Streaking Sharks Still Falling Short of Playoff Expectations

The San Jose Sharks defeated the Los Angeles Kings Monday night, giving the team a three-game win streak, and an impressive 9-1-0 record over their last 10 games. Patrick Marleau was the hero in overtime against the Kings, scoring on a broken play after teammate Kevin Labanc’s fanned shot led to an open-net opportunity.

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The win gave the Sharks a 13-11-1 record, marking the first time that the Sharks are above .500 (when including overtime losses) this season. While the record represents an average and normal team, the journey there has been anything but.

The Journey to 13-11-1

The Sharks got off to a turbulent start, losing their first four games in regulation, and were outscored 17-4. The following 11 games didn’t go much better – a 4-6-1 stretch led the team to a lackluster 4-10-1 record.

Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer was on the hot seat. Sharks goaltender Martin Jones was under fire. As of Nov. 4, a team expected to be a Stanley Cup contender was tied for last in the league, and many Pacific Division rivals had already – only a month into the season – built healthy point leads over the Sharks.

With many fans already considering hanging up their jerseys for the season, the Sharks beat the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 5, the start of a six-game win streak. The win streak coincided perfectly with defenseman Radim Simek’s return, and has now further snowballed, as previously mentioned, into nine wins in ten contests. Sharks captain Logan Couture has been instrumental in the streak, with 15 points over the 10 games including an overtime game-winning goal.

Buffalo Sabres Linus Ullmark San Jose Sharks Logan Couture
Buffalo Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark reaches for the puck next to San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The Sharks 13-11-1 record now places them into the second wild-card position, ahead of rivals, including the Vegas Golden Knights, Calgary Flames, and Anaheim Ducks. San Jose sits only one point outside of third in the Pacific Division, a position currently held by the Vancouver Canucks.

Sharks Within Playoff Spot at Thanksgiving Cutoff

While it may seem early to talk about playoff chances, the Sharks are only one game removed from American Thanksgiving – a date that marks the “Thanksgiving cutoff”. The cutoff is often a benchmark where fans, the media, and management alike often stop using the excuse that “it’s early” when explaining over or underachieving teams.

While the Thanksgiving benchmark is an arbitrary date, it has historically served as an accurate measure for a team’s chance of a post-season birth. Over the last six years, 76% (73 out of 96) of teams in a playoff spot at American Thanksgiving went on to a playoff appearance. While there are notable exceptions, including the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the St. Louis Blues, the benchmark still serves as a useful indicator of a team’s current situation.

The good news for the Sharks? Their recent success has propelled them into the second wild-card position. While this could change based on the results of Thursday night’s games, the Sharks are currently on the correct side of the playoff line at the Thanksgiving mark.

Predicting the Sharks’ Playoff Chances

As mentioned, roughly three-quarters of teams in playoff spots at Thanksgiving historically make the “second season” – but are the Sharks’ playoff chances that good?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably not. Despite their recent success, the Sharks are still not favorites to make the playoffs by other estimates.

One way to gauge a team’s chances of making the playoffs is to simulate their future games based on predicted outcomes, often thousands of times. Moneypuck does just this, simulating the season 100,000 times using a model that attempts to accurately represent a team’s true strength. The result for the Sharks isn’t particularly optimistic, with Moneypuck’s model predicting the Sharks have a 35.7% of appearing in the post-season.

The relatively low percentage is largely a result of the Sharks’ underlying metrics (including expected goal share) being generally weak. The model suggests the Sharks’ recent win streak likely isn’t sustainable, as the team frequently allows more high-danger chances than they create – a stat that will likely catch up to them in the long run.

Hockey-Reference, using a separate model, also has a playoff prediction simulator that results in a similar story: a 36.0% chance for the Sharks to make the playoffs.

For a team that has made the postseason the previous four consecutive years, these playoff odds certainly aren’t where the Sharks expected to be almost a third of the way into the season.

Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks scores a goal against Jordan Binnington of the St. Louis Blues
Logan Couture scores a goal against Jordan Binnington in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Ultimately, while the Sharks’ win streak is certainly something to celebrate – placing the Sharks into a playoff spot near the Thanksgiving cutoff – they likely will have to continue improving their game if they want to keep their postseason position in a competitive Pacific Division.