Sharks at Penguins Preview: Bounce back in the ‘Burgh

A four-game swing begins against a favorite team to hate.

The San Jose Sharks (35-17-8, 2nd Pacific) are ready to close out the season series against the Pittsburgh Penguins (32-21-7, 3rd Metropolitan) in the first of a four-game road trip through the Metro-Midwest.

A little over a month ago, the Penguins paid their visit to SAP Center, where Tomas Hertl stole the show, running away with three goals in his first of two hat tricks so far this season. If he gets a third, is that a hat trick of hat tricks? Kris Letang and Derick Brassard (who has since become a member of the Florida Panthers hockey club) notched goals for the Penguins, but the Sharks took the 5-2 victory.

Since that meeting, the Sharks have gone 7-4-1. They’ve struggled against teams at the top of their divisions — the among the five losses are the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and most recently, the Boston Bruins.

The game against the Bruins was frustrating, to say the absolute least. Blaming the officiating is certainly not to excuse the poor play from the Sharks, particularly at the end of the first and through the second period. That said, officiating affected the outcome of that game more than once and the only real consolation is that the Sharks earned a point in the loss.

You can only control what you can control. With that game in the rearview mirror, the Sharks will hopefully play more disciplined, to limit those opportunities for officiating error.

For the Penguins, since the Jan. 15 loss to the Sharks, they’ve struggled to string together a series of wins, going 7-6-1. Since the new year, in fact, the Penguins haven’t won more than two games in a row, after ending an eight-game win streak on Jan. 6 in a loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

They currently sit on two consecutive wins: a 4-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday and a 6-5 win over the New York Rangers on Sunday. The last team to beat them? The Calgary Flames, who are three points ahead of the Sharks in the Pacific Division.

A familiar goaltending battle

Despite reports yesterday that the Sharks are working on a trade to acquire netminder Ryan Miller from the Anaheim Ducks, no such trade has happened, leaving Martin Jones to face off against his 2016 rival, Matt Murray.

Both goaltenders have struggled this season, though struggling looks a bit different for Murray, who is still posting a .913 save percentage — a massive step up from Jones’ .896.  Neither goaltender is faring well in goals saved above average, either, with Murray at a -5.38 and Jones at -13.06 (per Evolving-Hockey). It’s difficult to believe that just three years ago, these two goaltenders were in potential Conn Smythe contention.

The goaltending showdown tonight might just be a case of who’s defense can bail them out the best.

Can the Sharks stay out of the box?

Limiting more potential officiating errors isn’t the only advantage to staying out of the penalty box. While the Sharks and Penguins are tied for eighth in the league with their 81.8 percent penalty kill, the Penguins have a deadly power play. Fourth-best in the league, they capitalize on 24.8 percent of their man-advantage opportunities.

The Sharks follow up with a slightly less effective man-advantage at 24.3 percent, sixth-best in the league.

When facing a power play that’s just as, if not the tiniest bit more frightening than the Sharks, they have to be drawing more penalties than they take. Don’t even give Pittsburhg the chance to take advantage.

Speaking of penalties...

Will Haley drawn in, and who will he replace?

One move the Sharks did make yesterday involved picking up enforcer Micheal Haley off waivers from the Florida Panthers. In a corresponding move, they sent down Dylan Gambrell after recalling him, presumably to be the extra forward on this road trip.

Haley has not out-scored anyone currently on the Sharks’ roster. But the Sharks will want to see what the noted goon looks like since the two years that they dropped him after deciding they didn’t need a goon. So he’ll almost certainly slot into the fourth line tonight, knocking Barclay Goodrow — or worse, a player like Joonas Donskoi, who was demoted in the loss to the Bruins — to the press box.

Nevermind that whole thing about not taking penalties, then.

Bold prediction: Both goaltenders get pulled, and a total of 12 goals are scored. Hertl gets his hat trick of hat tricks.