Why Can’t the Sharks Close Out Periods?

The midway point of the San Jose Sharks 2022-23 season shows a team facing a difficult campaign. They have the fourth-worst point percentage in the NHL and are almost certain to miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

While a season this challenging is always caused by a number of factors, one that deserves particular attention for the Sharks is their inability to close out periods. In the first 42 games, the team has allowed a disproportionate 25 goals in the final two minutes of periods.

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This season-long trend has been a clear detriment to the Sharks’ success. Many of the 25 goals have either tied the game or given the opponent the lead in the third period, turning potential regulation wins into overtime losses and potential overtime contests into regulation losses. They have also given their opponents momentum to close periods and halted any momentum the Sharks themselves may have had. Simply put, there’s no way to tell for sure how many points these goals have cost them throughout the season, but it’s a substantial number.

James Reimer San Jose Sharks
James Reimer, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Sharks have been outscored by 12 goals in the final two minutes of periods this season. If they had been able to take the number of goals they conceded in these time frames from 25 to 13, for a differential of zero, they would go from having allowed the third-most overall goals in the league to the 10th-most — still not ideal, but nowhere near as problematic as the reality of their current situation.

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While a number of these 25 goals were late-game empty-netters — more on that later — most were not. I decided to go back and watch every goal conceded by the Sharks in the last two minutes of a period, with a goalie in the net, to see if I could find any common threads between them. Here’s what I discovered.

Turnovers Lead to Easy Looks

The Sharks allowed 17 goals under the parameters put forth in the above paragraph. While these goals came about in a few different ways, they were most frequently caused by turnovers. By my count, seven of the 17 goals came off of a giveaway.

The Sharks actually don’t turn the puck over very much. Their 335 giveaways are only the 20th-most in the league, which is much better than several teams currently in a playoff position. The problem is not in the turnovers themselves, but in the frequency with which these giveaways lead to opportunities for their opponents. San Jose’s control of the puck is good, but when the Sharks do commit turnovers, they allow scoring chances at a high rate, and several of these late-period goals demonstrate this issue perfectly.

One example came on Oct. 29, 2022, against the Tampa Bay Lightning. With just over a minute remaining in the third period and the score tied at three, Evgeny Svechnikov attempted to force a shot that didn’t reach the net and allowed Tampa to take possession of the puck. From there, the Lightning created a breakaway that found multiple Sharks out of position and gave Nikita Kucherov a tap-in for the game-winning goal. What should have been at worst an overtime loss for San Jose became a regulation defeat. To get no points after playing well against one of the league’s best teams was deflating.

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Failure to Recover After Losing Loose-Puck Scrambles

The primary cause of the last two-minute goals has been giveaways, but they are not the only explanation. The Sharks also frequently get beaten to loose pucks, and these lost races usually turn into goals the other way.

Of the 17 goals in question, five were created at least in part from the Sharks losing a puck battle, including one in a loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 1, 2022. Late in the first period, Alexander Barabanov attempted to dump the puck into the offensive zone for his teammates to chase, but Logan Couture and Matt Nieto were unable to reach it. The Ducks easily recovered the puck and immediately headed down the ice. Since they won possession so quickly, the Sharks were caught off-balance and Adam Henrique blew past the defense for a point-blank opportunity. Thus the Ducks took a one-goal lead, and San Jose eventually lost in a shootout.

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The Sharks often fail to get control of loose pucks and allow goals off turnovers late in periods, pointing to a larger problem of a loss of focus, carelessness, and a lack of attention to detail. These difficulties have plagued the team at various times throughout the season and often prove to be a determining factor in game results. It is essential for San Jose to stay focused, as they can’t always match the talent of their opponent. Losing focus toward the end of periods, rather than finishing periods strong, has the potential for disaster — not only do you give up a goal, but you also give the opponent momentum going forward.

Empty-Net Goals

While I mostly wanted to focus this piece on goalie-in-net situations, it is worth mentioning the other frequent source of late-period goals. The Sharks have allowed 11 empty-net goals this season — tied for third-most in the league — including eight in the final two minutes of third periods. Some of this is obviously attributable to trailing late in games. The more frequently a team trails, the more they need to pull their goalie, creating more opportunities for empty-net goals. But the Sharks also haven’t been very successful when they have six skaters on the ice. They have managed just two goals in these situations, putting their overall success rate among the worst in the league. Their struggle to gain or maintain control of the puck in these late-game scenarios has thwarted many comeback opportunities and put a number of games out of reach.

Despite the Struggles, Recent Games Provide Hope

If there is a positive in all of this, it’s that the Sharks have been trending in the right direction when it comes to preventing late goals. After allowing 17 such goals in the first 22 games of the season — including a stretch during October and November in which they gave up at least one goal in the last two minutes of a period in 11 of 13 games — they have allowed only eight in the last 20, a vast improvement.

There’s a reason that the best examples of these goals came from games much earlier in the season. Slowly but surely, the Sharks have been improving in this area, staying locked in for a full 20 minutes and not taking any unnecessary risks as time winds down. It may be too late for the team to turn this season around, but if they continue to correct this issue, it could give them significant momentum going into 2023-24.