This is not an April Fools joke: the San Jose Sharks actually swept a playoff contender. The Sharks entered a two-game series against the Minnesota Wild on the heels of two embarrassing losses to the Arizona Coyotes. Eight points out of a playoff spot, seventh in the Honda West Division and spiraling downward, the Sharks looked far from any possible playoff conversation.
The team also had a consistent lineup entering this series. The only change was inserting Jeffrey Viel on the fourth-line wing for Kurtis Gabriel. And, maybe it was a small sample size or catching Minnesota off guard, but San Jose looked solid in this series. Five of the team’s defensemen notched points, and young contributors and offensive depth directly led to their success.
Blueliners Add Into Scoring
Five of six San Jose defenseman recorded a point in this series, and this offensive contribution directly influenced the team’s series sweep. It began with Erik Karlsson, who played some of his best hockey since joining the Sharks, who had just one assist in his last six games heading into the series.
Karlsson’s offensive abilities were on full display with two goals, one assist, and a shootout winner in the two games. The two-time Norris Trophy-winner struggled defensively in the first game and was the worst on the team in expected goals percentage at even strength (xGoals%) with 29.4 percent, well under the 50 percent average. He then rebounded in the next game and led the team with an 83.3 percent. The smooth-skating Swede also recorded the primary assist on Nikolai Knyzhov’s first NHL goal in the series’ second game.
Brent Burns also had two assists in the second game. His attempts at stretch passes from the team’s defensive zone can at times hurt the club, but his connection on one with Tomas Hertl directly influenced the first score of yesterday’s game. Second-year defenseman Mario Ferraro also factored in the scoring, notching a power-play assist.
The first goal of the series was tallied by Radim Simek. Although gaining the benefit of a well-placed tip, his shot selection and placement greatly mattered in notching the goal. The Sharks received a huge boost in scoring. Besides Burns, the team had yet to receive consistent offensive production from their highly-paid blue line. If the team’s defenseman can continue this success moving forward, the club can receive scoring from various parts of the lineup, and help in possible playoff aspirations.
Forwards Contributing Besides the Top Line
The Sharks’ top line of Evander Kane, Logan Couture, and Kevin Labanc has carried the team’s offense this season. At even strength, Kane leads the team with 24 points, while Couture and Labanc are tied for second with 18. Then, there’s a sharp decline with the rest of the roster, with Hertl solely occupying fourth with 14. That allocation of scoring would not be sustainable for a playoff contender, as they need consistent production from more than three forwards. Luckily, the bottom-nine forwards greatly helped the Sharks’ victories.
The first goal of the series was recorded by Simek, but was largely influence by the third line. Wingers Ryan Donato and John Leonard picked up the assists on the goal, and Dylan Gambrell influenced the redirection of the puck into the corner of the net. Also in the first game, Gambrell and Donato tallied the assists on Karlsson’s second goal of the game.
In the second game, Donato was able to score on his former side, recording a power-play goal against his former club. The former Wild and Boston Bruins’ forward has heated up recently, after just three assists in February, he recorded three goals and seven assists in March.
Rudolfs Balcers also joined the scoring. Now on the second line, the Latvian winger was able to score off a quality sauce pass from Hertl. An early waiver claim, Balcers now has four goals and nine points in his 20 games with San Jose, and has been a key addition to the middle-six forward group.
The Sharks’ four points were directly influenced from scoring from various parts of the lineup, helping the team defeat a club easily in a playoff spot. Now, 11 days from the trade deadline, San Jose now finds themselves with an outside chance of the playoffs. More so a reflection on the inconsistency of the Honda Western Division, the Sharks remain tied for seventh in the division, yet just four points from the fourth place St. Louis Blues.
So, You’re Saying There’s a Chance?
Possibly! As I mentioned, the trade deadline looms on April 12, and the Sharks schedule until then is quite easy. This season the club is 7-1-1 against Southern California teams, and the Sharks solely play the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks for their next seven games.
While the Sharks’ schedule becomes very hard near the end of the season, including four of the team’s last six games facing the Colorado Avalanche, we could see the club with a respectable record at the deadline. It’s impossible then to know how the Sharks roster would look for the remainder of the season, because the team could look to not sell at the deadline should they have playoff hopes.
The Sharks are also receiving scoring in realistic proportions. The team would not be able to sustain scoring solely coming from the top forward line and power-play unit carrying them to playoff hopes, the team needs consistent contribution from their numerous depth players.
However, the team very much needs improvement from Timo Meier. Ordinarily a 20-plus goal scorer and he led the team in points last season, Meier has just one goal and two assists in his last 11 games. Currently, he would be set for his worst goal-scoring season in three years, on pace for just 15 goals if playing 82 games. I would look for him to improve soon and bolster the Sharks’ second line and power-play unit, which would greatly help the team’s possible playoff chances.