Sharks at Maple Leafs Preview: Rolling into the 6

San Jose is heading into Toronto riding a three-game win streak, but they’re about to play their toughest opponent yet.

The San Jose Sharks will look to close out the Canadian part of their five-game road trip with a win against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are currently 2-1-1 on the season. The last time these two teams played each other was on March 3, 2020, 597 days ago. The Sharks took home a 5-2 victory.

It won’t be an easy game for the Sharks, I can assure you that, as they’re coming off of the first game of a back-to-back, and will now play their best opponent so far in the season.

The Sharks are up to 3-0-0, a pleasant surprise for a team that has missed two straight postseasons and were penciled in to miss a third just a couple of weeks ago. Now, they sit at the top of the Pacific Division, trailing the Connor McDavid-led Edmonton Oilers.

Toronto’s biggest threat is obviously forward Auston Matthews, and he may be able to exploit one of the very few weaknesses that Sharks goaltender Adin Hill has: his mobility. He’s not a very mobile goaltender who is quick on the edges, which may become his own worst enemy as he takes on the league’s best goal-scorer, who can release a quick shot from practically anywhere.

Another player to watch is defender Jake Muzzin, who we know all too well from his days in Los Angeles. He has stealthily become a top-20 defenseman in the NHL due to his shut-down abilities and solid offensive production as well. He’s arguably the best defender on the Maple Leafs at this moment, so if the Sharks want to compete against Toronto, they’re going to need to find a way to solve Muzzin.

The underlying numbers actually show that the Sharks were outplayed last night by the Ottawa Senators, trailing in expected goals 2.05-3.25. The team may have expected the Senators to roll over, and were forced back on their heels because of it.

The Maple Leafs haven’t played since Monday’s 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers, in which they severely outplayed their opposition, so you know that they will come out for this game with a  hungry mentality. That means the Sharks can’t afford to come out with anything less than 100 percent to start the first period, as it’s never a good thing to be playing catch-up ... or to make the same mistake twice in two nights.

How does Adin Hill take the pressure?

Adin Hill has started off his Sharks career with two straight wins over the Jets and Canadiens, however to me, he’s looked closer to average than he has good. That’s not totally a bad thing, considering San Jose’s recent goaltending history, but average may not be enough every single night.

Hill currently ranks 30th in the NHL in goals saved above expected (GSAx) with -0.12, and ranks 20th in save percentage with a .924. Once again, these are not bad stats in the slightest, especially compared to what Martin Jones gave his last three seasons in California, so no complaints from the Sharks fanbase.

For me, it’s all about seeing Hill use his size to dominate. He stands massive at 6-foot-6, with the ability to steer away most work from away from the net, and not be affected by screens and a net-front presence as much as the common netminder. If he can do this, win or lose, it’s a step in the right direction.

Middleton-Karlsson Pairing: Can they hold the fort?

The Sharks' second pairing of Jacob Middleton and Erik Karlsson has been very solid and consistent according to the eye test, but the underlying numbers show that defensively, it has not been great for the duo. That begs the question, how will they fare against Toronto’s offense?

The pair will be matched up against the Maple Leafs’ second line of Michael Bunting, John Tavares and William Nylander, which will certainly put them to the test.

The good news for the pairing is that the center of that line, Tavares, isn’t particularly fast or the best skater, which gives them the opportunity to quickly recoup if he’s the one breaking into the zone. However, Bunting is one of those players that you love to hate, and Nylander being a ball full of skill, so this line will not be an easy feat to handle.

Can Timo Meier stay consistent?

After a really rough 2020-21 campaign for Sharks forward Timo Meier, rumors began to stem that he could potentially be on his way out of San Jose, as he seemed to be in Bob Boughner’s doghouse often.

Over the last three games, he has proved his doubters wrong, currently standing with one goal and five points on the season so far, while also creating a ton of chances offensively.

He leads the team in expected goals for per 60 (xGF/60), but has been unlucky in terms of his finishing ability. We’ll see if he can break through with a goal tonight against the Maple Leafs.

Bold Prediction: The Sharks unfortunately drop their first game of the season, but it will be an offensive night, with both sides scoring four or more goals.