San Jose Sharks Change Their Script

A little over two weeks ago, we discussed the San Jose Sharks’ upcoming eight games and how these games would impact the rest of the season. The games included six tilts against teams close to the Sharks in the Western Conference playoff standings, one against their arch rival and one against the best team in the league.

This stretch, one of the toughest and most important of the season, has changed the Sharks’ season for the better. A lot better.

Six Sharks Wins

The Sharks dispatched three teams that trailed the Sharks in the playoff chase but were within striking distance as of two weeks, the Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche and twice against the Edmonton Oilers. They are no longer within striking distance.

The game against their arch rival, the Los Angeles Kings, was a hard-fought affair; close throughout and settled only with an empty net score in the final minute for a 3-1 Sharks win.

Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks
Joe Thornton’s empty net goal sealed the game against the Kings. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The win over the Tampa Bay Lightning was the most surprising of the eight games. Last season, the Lightning dominated the Sharks twice, outscoring them 10-3. This season, the Lightning might be the league’s most improved team. They arrived in San Jose on a 15-0-1 streak; their last regulation loss was just after Thanksgiving. The game at the Shark Tank turned out very differently. The Sharks smothered the Lightning’s potent offense most of the night to carve out a 5-2 win.

Top of the Pacific Division Games

The Sharks played a pair rivals at the top of the Pacific Division and split those games, both on the road. They lost to the Calgary Flames and beat the Vegas Golden Knights. The Sharks didn’t gain any ground because these rivals have been hot. The Flames have won six of their last eight games while the Golden Knights have won seven of eight (the Sharks snapped their seven-game win streak).

Calgary, San Jose and Vegas hold the top three spots in the Pacific, and there is a gap in the standings between these three and the rest of the division. As such, all three have now defined the rest of their season. Barring a dramatic reversal of fortune, it is now about which playoff spot they will earn, not whether they will earn a playoff spot, something none of these teams could say eight games ago.

The Key Factors

We’ve covered the Sharks’ four keys and they all came into play in this run. First, the team needed better goaltending and both Martin Jones and Aaron Dell delivered. The Sharks allowed two goals or less in five of the eight games. Jones was stellar in the win over the Golden Knights, saving 36 shots and earning first star honors. It was among his best games of the season and likely his most clutch.

Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks, Fantasy Hockey
Martin Jones had a strong game against the Golden Knights.  (Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports)

Second, the Sharks are a power-forward driven team and I noted that the team needed to spend more time behind the net. They have and the results are showing. The game-winning goal in the final period against the Golden Knights came off the hard work of power forward Tomas Hertl’s play behind the net.

Hertl repeated the same move he used against Vegas in last year’s playoffs. He went behind the net and scrambled the Golden Knights defense. With defenders losing their assignments, Hertl was able to go out front and bank his shot off Joonas Donskoi for the score. In the 108 minutes the Sharks have played against the Golden Knights this season, that goal marked their first lead, 3-2. Twelve minutes later, it was the final score.

Golden Knights right wing Keegan Kolesar
Tomas Hertl (48) has been key to several Sharks wins.  (John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports)

Third, is the power play. During this eight-game stretch, the Sharks were 7 for 24 on the power play, a 29 percent efficiency which is among the best in the league, where the Sharks’ power play should be given the talent it rolls out. Disappointing though, are the number of power-play opportunities. In this stretch, the Sharks averaged 3.0 power plays per game; they should average around 4.0 to fully weaponize this asset.

Finally, there is limiting odd-man rushes and reducing quick-strike scores against them. On this front, they have made great progress. This season, the Sharks have had a relatively stingy defense once their players get set up in the defensive zone. Against quick-strikes though, they have been like Swiss cheese. Fortunately, the fix isn’t too complicated. It requires the team to be less aggressive in the offensive zone and smarter while moving through the neutral zone.

Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson
By adjusting his game, Erik Karlsson (65) has helped the Sharks on offense and defense.  (Photo by Matt Cohen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For the Sharks, good defense now starts when they have the puck. By not over-extending their offense, they are better prepared to play defense when puck possession changes. This adjustment has not hurt their offense, but it has sure helped their defense.

The Rest of the Season

When we discussed the upcoming eight games, I wrote “13 points … would put the Sharks in an enviable position for the rest of the season.” The Sharks raked in 14 points and they are indeed in an enviable position.

The race for the Pacific Division title has whittled down to just three contenders, the Sharks, Flames and Golden Knights. The Sharks have a good shot at this but what really matters, is that they have done a tremendous job in their quest for a playoff spot. A division title is nice, but one doesn’t get a shot at the Stanley Cup without making the playoffs. It is far too early to say San Jose has their playoff ticket punched, but they have set themselves up for a successful second half.

Zeke’s Notes

• The Sharks will have ample opportunity to give up a bit of their hard-earned place in the standings in their five games between now and the All-Star break. In the first game after this eight-game stretch, the Sharks earned a ragged win over the Ottawa Senators. They’ll next face the Pittsburgh Penguins before starting a four-game road trip with games against the Arizona Coyotes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals.

There is no easy schedule in the NHL, but as long as the Sharks continue to play well, their place in the standings will take care of itself.

• The Sharks’ victory over Golden Knights was also the 1,000th win in franchise history. No figure has been more prominent with the franchise than Doug Wilson. Wilson was the team’s initial captain for two seasons and has been the general manager since 2003. Here is a break down of Wilson’s role in the 1,000 wins.

Team captain Doug Wilson (2 seasons): 28 wins – 14.0 wins/season

Between team captain and GM (10 seasons): 311 wins  – 31.1 wins/season

General manager Doug Wilson (14+ seasons): 661 wins – 45.4 wins/season