5-1 record over the last 10 games.

The Senators line-up is not all that different from the last time these two teams met. Sharks draftee Josh Norris is still out with a shoulder injury and Jacob Bernard-Docker is also still on injured reserve. Pending restricted free agent forward Alex Formenton did not sign with the team ahead of Thursday’s deadline and is now ineligible to play for the remainder of the season, per the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Forward Tim Stutzle has tallied five points (2 goals, 3 assists) in the Senators’ last five games, making him one of the most important players to be on the lookout for. Captain Brady Tkachuk, Stutzle and Claude Giroux lead the team in points as the most dangerous forward line on this Sens team. Surprisingly, this line has notched seven goals, while the defense pairing of Jake Sanderson and Travis Hamonic has netted 13. The D-pairing also spends the most time on the ice together, with 267.1 minutes, almost 100 minutes more than the next defensive pair of Thomas Chabot and Artyom Zub.

Having won the first game in this season series and the general struggles of Ottawa, San Jose might have some momentum they can use to their advantage in this match-up. If they play their cards right, they should finally be able to beat an opponent twice.

Can the Sharks capitalize on their opponent's back-to-back games?

Not only is Ottawa playing in a back-to-back situation, but the team will also have to travel. Sure, that flight from New York might only be one and a half hours, but this Senators team will be tired. If the Sharks want to finally beat the same team twice this season, they’ll need to capitalize on their extra rest. San Jose can be quick on their feet, and keeping up the speed in play will only help against a team that’s on the second leg of back-to-back play.

The game against the Rangers ended with 18 seconds remaining in overtime, and would have been a loss in regulation, if not for a goal from Brady Tkachuk in the final minute of play. Ottawa has been run ragged ahead of this game.

While the Senators are one of the rare teams with fewer points than the Sharks, every game is an important game when wins are few and far between. If the Sharks are able to play their game, they should be in a good spot. However, if they give Ottawa the time to recover and regroup, this game will be a lot closer than the last one.

How will Hertl bounce back?

While his teammates and fans mostly disagree, Tomas Hertl blamed himself for the Sharks’ loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night. “It’s all on me,” Hertl said. “I cost us two points because I made a stupid play.”

Sure, he may have made the turnover that led to the game-winning goal, but that doesn’t mean the loss was entirely his fault. Forward Matt Nieto said as much point blank: “The loss isn’t on him. He’s won us many games here. He’s a great leader and a role model for everyone in the room.”

Hertl is a key part of the roster and has recorded a point in all but two of the team’s wins this season. He’s also tied for second on the team in points with Logan Couture and Timo Meier, and is second behind Meier in time on ice per game among the team’s forwards. Hertl’s success is a huge part of the Sharks’ success, and the way he responds to the Wednesday night loss will certainly impact the game against Ottawa. If he steps up and decides to get those points back, the Sharks are sure to follow. Everyone knows Hertl is a leader, and leading this team to a win after a tough loss will just solidify what’s already known.

Can Kahkonen recover?

It’s not really news that fans are frustrated with Kaapo Kahkonen’s performance this season. The Sharks haven’t been great about defense, but Kahkonen’s numbers are worse. In 10 games this season, Kahkonen has posted a 3.43 goals against average (GAA) and .844 save percentage (SV%). In 11 games  with San Jose last season, the young netminder fared better, with a 2.86 GAA and .916 SV%.

Kahkonen recorded his first shutout of the season on Tuesday night in Montreal, stopping all 28 shots that came his way, but prior to that, he’d only played two games with a save percentage above .900.

At the end of the 2021-22 season, the Sharks had three goaltenders, and it was well-known that one would be traded during the off-season. Adin Hill was the odd goaltender out, tendered and traded to the Vegas Golden Knights in August in exchange for a fourth-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft. Hill had some of his own issues last season, both in terms of injury and play, but he seems to be doing alright in Vegas, which just makes the decision more frustrating for fans.

As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and obviously nothing can be changed about the past, but there is a lot of room for improvement in the future. With James Reimer out, Kahkonen has to become the number one guy in net. How he rises to the challenge will mean a lot to the team and fans.

Despite having a few really good games and really good saves, he, much like the Sharks team, hasn’t been able to string together multiple good outings in a row. Reimer’s time on the IR is the perfect time for him to do so and show that Mike Grier made the right choice in keeping him around.

In November, Kahkonen allowed just one goal in the game against Ottawa, despite the Senators putting up 38 shots on net. Following up a shutout with another good game will only help him out going forward.

Bold Prediction: The Senators score first, but the Sharks lock it down and win 3-1. Tomas Hertl records three points and Kaapo Kahkonen is the second star of the game.