The San Jose Sharks exited their most challenging run of games for the regular season with good success. A daunting 12 game sequence featured 11 games against teams in a playoff position. Having finished this part of the season, the Sharks schedule has taken on a different theme: time to feast.
Five games removed from finishing the daunting dozen, the Sharks are indeed, feasting. After playing a flat game against St. Louis, an injury-stressed Sharks team topped the Winnipeg Jets, who were missing their elite rookie, Patrick Laine.
In the next game, San Jose was able to hold off an injury-stressed Los Angeles Kings team. The Kings were missing, among others, Jonathan Quick and Tyler Toffoli. When the Tampa Bay Lightning came to town, absent from the Lightning line-up were Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop. The Sharks, though outplayed, managed a 2-1 win. They followed it up with a fourth straight win over the Colorado Avalanche, 3-2 in overtime. The Avs were missing key defensemen Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson. Their goalie, Spencer Martin, made his NHL debut in the game.
A Favorable Schedule …
The Sharks, dealing with some dinged up players of their own, could use a softer schedule. Good teams pile on the easier points and for the Sharks, their opportunity is now. The next game is against bottom dwelling Colorado, followed by a visit to Winnipeg.
Between now and the Sharks five day break, which begins after the Feb. 19 game against Boston, the Sharks play 13 games. Only two of 13 games are against teams currently projecting to reach 90 or more points on the season. Eight games come against teams either last or second to last in their division.
While the schedule appears much easier, not every team near the bottom is struggling. Vancouver, for example, has been playing much better of late. As has New Jersey. And the Buffalo Sabres have long been the Sharks kryptonite. The condensed schedule also poses a challenge for a team dealing with important injuries and one of the league’s oldest rosters. There are three back-to-backs, and 12 of the 13 games require the Sharks to travel between games.
In the past month, the Sharks have battled injuries. Among those missing time were Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Martin David Schlemko, Logan Couture, Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl. All but Hertl have returned to the line-up and Hertl appears close to returning. It is possible the Sharks will have all of their top 18 skaters healthy during this timeframe. Having a healthy roster during this stretch allows the Sharks some roster flexibility.
This portion of the schedule gives San Jose a chance to bank plenty of points. The Sharks will be favored in every game except perhaps the home game against Chicago – which looks to be an even matchup. Clinching a playoff spot prior to the break is not going to happen. Still, if the Sharks take advantage of this opportunity, they can enter the post-break stretch drive with plenty of breathing room for a playoff spot.
Perhaps the best video in the Sharks treasure trove of holiday releases was their Holiday Sweater video from two seasons ago. Twelve Sharks were featured in the video. In some recent games, only two, Chris Tierney and Brenden Dillon, played for the Sharks. John Scott, James Sheppard, Antti Niemi, Alex Stalock, Matt Irwin, Jason Demers and the recently waived Matt Nieto are elsewhere. Tomas Hertl is injured, while Barclay Goodrow and Mirco Mueller are spending their time in the AHL with the San Jose Barracuda. A lot has changed in just two years.
Many have commented on Sharks backup goalie Aaron Dell. At the start of the season, the expectation was clear. The rookie netminder had the opportunity to own the backup job. If he failed, the Sharks would trade for a more expensive, but proven veteran. Dell continues to be a very nice story. He has been solid or better in each of his appearances. With a .933 save percentage and a 5-2 record, it makes sense for the Sharks to play him more. The Sharks are tight to the salary cap and Dell’s contract is cap-friendly. Dell’s effectiveness has helped the Sharks on the ice and with their cap situation.
Earlier in the year, I wrote about Melker Karlsson’s effectiveness and the key role he plays. He has missed seven games and averages just over 12 minutes of ice time. Though he has bounced around lines, most of his time is spent on the fourth line. Yet Karlsson’s plus-9 rating leads all Sharks forwards, ahead of Joe Pavelski (plus-8) and Joe Thornton (plus-5).