In Game 3 of their series with Colorado Avalanche, the San Jose Sharks were led by Logan Couture, who posted his first playoff hat trick in the Sharks 4-2 win. They now lead the best-of-seven series 2-1.
If it seems like Sharks have a different hero in each win, well, they do. The Sharks have won five of their last six, beginning with Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights. On that night, Tomas Hertl scored twice in the Sharks 5-2 win.
Since then, the heroes have been Martin Jones (58 saves) in Game 6 (a 2-1 win), the Kevin Labanc-led power play (four goals in four minutes) in Game 7 (5-4 overtime win). In Game 1 against the Avs, it was Brent Burns and the Joe Thornton line with Labanc and Marcus Sorensen (5-2 win). In Game 3, it was Couture and his hat trick (4-2 win).
It is worth noting it isn’t just different heroes. It is different parts of the roster. Hertl leads one line, Couture leads a different line and Thornton leads yet another. Burns plays defense and Jones is the netminder. The Sharks heroes come from all over the roster.
The Sharks’ Constant
If the hero changes game to game, there are some steady influences which have helped. At the head of this list is Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Sharks defensive defenseman. Vlasic, injured early in Game 2 of the series against Vegas, returned in Game 5 and the Sharks are 5-1 since. With Vlasic absent for two games plus two periods, the Sharks allowed 13 goals. Since his return, the scoring rate against the Sharks has been cut in half with 15 goals allowed in the last six games. Vlasic has long been a key element in Sharks playoff success. When he’s been out in the playoffs, historically and again this season, things have gone off the rails.
Vlasic’s regular season was poor by his standards, so his expected impact on the playoffs was less clear this season than ever before. Still, he did turn his season around, going from a minus-16 at one point (this from a player who hadn’t had a minus season in over a decade) to minus-six by year-end.
It turns out, Vlasic’s turnaround was real and his effectiveness carried into the playoffs. The Sharks are still a contender because of it. In this series, the Sharks are challenged to shut down Nathan McKinnon’s line which includes Gabriel Landeskog at center and either Alex Kerfoot or Mikko Rantanen on the opposite wing. With Rantanen on the line, it features three uber-talents and some argue this the best line in the NHL. They’ve got a very good case. Against Vlasic (now paired with Burns), the group has been slowed, but not stopped.
The Challenge Playing the Sharks
Teams which can beat you in a variety of ways with a variety of talented players pose a special challenge and the Sharks are such a team. The series against Colorado has been a relatively quiet series for Erik Karlsson. Ditto for Hertl and Evander Kane. Yet Hertl had a big series against Vegas and Karlsson led all players in the playoffs with nine assists in the opening round (though his defensive game struggled during the series). Timo Meier and new father Gustav Nyquist both had a strong Game 3 against Colorado, after both had been quiet for most of the playoffs.
The power play has been ineffective during the postseason, save for the one dramatic power play in Game 7 against Vegas. In the rest of the series against Vegas, the Sharks had a net of two power play goals, scoring four, but allowing two shorthanded. It hasn’t been useful against Colorado, either. The Sharks lone power-play tally in the series came with the team down two goals and just 10 seconds left in Game 2. It also coughed up a shorthanded goal which pulled the Avs within a goal in the middle frame of Game 3.
The Sharks have plenty of room to improve given the high expectations of individuals and units who have yet to make a significant impact in this series.
Challenge For the Sharks
The Sharks have plenty of talent, but there is a sense it hasn’t come together. Should it come together, the Sharks can be a dominant team. The power play, with the one exception, has done little despite the enormous talent the Sharks roll out. The penalty kill has been suspect – it was downright poor in the first series. It, too, had been substantially better over a good portion of the regular season.
These days, the Sharks are reliant on finding a hot hand to gain them a win, such as Couture in Game 3. But if a hot hand doesn’t emerge in any given game, the Sharks will find themselves on the wrong end of the score. Do this too often, and they’ll finish on the wrong end of a series.
It is good to have a new hero each game. It makes it tough on other teams to figure out the matchup they must stop when it keeps changing from game to game. Unlike the Avs, which rely heavily on one brilliant group, the Sharks are talented in many areas.
Sharks’ Greatness Within Reach
Perhaps the Sharks will beat themselves, as they almost did in Game 3 when Burns turned over the puck on an ill-advised stretch pass and moments later, it found its way in the back of the Sharks net. But they have not done much of this and their game is getting tighter as the playoffs progress.
The more intriguing scenario is if this all does come together. The Sharks’ roster is immensely talented and the team is capable of being a great team. Because they are not there yet, a window of opportunity exists for their opponents. The team which finds a way to keep all the Sharks weapons at bay will defeat them. As the Sharks are proving, even this is no easy task.
Earlier in the article, I indicated a goal was scored by Colorado shorthanded in Game 3. Game logs I’ve seen record the goal, scored by McKinnon, as an even-strength goal. It came exactly two minutes after the penalty which left Colorado shorthanded before the Avs player returned to the ice and clearly before McKinnon’s shot. For all intents and purposes, it was shorthanded, whether reflected in the official stats – or not.