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Sharks at Senators Preview: Karlsson asked us to homecoming!

Martha, put the coffee on. We’ll all be up a little earlier than our average Saturday as the San Jose Sharks (12-9-5, 2nd Pacific) take on the Ottawa Senators (11-12-3, 7th Atlantic) in Kanata at 10 a.m. today. Story lines abound, perhaps none more front of mind than the man playing the first game against the team that shipped him out in an off-season defining, blockbuster deal late this past off-season. With 18 points in his first 26 games in his new uniform, including three goals, my best friend Chris Tierney has taken a big step towards the top contributor we all knew he would become.

A more subdued reunion, especially in local media, has been Erik Karlsson’s return to the city he called home for nine seasons. What has undoubtedly been an emotional few days will have to end rather abruptly, as the Sharks will hit the road later today to prepare to face the Montreal Canadiens tomorrow, in the third of three back-to-back travel pairs in a row. If Karlsson can produce for his new team the way Patrick Marleau did in the Sharks’ last outing, we’ll all be better for it.

That outing, a 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, may have been a harsh reminder of what a contender looks like in today’s NHL. The return of Auston Matthews, after missing 14 games with a shoulder injury, saw both him and almost-Shark John Tavares score two goals on Aaron Dell, with the fifth coming from Marleau, who has now officially scored against all 31 NHL franchises. Toronto’s third win in a row handed the Sharks their third consecutive loss, in a stroke of miserable poetry.

There are more than a few players meeting former teammates across the ice tonight. In addition to the aforementioned Karlsson and Tierney, Senators Dylan DeMelo and Mikkel Boedker both spent some time in teal before being dealt as parts of deals for Karlsson and Mike Hoffman, respectively. While the Sens started the season hot, posting a 4-2-1 record in their first seven and prompting oh so many hot takes about who won the Karlsson trade (hint: it’s usually the team that got the player after whom the trade is named. No one has called it the DeMelo trade yet), their 7-10-2 record since that stretch has been closer to what we all expected before the season began.

The former Sharks have played well in a young season. My best friend Tierney, spending the plurality of his even strength ice time with Boedker and Bobby Ryan on the team’s third line, has put up a (nice) 0.69 point per game pace, significantly better than the 0.49 pace he put up last year, his most productive as a Shark. His possession stats have suffered, as would be expected on a less effective team, but his relative possession numbers have declined as well, as his -3.54 percent shot attempt share relative to teammates is his worst mark in three seasons.

DeMelo is finally the top pairing defenseman he was always destined to be. Melo has spent 67 percent of his even strength ice time with Ottawa’s nu-Karlsson, Thomas Chabot, and has ridden the young stars coattails to a .32 point per game pace, equal to the mark he hit in 63 contests last season. While DeMelo’s number 74 is tragically occupied by penalty minute collector and strange interview conductor Mark Borowiecki (bo-ro-vee-etch-key), look out for No. 2 in red for ill-advised pinching, blue line scrambling, and all of your other favorite DeMelo hits of yesteryear.

It seems, as many suspected, that the Senators will go as far as Matt Duchene and Craig Anderson can take them. Duchene leads the squad in points with 33 in 26 games, and 21 in his last 12. Anderson, following his pattern of good year-bad year-good year, is making up for last season’s .898, sitting on a .903 to date (which is actually weirdly good, considering how bad goalies have been with their new equipment, and the Sens’ porous defense (remember, DeMelo is their number two? (maybe that’s why he wears number two, so they can’t demote him without an extra laundry bill))).

Duchene and Anderson led the way in the Senators’ most recent 3-0 shut out of the New York Rangers. Duchene and his linemate, freshman Drake Batherson, potted a goal and an assist each, and Anderson stopped 27 shots (but they were Rangers shots, to be fair) for the win.

These two teams last met back in January, and the Sharks will be well served to avoid a repetition of that outcome. After building a 5-2 lead heading into the third, the Sharks gave up goals to Derick Brassard, Duchen, and Hoffman, before conceding Duchene’s second goal just seven seconds into the extra frame. The loser point was sore consolation, and wiped out the memory of Tomas Hertl’s gorgeous shorthanded breakaway goal, his second of the night.

The Sharks are in a rough patch in their schedule, and every point from these road games counts double. That’s not technically true, they’re all worth the same amount, but doesn’t it feel more important?

Can the Sharks weather this stretch of schedule?

As mentioned above, the Sharks are playing the first half of their third pair of back-to-back games with travel in three pairs of games. That’s a strange way to phrase it, but these two weeks are particularly brutal on the team’s fatigue. After this pair, they’ll return home to face the dangerous, but goalie-less Carolina Hurricanes, before heading out for yet another pair of back-to-back road games next weekend. We may have to lower our expectations for what the team can accomplish with such a rough patch, but any win they can coax out of this stretch will be welcome as the schedule eases up next week.

What’s wrong with Timo Meier?

The Sharks’ Swiss superhero, Timo Meier, was a surprise scratch Wednesday night in Toronto, and has been classified as day-to-day with an upper body injury. Meier was sent to the Sharks’ dressing room Tuesday night in Buffalo after getting hit in the face with Jake McCabe’s helmet (or hitting the helmet with his face, no news on the helmet’s injury status) and, with all head injuries, fear runs rampant. With Meier out today, we assume he’ll miss tomorrow as well, and his production (23 points in 25 games) and his winning smile will be sorely missed.

What exactly are the Senators trying to do here?

A team with this roster, and this arena situation, and these ticket sales, and this owner, and this contract situation with these stars would probably be best served to lose as many games as possible and start to restock their prospect cupboard with game breakers. Unfortunately, the Sens opted to keep their first round pick last year, using it on very good young rookie Brady Tkachuk, meaning their first round pick for next year’s draft belongs to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for the expiring contract of Matt Duchene. At the time, it seemed like a wise decision, since even if they were to finish last in the league this year, which is no guarantee, they still would have had a 50.6 percent chance of picking lower than third overall, the pick they used on Tkachuk.

Still, if the unthinkable happens, and the Avalanche are able to use the Senators’ pick on phenom Jack Hughes, none of that fancy math will save them. Which brings to mind the question above: What are they trying to do? The players have a simple goal today, beat the Sharks, but as an organization, the team seems particularly bereft of direction, which makes them one of the more interesting, in a classic tragedy kind of way, franchises to watch.

Bold prediction: All former players score against their former team. Karlsson, Tierney, Boedker and DeMelo (well, maybe not DeMelo) find twine and the Sharks pull of a nail biting 6-5 overtime winner, this time with Joe Pavelski scoring seven seconds in.

Both teams travel to Montreal next to take on the Habs: the Sharks tomorrow afternoon, and the Senators on Tuesday night.

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