Throughout the season, every time the San Jose Sharks seem to take two steps forward, they always seem to take one step back. It is why they are still fighting for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Sharks three game road trip to western Canada, though, resulted in three steps forward and four steps back.
Sharks Steps Forward
The three steps represent the three wins in three games. These couldn’t have come at a better time. The Sharks have ten games left and it is the most challenging stretch of competition they’ve had all season.
Only one of the Sharks remaining ten games is against a team locked outside of a playoff spot. The Sharks play the top three teams in the west, all locked into a postseason spot. They play five teams battling for a playoff spot in the west and one game against a team fighting for a playoff spot in the east (New Jersey Devils). On the plus side, the Sharks have more home games than road games remaining, and the frequency of games is reasonable, with just one back-to-back.
The three wins give them a bit of room for error, something lacking all season long. But the news is not all good.
Sharks Steps Back
The four steps back, however, are the four players who were injured on the road trip. In our last piece, we discussed the Sharks thin margins for error. Injuries are a part of this. With Joe Thornton and Joel Ward already ailing, the Sharks lost another forward, Joonas Donskoi in the Wednesday game against Edmonton. Joakim Ryan played on Friday against Calgary, but missed the game on Saturday game against Vancouver.
Two more players went out during the game on Saturday, neither returning. Melker Karlsson took a puck to the leg early in the game. In the middle frame, Marc-Edouard Vlasic took a hit from a deflected puck and immediately dropped to the ice before skating off with the help of the Sharks’ trainer.
The Sharks can manage without a few forwards, but four forwards out is a lot to handle. The Sharks can also handle two missing defensemen, as long as its neither Brent Burns or Vlasic. But it’s Vlasic, and the level of concern is high. Semantics are often used regarding Vlasic, but his value is hard to overstate. Some consider Vlasic the team’s most valuable player while others consider him the team’s most indispensable player. Anyway one cuts it, the Sharks are not nearly as good without him.
The Sharks Power Game Thrives
Recently, we commented on the two moves general manager Doug Wilson made at the trade deadline, and they are both working. Specifically, we noted how the Sharks were more physical with Eric Fehr and Evander Kane; the team’s new identity shaped by power forwards.
The games against the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames illustrated this. Against Edmonton, it was power forward Tomas Hertl’s puck battle against another talented power forward, Leon Draisaitl, which led to the game-winning goal. And against Edmonton, it was Kane’s four-goal game which led the team. For his second goal, while the game was still tight, he out-battled the defender in front of the net.
In the game against Vancouver, the Sharks skated (at times), a fourth line consisting of Eric Fehr, Barclay Goodrow and Jannik Hansen. This is about as physical a line as the Sharks have skated all season and it proved a handful for the Canucks. Yet another San Jose power forward, Timo Meier, had two goals.
Goaltending Making a Difference
The Sharks expect to ride goalie Martin Jones down the closing stretch of the season. This might not be a great idea. Jones has a history of diminishing returns if he is asked to bear too much of a load; last season he carried a heavy workload and had a declining save percentage every month from November on.
Jones returned from an injury on Jan. 30 and gave up four goals to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since then, Jones has been terrific. From Jan. 31 to March 10, 16 games in total, Jones only allowed three regulation goals (or more) in a game twice. However, in each of his last three games, he’s allowed three or more goals.
Back-up goalie Aaron Dell has had a fine season, and perhaps it is time for head coach Peter DeBoer to show faith in Dell and give him a few starts down this critical stretch. This can help Dell, Jones and the team. Dell had a solid game against Vancouver, including some brilliant, game-saving play in the final period.
Are the Sharks Thriving or Surviving?
The record on the road trip says the Sharks are thriving. The injuries say they are surviving. If they are truly down six starters, this team is going to fight for survival. This is every bit of depth they have before going to highly unproven players.
The Sharks have been competitive all season long. A healthy Sharks team would certainly make the playoffs from their spot in the standings. But this team isn’t healthy and the obstacle-filled sprint to the finish has a ‘high-wire act’ feel to it. Depth has been a critical piece of the Sharks puzzle all season long, and the ten games remaining will put it to the ultimate test.
• The Sharks went ten games without giving up a power play goal to the opposition. The streak ended against Vancouver and their modest power play. And it ended with a thud, as the Sharks gave up three goals! Both players injured during the game, Vlasic and Karlsson, play major roles on the penalty kill.
• Kane’s four-goal game against Calgary was also his first career hat trick.