Sharks at Canucks Preview: Bringing the "Alien" back to Earth

Elias Pettersson has been out of this world. Time to rein him in.

The San Jose Sharks (33-16-7), fresh off a 5-2 dismantling of the Edmonton Oilers, cruise into Vancouver (25-24-7) to play a Canucks team that finds itself just two points out of a wild card spot thanks to its four-point cushion over the rest of the horrendous Pacific. The Sharks are undefeated on their current four-game Western Canada road trip and have won seven of their last 10 contests. The Canucks are riding slipping into tonight’s game on the back of a .500 record in their last 10.

Though San Jose’s win record of late — the Sharks have lost just three times in the new year — suggests a raging beast of a team befitting of a place at Brent Burns’ ranch, some of the squad’s underlying metrics show something a little less powerful enjoying nice percentages.

While the Canucks are a convincingly below-average team, San Jose has spent most of the season taking 5-on-5 shots at a margin that far exceeds that of their opponents. Lately, however, the team’s shot differential is heading in the wrong direction. The Sharks recovered from a similar nosedive earlier in the season, so much of the team’s remaining two months will rely on their ability to recover once again. Since Jan. 1, most players on the Sharks have helped the team take 53 percent or more of 5-on-5 shots. The list of players below that dividing line is: Barclay Goodrow, Tim Heed, Melker Karlsson, Marcus Sorensen, Joakim Ryan, Kevin Labanc and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

On-ice shot differentials is a quick-and-dirty way of evaluating player performance. These numbers would seem to indict both of the team’s bottom-two forward lines, as well as the new Heed-Vlasic pairing. A similar pattern in expected goals differential is following the team’s shot-generation play.

There does not seem to be a site that logs game-by-game expected goals for a team’s entire roster. As a proxy, we will use Natural Stat Tricks’ scoring chance metric to scan through which players might be lending a “helping” hand to the current slide. Again, we have a somewhat natural dividing line, as the majority of the team has helped generate 51.5 percent or more of all 5-on-5 expected goals. The players living below that line are: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Joakim Ryan, Kevin Labanc, Barclay Goodrow, Melker Karlsson and Dylan Gambrell (in three games). These figures would again seem to suggest the team’s fourth line is struggling, while Vlasic continues to fight through what has been a rough season.

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Though we have presented the case for the Sharks’ bottom-six forwards struggling during the past month-and-a-half, the truth is the Sharks have three forward lines that can cause mismatches, especially against a more top-heavy foe. If Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Timo Meier don’t do some damage, chances are Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane and Joonas Donskoi will. While teams send their top shutdown units after those two groups, Joe Thornton and company lurk in the corners, ready to pounce on unsuspecting fourth liners. The beauty of the Sharks is that, on any given night, at least one of these lines can add a few tallies to the score sheet. We just don’t know which it will be.

Second Period Turnaround?

Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The Sharks’ second periods lately have been difficult to watch. The team seems to go from world beater to pond scum at the flip of a line-change location and they’ve been lucky to survive some middle-frame implosions. While Vancouver doesn’t exactly possess the firepower to keep up with even a rough 20 minutes or so, Elias Pettersson can turn a rough few minutes into a red lamp-lighting ceremony in no time. The Sharks will have to keep their shaky goaltending far enough out of the swamp in the second to ensure they avoid a road trip-ending disaster.

He Is Not a Human Being

Affectionately known as The Alien by Canucks fans, Elias Petterson’s play in his rookie year has been, you guessed it, out of this world. Not only will he (likely) handily win the Calder Trophy race (generally bestowed upon the rookie who most lights up the scoreboard), but Pettersson is also a play-driving phenom. According to HockeyViz, the Canucks are about 10 times more likely to score at 5-on-5 with Petterson on the ice than without him. To beat the Canucks, San Jose must bring the Alien back to Earth.

Bold Prediction: Meier breaks out (again). Assuming the Canucks coach Travis Green treats the Hertl line like the Sharks’ number-one unit, Couture and Meier should see the Derrick Pouliot and Chris Tanev pair. That pair allows an extra seven shots on goal per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time relative to the rest of the Canucks (Corsica Hockey). That should be all Meier needs to slip one (or two) past goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who has been pretty average at 5-on-5.