It is no secret, scoring is up in the NHL this season. Scoring against the San Jose Sharks is up a good bit, as both goalies have struggled and the defense has allowed far too many odd-man rushes.
But things are looking up for the Sharks. They’ve clearly improved defensively in the last month, allowing fewer transition opportunities in most games. But where they’re really changed is on offense, where goal scoring has taken off.
Sharks Defensemen Take Charge
There’s little doubt about the leader of the recent surge; it is Erik Karlsson. A modest start offensively and a problematic start defensively was disappointing for Karlsson, but most felt he’d find a groove at some point and become the elite defenseman he’s always been. Well, that and more. Once again an all-star, Karlsson is coming off one of the best months of his career. Following the emotional Dec. 1 homecoming loss in Ottawa, Karlsson found his A++ game. He is plus-13 with 18 points in the last 13 games (he missed two games due to a suspension).
But Karlsson was far from the only big time contributor. Fellow all-star defenseman and occasional partner Brent Burns has also been on fire, with 18 points in 15 games and plus-eight rating.
The are Sharks getting scoring from all sorts of places. Since Dec. 1, there are seven games where a Sharks player scored multiple goals, with five players contributing to this. Five players, all different, have had three assist games in the same time span.
Of the Sharks dozen top forwards, 11 have recorded six or more points since Dec. 1. Three are chipping in at over a point per game over the 15 games. Eight have at least four goals in this timeframe. Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl (recently moved to center) have delivered eight goals each, Logan Couture has supplied seven.
The results are showing up in the team’s record. In the past fifteen games, the Sharks are 10-3-2 and they project to a 100 point season for the first time.
Sharks Scoring Peak?
The Sharks are fully capable of scoring more often. They can roll out two elite power play units and there’s more to be moved here. While they have enough speed and savvy to score off transitions, this isn’t the key to their game as it is with some of the Sharks main rivals. The Sharks have excellent power forwards in Hertl, Timo Meier and Evander Kane. They’ve helped San Jose get offense from behind the net, either by scoring goals or drawing penalties and getting the payoff on the power play.
A few weeks back, I pointed out the need for the Sharks to drive play from behind the net and there has been a definite uptick in the team’s time spent there. The results have been a big part of the recent scoring surge.
All the Sharks problems are not fixed. Fast teams have given the Sharks problems and a pair of recent games against fast teams indicate there’s plenty of work to do. The team melted down in some key respects against the Calgary Flames (especially defensively) in the last game of 2018, an 8-5 loss. They played one of their best periods in the first game of 2019 against the Colorado Avalanche, dominating for the first 16 minutes of the second period, building a 5-1 lead. Alas, they gave up a goal, then were penalized twice in the last three minutes of the period. By the time there were three minutes left in the final period, the Sharks only led 5-4. Still, they managed to hang on for the win. Even with increased scoring, giving up 12 goals in two games is not a formula for long term success.
The Sharks are not a team which can afford to sacrifice defense for offense. The good news, they don’t need to. This Sharks team must prioritize defense to go far this season. As long as they play disciplined defensively, especially against faster teams, the offense is strong enough to deliver the goal scoring this team needs.
• The Sharks are in third place in the Pacific Division, unable to catch the Flames and passed by the streaking Vegas Golden Knights (10-3-0 in their last 13 games). Though the Sharks have slipped a bit in the standings, they’ve gained considerably in the playoff chase. The Sharks have meaningful separation over fourth place Anaheim. They have also opened up a healthy margin against the remainder of the division teams and all the ‘outside looking in’ wild card hopefuls in the Western Conference.
• Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan were the best defensive pair in the AHL two seasons ago. But they’ve never really played together as Sharks. That may change soon due to a recent rash of injuries among Sharks defensemen.