Maple Leafs at Sharks Preview: Leaf your defense at home

Tavares, Schmavares.

In what could be an emotional evening, and one of their biggest tests of the young season, the San Jose Sharks (10-6-3, 1st Pacific) host the venerable (and obnoxious (it’s leaves, you guys, it’s always been leaves)) Toronto Maple Leafs (12-6-0, 2nd Atlantic) tonight. The fresh new home of Mr. Shark has had no shortage of adversity this season, but they just keep winning, despite notable absences in Auston Matthews and William Nylander.

Matthews is on the shelf after a brutal, but clean, hit from Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba knocked him out of the lineup on October 28. The future Arizona Coyote is about halfway through his initial injury timetable of four weeks, and is skating and traveling with the Leafs through their current California vacation.

Nylander’s case is a little more complicated and less optimistic, given recent events. While not technically a hold out, Nylander is a restricted free agent (RFA) with the Buds, and his camp has yet to come to an arrangement with general manager Kyle Dubas upon which both sides can agree. On Saturday, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Leafs have asked teams interested in trading for the young Canadian Swede to prepare formal offers. Dubas’ urgency here is warranted: as an RFA, William Andrew Michael Junior Nylander Altelius (seriously) has until December 1 to sign a new contract to be able to play in the NHL this season.

Face of the franchise Patrick Marleau’s tenure in Toronto has been whelming, neither over- nor under-. The man whose number is not yet retired in the SAP Center rafters has put up 57 points in 100 regular season games for the Leafs, coming out to a .57 point per game pace (very strenuous maths), close to exactly the .573 pace he maintained for the last two seasons in San Jose. However, with Matthews, Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, Jake Gardiner, and, to a lesser extent, Andreas Johnsson and goaltender Garret Sparks due to be re-signed next off-season, Marleau’s $6.25 million cap hit may start to look regrettable in the pretty near future.

Toronto is treading water without (one of) their star center(s), holding a 4-3-0 record since Matthews’ exit. In his stead, almost-Shark and San Jose heart-breaker John Tavares has stepped up, most recently in a 5-1 throttling of the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center. Tavares recorded a goal and two assists in that game, continuing a six-game point streak, during which he has four goals and nine points. After a slow start, the Kings eventually managed to put 23 shots on Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen, who stopped 22 in the win, handing the reeling monarchs their third straight loss.

Two power play goals from Nazem Kadri helped the Leafs convert on three of their six power play opportunities, both season highs for the club, and Morgan Rielly’s goal and assist reclaimed his lead among all NHL blue liners and brought him up to four goals and nine points in his last seven games.

The Sharks come into tonight’s festivities fresh off of a five-goal game of their own, narrowly triumphing over the Nashville Predators at home by a 5-4 score. After perhaps the Sharks’ best period of hockey this season won them a 3-0 lead after 20, the Predators came back with a vengeance, tying the game at three by the second intermission.

The game was structured like many modern action films: act one is all sunshine and rainbows, we meet our hero, probably Dwayne Johnson, learn how happy he and his wife and daughter are and how everything is just great. Act two is a tragic fall, culminating in an “all is lost” moment where our hero has to give a rousing pep talk to his ragtag group of misfits. Act three is all suspense and tension, where our hero, through trials and tribulation and trite symbols of personal growth, claws victory from the jaws of Juuse Saros, er, defeat.

Tuesday, that hero was Joe Thornton. Thornton’s 400th career goal came 13 seconds after Joe Pavelski tied the game at four, and carried us all through the six-minute denouement before the credits rolled. Thornton became the seventh player in NHL history to play 1500 games, score 400 goals, and record 1000 assists. We all know Jumbo is a legend, but these kinds of milestones are welcome signposts.

The primary target of head coach Peter Deboer’s ire (seemingly chosen by dartboard at this point) was Antti Suomela who, despite scoring a beautiful goal generated by a dogged fore check, was held to 6:35 of ice time in the tilt. Marcus Sorensen scored a goal and added two assists for third star honors and Erik Karlsson recorded his 400th assist, becoming the 13th defenseman in NHL history to hit the milestone. The Sharks’ win bumped them back up to first in the division coupled with the Vancouver Canucks’ 5-3 loss in New York to the Islanders.

Victory did not come without sacrifice, however: Tomas Hertl left the game midway through the second period after recording his 100th career assist and 14th point in 11 games earlier in the contest. The Sharks (and we!) should know more about Hertl’s status later today, but until then, he’s classified as day to day. Again.

How sustainable is Toronto’s success?

While their 12-6-0 record is impressive, much like the recently downed Predators, Toronto’s success is built on some questionable underlying numbers. The Leafs hold a less than ideal 49.34 percent shot attempt share at five on five, a number that is countered by their 1.032 PDO. PDO is the sum of two numbers, and while their shooting percentage of 9.98 may be at least partially explainable by the insane amount of talent in the forward corps, their .931 save percentage is likely to regress as the season wears on.

The Sharks will need to hold the Leafs to five on five play for that to matter, however, as Toronto’s 92.4 (!) percent shot attempt share at 5-on-4 leads the league. With a top power play unit starring Tavares, Kadri, Marleau, Rielly, and Marner, it isn’t hard to see why. Yikes.

Will the Sharks ever solve Frederik Andersen?

Andersen is the largest reason for the Leafs’ aforementioned .931 save percentage at even strength, as the former Anaheim Duck holds a .938 on the season. Unfortunately, his numbers against the Sharks are even more impressive. Since joining the Leafs in 2016, Andersen holds a .947 save percentage against San Jose, along with a 1.93 goals against average. The fact that that is somehow paired with a 1-2-1 record speaks to a Toronto team with much less firepower than this one boasts. If our good teal boys want to pull two points down from this tree, they’ll have to put more than two goals past the Great Dane.

Can the Sharks prevent the Leafs from locking down an early lead?

And they may have to do it fast. The Maple Leafs have some absurd statistics regarding protecting early leads. The Buds are 7-0-0 when scoring first this season, 7-0-0 when leading after one period and 9-0-0 when leading after two frames.  If the Sharks want to best the best tonight, they’ll have to score early or often. Or both. Both would be ideal.

Bold prediction: Toronto is the only team left in the NHL who have yet to record an overtime loss. After scoring a hat trick in regulation, Marleau will score in the shootout only for the Leafs to be bested by Sorensen and Erik Karlsson, leading San Jose to a 9-8 win. Unfortunately for Karlsson, this does not count as his first Sharks goal and the wait drags agonizingly on.

The Maple Leafs are right back in action tomorrow, facing the Ducks in Anaheim at 7:00. The Sharks host the St. Louis Blues at home on Saturday at 7:30.