The San Jose Sharks have won their first two games of the season. While both games were tight, one goal wins, there is plenty of good news in these two wins.
Prior to the start of the season, I suggested there were certain items to look for early in the year. Two games have given us a window on several of these items.
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I wondered how Sharks coach Peter DeBoer would manage the ice time of the top players, especially the Joes, Thornton and Pavelski. DeBoer has shown he considers this issue important. The top two Sharks forwards in even strength minutes are not the two veterans, but a pair of younger players who’ll be discussed later in this piece.
If ice time is to be managed effectively, it means fourth-liners should get substantial playing time. DeBoer has rolled out the same fourth line for both games, consisting of Tommy Wingels, Matt Nieto and Melker Karlsson. All three fourth-line players are averaging at least 10 minutes per game. DeBoer has gone with an unconventional fourth line, in that none of the players have been centers at the NHL level.
Two of the fourth liners, Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto, are candidates to lose ice time to ‘up and coming’ players in the Sharks system. Their play, through two games, has been positive. Nieto, for example, drew a tripping penalty against Columbus. Wingels, playing center for the first time in his NHL career, has been respectable in the face-off circle, winning seven of 15. I still expect to see the Sharks give some ice time to younger forwards in the very near future, including Ryan Carpenter, who is on the Sharks current road trip.
The Defense Stands Tall
Early in the season, it is common to see a lot of goals scored, as it typically takes a while for teams to develop cohesive defenses. The Sharks went the first 119 minutes of the season without giving up an even-strength goal. Two games in, the Sharks are best in the West, having giving up just three total goals. Twenty-two of the thirty teams are giving up at least three goals per game.
The Sharks faced two very different styles in their opponents. Los Angeles, a mature team, plays a heavy, defense-first style. It is a style often seen in the deeper rounds of the playoffs. Columbus, a young team, plays a fast, aggressive style. They are effective at hounding the puck, often using multiple forecheckers. The drawback is a tendency to overplay the puck resulting in odd-man rushes or players left alone near the net front.
Against Los Angeles, San Jose was the deeper and more talented team, controlling the play for extended stretches. Against Columbus, the Sharks dominated the opening period before the Blue Jackets found their game and pushed the Sharks hard the rest of the way. Even then, the Blue Jackets gave up several rushes and quality scoring chances to the Sharks. It took a strong game from Sergei Bobrovsky (the number one star) to keep the game close.
One can underline the quality defensive play with a simple statistic: San Jose has only been a man down three times in two games. This speaks to the effectiveness and discipline in the Sharks defensive game.
Integrating the new players has gone as anticipated. Forward Mikkel Boedker has a goal, though at times he has looked like he isn’t quite on the same page with his linemates (Joonas Donskoi and Logan Couture). It is a promising ‘work in progress’. All three players are plus-2. Meanwhile, defenseman David Schlemko has been solid in his pairing with Brenden Dillon. This combination is already showing signs of being among the best third defensive pairs in the league.
Special Teams Challenged
On the not so good, there is the top power play unit. The Sharks are two for eight with the man advantage, but the power play hasn’t looked that good. One of the two goals came with an empty net. On another Sharks power play, Columbus nearly garnered a short-handed goal (the shot beat Martin Jones but hit the pipe). More importantly, though, the power play hasn’t looked sharp for extended stretches. Still, there is little reason to think this will be the case in the long run.
The penalty kill has given up a pair of goals, though neither was the result of particularly strong play on the part of the opposition. One goal was a short-side snipe which somehow got past a post-hugging Martin Jones, the other off a basic point shot which redirected off a Sharks player on its way towards the net. It is hard to get a good read on just three man-down situations.
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Two players I suggested keeping a close eye on early in the season were Chris Tierney and Tomas Hertl, the latter coming off a knee injury. These are the top two Sharks forwards in even strength ice time. Hertl has not looked like the guy we saw effectively banging his way through the playoffs. It seems his recovery is ongoing.
A major concern with Tierney was his work in the face-off circle. Tierney has been moved up in the line-up and is now the center for the Sharks third line. Thus far, it hasn’t been pretty in the face-off circle. Tierney has won only four of 17 draws. Aside from the face-off issues, though, his play is encouraging, including a nice win in a puck battle leading to the Sharks second goal against Columbus.
So Far, So Good
The Sharks are 2-0-0. Historically, the Sharks main rivals are the two teams from Southern California, Anaheim and Los Angeles. Last season, these three teams represented the Pacific Division in the postseason. Both Los Angeles and Anaheim are 0-2-0 so far.
As suggested in the “What to Watch For” article, winning early is important for a team having the advantages of continuity and players a bit further along due to World Cup participation. The Sharks are doing it with defense, which suggests they are playing a better all-around game than typical of teams early in the season.