Lightning at Sharks Preview: A tale of two Bays

Can the Sharks return to their shoot-first, physical identity to win big at home?

The Tampa Bay Lightning present a formidable opponent for the San Jose Sharks, who have been trading wins and losses like it’s loose change. As the Sharks seek to stay in the playoff hunt, every win matters, and they’ll need a hefty dose of confidence (and spite) to roll off a loss to the bottom-of-the-standings Seattle Kraken to face the league-leaders tomorrow night.

The Lightning have had a relatively easy week of wins, losing just one game in their last five, with a margin of at least two goals in each win, reminding us all that, along with having a punishing defensive core, the Lightning can, and will score goals at will. Tampa Bay sits third in the league with 141 goals for.

Goaltending will be huge for both teams. Sharks head coach Bob Boughner has confirmed that James Reimer, the undisputed starter, will be in net. It’s the smart choice against an offensively-electric team like the Lightning. Despite having played only one game since his return from injury, Reimer saved 39 out of 41 shots in his last showing against the Los Angeles Kings, a .951 save percentage.

The Lightning ride with Andrei Vasilevskiy for the majority of games, and over 32 starts, he’s posted a .923 save percentage and 2.20 goals-against average. It’s unlikely that back-up Brian Elliott will start in net, since he’s played just eight games for the team this season, but the Sharks have been underestimated before.

Reimer has obviously made his return, but both teams have several players still on injured reserve and COVID Protocol. For the Sharks, Jake Middleton is still out, but is turning a corner with his concussion, and Jonah Gadjovich is also out following an undisclosed lower-body injury. The Lightning have three heavy-hitters out: Ondrej Palat, who sustained a lower-body injury on Jan. 13, Erik Cernak, who was placed on IR for an undisclosed injury on Jan. 14, and Zach Bogosian, who will be out 2-3 weeks following a lower-body injury on Jan. 17.

Can the Sharks roll all four lines?

The answer is … sort of? Right now the Sharks are looking for consistency from their bottom-six, and they just aren’t getting it, nor have they been getting much in the way from goals from anyone whose number doesn’t end in ‘8.’ Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are tied for team lead with 21 goals — the top line has been producing, but the rest of the forward group hasn’t been, and in low-scoring games, it’s a huge problem.

“I thought the only one we had going early on was [Tomas] Hertl, and there were some flashes on some other lines, here and there, but it’s just not enough for sixty minutes. We can’t depend on one line,” said Boughner following the loss to the Kraken on Thursday.

“We generated enough chances tonight, and we need to capitalize on them. We had a back-door tap-in that hit the post, things like that. Those are the kinds of things that need to go in for us to be successful.”

How important will special teams be?

Against a team like the Lightning, who can jump on the slightest misstep and translate it into a goal like a pack of hyenas jumping on prey, special teams are going to be even more important. The penalty kill isn’t really a worry; the Sharks have proven that they can effectively shut down a team’s power play, provided the team is able to clear the puck at least once.

The power play is another story. With two of Timo Meier’s five goals coming on the power play two games ago, the top unit, in particular, seemed to be turning a corner. But with six penalties in their last tilt against the Seattle Kraken, and only capitalizing on one chance for a goal, it’s a sobering reality that the power play isn’t quite there yet. The top power play unit is currently Timo Meier, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns — so needless to say, it’s stacked. There’s no reason why the power play shouldn’t be flush with returns.

Part of the solution will be maintaining a physical, but clean, game against the Lightning, to prevent either team from entering the box at all (the Sharks are more comfortable in a 5-on-5 setting, and Meier leads the NHL in 5-on-5 points), and to win faceoffs if the Sharks do get on the power play.

The Lightning’s penalty kill currently sits at around the league average (20.29 percent), with a 20.47 percent efficacy rate, and their power play is at 81.67 percent, which is is a little less than a point above the league-average of 79.71 percent. The Sharks’ power play is at 17.82 percent, and their penalty kill is 83 percent.

What’s the deal with the Sharks’ puck management?

When I asked Boughner about what he noticed in the Sharks’ zone entries and exits, and puck management post-game versus the Kraken, he had this to say: “[They] could be better. I think that first period we were good, [but] I think we turned pucks over, certainly in the last two minutes of the first period.

“I would just say that … when you’re on the road, against a team that’s desperate; it’s hard to win on the road, and you have to do the things that we talk about every day, and you have to have that identity we know brings us success.”

The identity that brings the Sharks success is one that shoots quick, runs the energy of the game through the neutral zone, plays fast and physical, and takes charge of their transition game. As cliché as it sounds, driving pucks in deep towards the net works. Last game, the team barely scraped together 25 shots on goal, and it belies that even the chances are skewed to the top lines.

The top line of Meier, Hertl and Barabanov put up nine quality chances, with the second line, Noah Gregor, Logan Couture and Jonathan Dahlen totaling seven. The third and fourth were much less prolific, with the third line of Andrew Cogliano, Nick Bonino and Matt Nieto having three, and the fourth line of Jeffrey Viel, Adam Raska and Jasper Weatherby just one.

Clearly, being able to effectively roll all four lines, and maintaining solid puck management throughout the neutral zone to drive productive plays go hand in hand.

Bold prediction: The Sharks are frustrated after their loss to the Seattle Kraken, and I am too. With a bigger emphasis on renewing their identity, along with the adrenaline of facing the best team in the NHL, I predict that the Sharks will win this, 4-2.