Quick Bites: Sharks hold strong, dominate late for win No. 1

The Sharks get over the hump with better possession and a familiar face in the lineup.

Before I start — I’m Bryan, an analytics writer for On The Forecheck, FTF’s sister site covering the Nashville Predators. I’m not here to gloat, but the current situation in California necessitated some last-minute coverage, and I was happy to help fill in for today’s Quick Bites. I hope everyone stays safe so they can focus on something trivial like hockey rather than a serious loss to person or property.

I’ve never been a huge fan of sports narratives — in fact just a few days ago, the Nashville Predators media framed the Sharks vs. Predators game as “Looking to bounce back against a desperate and determined San Jose team.” I don’t like it much — I sincerely doubt the Sharks were any more determined to win just because of their record. Tonight, however, convinced me that while blanket statements like that are usually easy and safe takes, smaller ones can be true. The San Jose Sharks tonight were not going to let this game get out of hand, and they didn’t.

(Note: the below charts were linked on Twitter, and can be found here on my Tableau page — these are all interactive, so feel free to jump in and explore)

The first period was a defensive mess, very reminiscent of the third period on Tuesday night. The Chicago Blackhawks tallied a massive twelve high-danger scoring chances, out-shot the Sharks 15 to 7, and dominated most offensive share statistics, including an expected goal (xG) percentage of 77.4. The San Jose defense seemed wholly uninterested in defending the slot, and Aaron Dell faced a flurry of Blackhawks shots with seemingly no help in sight. The Sharks were outplayed, plain and simple, at 5-on-5 in the first period, and it seemed that the game was going to get out of hand after Dominick Kublik scored his first NHL goal.

Then came the power play. I empathize with you folks, more than you can imagine, at having a team with an awful power play, but tonight San Jose only needed one minute and twenty-six seconds to score two goals on two separate power plays (I know, I didn’t know you could score on more than one). First came a goal from Kevin Labanc — a player I admittedly don’t know well, but seemed to me to be single-handedly dragging the Sharks through the first period. The second goal game from Patrick Marleau and the game got into narrative overdrive. The first period ended with the score tied at two, and from there, San Jose finally started to round into form.

The Blackhawks wouldn’t rise above 41 percent in any offensive share category for the final 40 minutes, and the San Jose defense held Chicago to only seven shots on goal per period, including an incredibly impressive two high danger chances against, both in the third period. Andrew Shaw netted his second goal of the game on a feed from Alex DeBrincat nearly halfway through the second to take the lead, but only 33 seconds later, Brent Burns took an impossible shot from the red line that ricocheted off a Hawks player and into the net, bringing the game even once more.

The pace got a bit frantic again, and after Dylan Strome beat Dell two minutes after Burns’ goal, the score stood 4-3 until late in the period when Patrick Marleau redirected yet another puck in the slot to tie the game. After the Marleau goal, the Blackhawks had chances and made a decent effort to beat some minor breakdowns in coverage, but the Sharks players executed well. Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who struggled a bit early, found their footing and locked down the Chicago offense, and held Jonathan Toews to no points, while Patrick Kane was held to a single assist and a single shot on goal at 5-on-5.

The forwards played well too — outside of Marleau, Logan Couture and Timo Meier, the lines cycled a bit, with no other unit surpassing six minutes on ice, but nearly all took advantage of offensive zone starts.

Although Aaron Dell’s final numbers didn’t look great, he had a great effort in the last half of the game keeping things in control. The San Jose defense stepped up to help and it made a world of difference.

Despite my personal protests, the long-awaited first victory in San Jose’s 2019-20 campaign was full of narratives: Marleau’s return, the re-emergence of a defense that kept the Sharks within reach, the debut of Kendall Coyne-Schofield in the booth (she was phenomenal when given the chance to speak, and I’m incredibly envious that she’s in San Jose all season), and the new-found success of the power play. At the danger of becoming the thing I don’t like, I’ll submit one more narrative for the evening:

From an outsider’s point of view, I can tell why many Sharks fans were pessimistic. I watched them give away a game in Nashville that even I was sure the Predators were going to lose. There’s still plenty to work on, as well. Had Martin Jones been in net tonight, I’m not convinced this game would’ve ended with the same result. But there is hope: there are flashes of the team that went to the Conference Final last season that make the holes seem a little easier to manage. Now, with the return of a fan favorite and a newly-extended world-class defenseman, the Sharks can wash the taste of the beginning of the season out of their mouths and move forward into this year’s campaign with a new start.