Sharks vs. Avalanche Preview: Can Avalanche defense stop Sharks offense?

Erik Johnson is going to be on the ice for a lot of goals against.

Late in Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights, San Jose Sharks winger Timo Meier entered the offensive zone at full stride. Defending him was 37-year-old Deryk Engelland, veteran of 10 National Hockey League (NHL) seasons. Meier slowed, pulling the puck back toward the blueline. As Engelland extended his stick back toward the puck, Meier slid the rubber disc under the defender’s stick and retrieved it on the other side of his now-turned around opponent. The young Shark easily maneuvered between Engelland and the goal, mere feet away from what would surely be a Sharks goal. Despite Meier’s crafty move and powerful net drive, Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury reached his stick out, poking the puck away in a goal-defying effort.

Though Meier did not score on this play and could not find pay dirt against the Knights in the series-deciding game, he did was perhaps the best skater on the ice for either side. The performance was easily the best of his career, but it was not out of the ordinary during these last seven games. So, while Tomas Hertl has (rightly) received plenty of praise for his outstanding form during the team’s first-round series, it was the team’s first line — namely the combination of Logan Couture and Meier — that cleared a path for the Sharks’ offense.

During the series against the Knights, the Sharks’ offense did not resemble it’s season-long self. Over the course of the regular season, San Jose averaged 54.7 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time and 2.61 expected goals (xG) per 60. Those figures ranked fourth and third in the league, respectively. During the series with the Knights, the Sharks took just 48.4 shots per 60 and generated just 2.2 xG per 60 minutes, numbers that belong to a mid-table offense and not the elite unit the Sharks were all season (Corsica).

Here are what the Sharks’ forward lines look like at the moment:

Despite this unrecognizable arrangement of forwards, two lines have actually spent a decent amount of time together. First, the Thornton, Marcus Sorensen and Kevin Labanc line remains intact, for better or for worse. These three create, on paper, a big advantage for the Sharks over most teams who ice third-line centers like the Avalanche’s J.T. Compher. However, the three have failed to produce much offense aside from shots from the point.

Those three largely struggled against the Knights’ depth pairs. With Thornton on the ice against Colin Miller at 5-on-5, the Sharks took only 43 percent of all shots and generated just 36 percent of all expected goals after adjusting for the score and venue (Natural Stat Trick).

With Samuel Girard back in the fold for Colorado, it’s uncertain what the team’s defense pairs will look like against San Jose. Beat writers aren’t sure if the Avalanche will dress six or seven defenders, but a seemingly simple solution would be to play Girard with new, already -impactful Cale Makar. Should the Makar and Patrik Nemeth pair remain intact, however, this is how they compare to the Colin Miller and Jon Merrill Vegas duo at 5-on-5 (score- and venue-adjusted, per Corsica):

  • Miller/Merrill: 39 shots against per 60 minutes // 1.13 expected goals (xG) against per 60
  • Makar/Nemeth: 54.5 shots against per 60 // 0.95 xG against per 60/

The Knights’ depth pair did a better job of limiting shots against, while the Colorado third pair does a better job (though both pairs do well here) of limiting expected goals. The Thornton line should have an easier time taking shots, but they might still struggle to generate scoring chances regularly. Though Colorado represents another team with a mismatch in the bottom-two forward lines, the team also possesses a depth defense pair that might help tilt the scales back in its favor.

At the top of the lineup, things aren’t quite as clearly defined. The Meier, Couture and Gustav Nyquist line has played all of 40 minutes together at 5-on-5 this regular season in only five full games as a line. On aggregate, they’ve helped the Sharks take 40 unblocked shots per hour and generate 2.6 expected goals per hour. That unblocked shot rate is about average, and that rate of expected goals is above average. Neither compares to the trio with Pavelski, however, which launched 48 unblocked shots every hour and 2.97 expected goals per 60 minutes (Natural Stat Trick).

With Evander Kane and Tomas Hertl on the ice together at 5-on-5 this regular season, the Sharks took 44 unblocked shots per hour and generated 2.64 expected goals every 60 minutes. Lukas Radil doesn’t offer much in the way of offense, but he shouldn’t slow them down terribly. With Radil on Couture’s other wing, he, Meier, and their centerman helped the Sharks take 48 unblocked shots per hour and generate 2.7 expected goals per hour, which suggests he’s capable of holding up his end of a top-six offensive forward line bargain.

Those two lines will (likely) have to tangle with the tandems of Erik Johnson and either Samuel Girard or Ian Cole, and Nikita Zadorov and Tyson Barrie.

The Zadorov and Barrie duo doesn’t seem to present much of a defensive threat. At home against the Flames during Round 1, Colorado coach Jared Bednar opted to match up this pair (along with the Nathan MacKinnon line, to an extent) against Calgary’s second line of Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik. It depends on which line Bednar considers the Sharks’ second line, but it certainly seems as though Hertl could see plenty of this pair. They don’t seem very imposing, and their results are not nearly as impressive as the Shea Theodore-anchored pair Hertl saw so much of during the first round:

Where one of the Sharks’ top two lines may see some trouble is when Nathan MacKinnon is on the ice with Barrie. Together, those two have worked to limit opposing offenses this season. During the opening-round series against Calgary, the MacKinnon line and Barrie pair effectively squashed the Flames’ second, Backlund-led line. It makes sense for Bednar to use MacKinnon’s group to hide Barrie’s deficiencies while relying on the Johnson pair to take the Sharks’ other big line.

If Cole and Johnson remain attached at the hip, the Couture line might expect resistance in this form:

The two present a tougher defensive posture than the Deryk Engelland and Nate Schmidt duo offered. With Couture on the ice at 5-on-5 against Schmidt during the opening-round series, the Sharks took 36 unblocked shots and generated 2.62 expected goals per hour. While Couture’s primary matchup limited his line to very few unblocked shots, the Sharks still managed to generate an impressive rate of expected goals.

At 5-on-5, the Colorado defense pairs resemble the on-ice output of the Vegas defense corps, except that the Knights’ best pair defensively (Theodore and Brayden McNabb) was more impactful than the Avalanche’s best defensive pair (Cole and Johnson). That fact, combined with the knowledge that the Avalanche team defense didn’t stack up to that of the Knights this season should allow the Sharks’ offense to breathe a sigh of relief after a tough struggle with the Knights clamp-down effort. If it appeared the ill will of hockey gods that Meier was unable to find the back of the net during Game 7, there’s a good chance his fortunes will be reversed this go around.

Special teams that aren’t so special

When infractions occur, the Avalanche possess a penalty kill that shouldn’t pose as much of a problem as the Knights’ penalty kill did (at least until the last few minutes of Game 7). While Colorado did, on the season, do a good job of limiting shots in the slot, they gave up unblocked attempts from their right circle, which is from where the Sharks do their damage.

Over the last two months of the season, however, things appeared to take a turn for the worse. Colorado allowed the highest rate of shots on the 4-on-5 penalty kill. They also allowed the highest rate of unblocked shots and the fourth-highest rate of expected goals (Natural Stat Trick). San Jose’s potent power play should be able to take advantage of what appears to be a poor penalty-killing unit.

It appears that the Colorado didn’t so much limit the Flames’ top offensive threats as it did lean on stellar goaltending. Only three Flames players on-ice goal scoring rates at 5-on-5 outproduced their expected goal rates, and two of the team’s top-7 skaters in that regard failed to witness an even-strength goal all series. While Phillip Grubauer is a formidable goaltender, San Jose should have plenty of opportunities to overcome his defenses. In the end, the Sharks’ forward depth should prove too much for Colorado’s team defense to handle.