Sharks’ Offensive Struggles Manifest in Series Loss vs. Coyotes

After sweeping the Los Angeles Kings in a two-game series — and Martin Jones playing his best regular season hockey in the last three seasons — the Sharks entered a back-to-back weekend series against the Arizona Coyotes with a fair amount of optimism. In that series against the Kings, Jones played both games, and held the opposition to three goals in those games. The netminder appeared on a roll, with four consecutive starts above a .950 save percentage (SV%).

The Sharks’ lineup appeared to be set as well. The main lineup changes for Bob Boughner in this series saw Antti Suomella solidify a lineup spot on the fourth line, Patrick Marleau continue in the middle-six forward group, and Jones and Devan Dubnyk share the crease for the two game series.

Offense Struggles Against Adin Hill

Despite Arizona’s quality goaltending duo of Darcy Kuemper and Antii Raanta unable to take the ice, third-string goalie Adin Hill outclassed the Sharks’ offense. Boughner even changed his lineup between games, elevating Rudolfs Balcers and John Leonard, some of the team’s better offensive talents, to the second line. However, the Sharks were held to two goals in the series opener, and were shut out in the latter game.

In the first game, the Sharks netted two goals from Tomas Hertl on a shorthanded tally and Marleau at the conclusion of a power play. While it’s important to record scoring on special teams, the Sharks being shut out by a third-string goalie at even strength in two games is inexcusable.

The Sharks still had their chances to score, but lacked finishing when they needed it. In the first game of the series, San Jose had 2.75 expected goals per MoneyPuck. Unfortunately, the top line of Kevin Labanc, Evander Kane, and Logan Couture struggled to produce this series. At even strength, the normally productive top line was outclassed in both games, well under 50% in controlling expected goals (xGoals%), which indicates the unit was well under average in controlling scoring chances.

In fact, only four skaters found themselves above 50 percent in xGoals% in both games: Hertl, Leonard, Erik Karlsson, and Nikolai Knyzhov. Obviously, it is nice to see youngsters like Leonard and Knyzhov have positive impacts on games at such young ages, and veterans returning from injury play well. However, only having four skaters with positive impacts when facing an underwhelming Arizona roster is not a good look after the Sharks had so much optimism from their series sweep against Los Angeles.

In the second game, the Sharks only had 1.75 expected goals, but those numbers need a little context. The team played about nine minutes on the penalty kill in the third period, so the club had little opportunity to score in the final frame of the game.

However, the Sharks still had their scoring chances. Both Balcers and Timo Meier found themselves with scoring chances alone in the slot, with neither finishing those shots in the back of the net. Poor finishing, coupled with constant defensive woes, was a recipe for disaster for San Jose.

More Defensive Woes

Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic had multiple defensive woes that directly led to goals against. These veteran blueliners’ defensive woes have been a theme for this season, and coupled with the Sharks’ often poor goaltending tandem, have definitely hindered the team’s chances of winning in many games.

First, Vlasic’s poor play in holding the blue line in the offensive zone impacted two goals in the Sharks’ most recent loss. At the beginning of the second period, the long-time Sharks’ defenseman fumbled a well-placed stretch pass in the offensive zone. His errant reception led directly to a 2-on-1, which Clayton Keller was able to finish easily five-hole on Dubnyk.

At the conclusion of that same period, Vlasic and Karlsson had a communication error in the offensive zone that led to another break. Vlasic then doubled down on this defensive miscue, and took an unneeded slashing penalty on the ensuing odd-man rush. Thirty seconds later, the Coyotes extended their lead to two on the man advantage.

Burns had many rough defensive miscues as well, mainly in the first game of the series. Look no further than the second goal of the game, when the 36-year-old defenseman lost his assignment to Nick Schmaltz in the defensive zone who easily tipped in a point shot for a goal.

The worst mistake of the game for Burns came in the third period of the first game, when his commitment to sparking the team offensively cost them majorly. Nick Schmaltz easily picked off Burns’ attempt at a home-run pass from the San Jose defensive zone, and scored easily on the ensuing break.

The defensive woes for these long-tenured defenseman is hard to watch at times. Both have significant time remaining on large-salary contracts, and these defensive issues will likely get worse as they continue in the team’s lineup.

Third Period Gets Out of Hand

Despite defensive struggles and faltering scoring, the Sharks were never out of games entering the final period. In the second game, San Jose was out-chancing the Coyotes entering the third period; however, the aforementioned defensive miscues and penalty troubles led to the game getting out of the club’s hands late in the game.

The Sharks have a pretty average penalty kill, that now sits 14th in the league with a 79.3 percent success rate. However, pairing this with a third period where the team spent about half the frame killing penalties soured any hope the team had of getting back in the game. These events in the third period of last night’s defeat prevented the Sharks from scoring and getting back in the game.

Kurtis Gabriel was the forefront of this, logging 19 penalty minutes in the game, far outdoing his seven minutes of ice time. He slotted into the lineup after missing the two prior games, and his game misconduct for interference promptly saw him exit the lineup in the third. This, coupled with two delay of games and a stick infraction set the Sharks up for failure.

Entering the third period of the first game, the Sharks still had a chance to get back into the match. Down just one, the team had a power play where they were unable notch a tying goal. They also failed on a power play just after the Arizona lead was extended to two. However, Jones was unable to bail out poor defensive play, and the team quickly spiraled out of control and lost by three.

Moving Forward

To reiterate, the Sharks had reasonable optimism entering the back-to-back in the desert. However, the team was promptly returned to reality in this series. The team now sits sixth-worst in the league, three games under .500, and seven points out of the playoffs. The Coyotes, Kings, and St. Louis Blues all sit between them and a fourth spot in the division.

Entering their series against the Minnesota Wild tomorrow, the Sharks will hope to see continued success from Hertl, Leonard, Karlsson, and Knyzhov who are large parts of the team’s future. While Boughner’s constant lineup changes often appear tiresome, I would not be surprised to see the breaking up of the top forward line. They have been less dominant in recent games, and barely have a positive impact on the season in terms of controlling expected goals, per MoneyPuck.

The most recent lineup changes saw promotion of Balcers and Leonard over Meier. This creates an odd situation moving forward for the Swiss winger, who has been streaky in his career, but produced at least 20 goals in the last three seasons and led the team in points last season. Meier must improve from his current run of three assists and no goals in his last seven games, and will need improvement in the next series.

Timo Meier San Jose Sharks
Timo Meier, San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Meier will be at the forefront of Sharks players who need improvement. I would also add veterans Burns and Vlasic to that list, as their long-term contracts look rough currently and for the future. The Wild are on a three-game win streak, and the Sharks will need improvement from many of their players to compete against a clear playoff team.

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