The battle for playoff spots has begun, with the Los Angeles Kings (20-13-5, 2nd Pacific) and the San Jose Sharks (20-17-2, 4th Pacific) occupying the gray area of a potential wildcard spot. The Pacific Division is notoriously wide open, and the Kings and Sharks have traded wins and losses back and forth to crawl up the leaderboard, skipping each other each week.
Currently, the Kings have a slight lead over the Sharks, with only four points separating the two teams.
The Kings started the season at a calmer pace, but as the season has progressed their wins have also picked up. Of their last six games, the Kings have won four, by a margin of at least two goals in each game, and a few more. The Kings’ goals rank 18th in the NHL with 106 — just a mark above the Sharks’ 105.
Goals conceded is another story. The Kings sit about seventh in the league with 96, while the Sharks have 117, which puts them in 21st place. Goals conceded are as much a team statistic as are goalies, and with the Sharks having had a slew of defensive problems and goalie injuries lately, it makes sense that the Kings, who are quietly solid at net, have kept their tally down.
It will be a question of who will be on the net for the kings. Jonathan Quick and Cal Peterson are the clear number ones and two goaltenders, but back-up Garrett Sparks has started in two games so far. Quick sits with a savings percentage of .921 while Peterson has a savings percentage of .904. Either option could be net against the Sharks.
Special teams are a different story. They are a major weak point for kings. The team’s power play percentage is well below the league average (16.81 percent, with the league average being 20.22 percent), and their penalty shootout is 75.49 percent, compared to the league average of 79.78 percent.
In contrast, the Sharks’ special teams were regularly a point of pride. Her power play has slipped over the past week, sitting at 17.02 percent, but the penalty kick is the stuff of legends with an 82.29 effectiveness rate.
Timo Meier currently leads the Sharks with 39 points in 33 games. Anze Kopitar has turned back time and leads the Kings with 33 points in 37 games.
When I asked head coach Bob Boughner what positive trends he’d noticed with the Sharks over the past few games that they’re planning to incorporate into the game against the Kings, he pointed out that the Sharks have been playing fast, especially through the neutrals Zone and transition games, and how effective that speed was in generating offensive chances and successful zone breaks.
He also mentioned that the Sharks haven’t given up much defensively and both speed and defensive coverage will be key against the hot Kings team.
The Sharks have won four With their last six games hungry for a playoff spot, all indications are that this game will be an even game, leading to some key questions for the Sharks to answer.
Is Adin Hill starting his fifth game in a row?
Adin Hill isn’t exactly the best after a string of starts and with James Reimer only recently returning from a lower body injury the Haie’s goalkeeping options are few and far between. Sawchenko is a regular with the San Jose Barracuda, but he’s only played in one NHL game — his NHL debut — as a substitute for Adin Hill against the Pittsburgh Penguins. To his relief, Savchenko was solid even in the midst of a losing fight, and his efforts garnered a .952 save percentage. It’s a small sample size, fueled by all the fear and adrenaline that an NHL start will bring to a player. As such, he’s unlikely to make it off the Sharks’ taxi team, where he was redeployed to start for the Sharks prior to the Pittsburgh game.
James Reimer was released from injured reserve ahead of the game against the Penguins, but it’s too early to say how ready he is to be back on the ice and starting games with the regularity he had before his injury . He’s been skating in practice but with only one game left in this leg of the home stand it might be worth giving him another game on the bench to rest. But according to Boughner, Reimer is still an option against the Kings depending on how he feels.
How big of a problem is they not scoring?
As simple as it sounds, scoring goals really is the key to success and since the Sharks returned from the Christmas break several players have been bitten by snakes including young stars Noah Gregor and Jonathan Dahlen. The last two games against the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins were lost only by missing goals, which can be very frustrating for a team that feels they are doing everything else right and deserves a better result than another Loss.
Boughner said so himself; “If you’re only going to score one goal a game, you have to be perfect on the other side of the puck.” Although the team’s defensive play has been a highlight over the past week, as Boughner says, “if you don’t score, the margin for error is very small achieve.”
Boughner specifically named the power play as a point that needs some TLC and that an early goal to create momentum is huge for the Sharks. They spend a lot of time in the offensive zone and get caught in traffic, but struggle to take full advantage of rebounds and finishing opportunities. “We’ve done a lot of good things, but the only thing we haven’t done is score.”
The good news is that San Jose never gives up and they have been able to bounce back from time to time even when losing a goal, which is more than can be said about Sharks teams of the past. In the last few games, the Sharks have had a massive amount of high slot chances — like 15 for the game against the Rangers, according to Boughner — which means the Sharks are doing something right in front of the net. It’s about shooting him into the net every chance you get.
How important are the points right now?
The playoffs are fast approaching and while we’re not halfway through the season, the points are all the more important as certain fringe teams heat up, especially for a Sharks team that’s struggling with consistency. There’s a lot of hockey left and there are a lot of positives to take away from the last few games, even if the team goes into tomorrow’s game with two straight losses.
Boughner had this to say about the Sharks’ current game: “Every time we let go of our identities we have problems, but if we keep playing like this, we’re in every game no matter who we’re playing and we give each other a break chance to win.”
At this point in the season, points count from game to game, and players prefer to focus on the games they’ve won and what they’ve excelled at, rather than grappling with their losses. As Mario Ferraro pointed out after the Penguins game, “We[‘ve] played two really good games” and “there is still a lot of hockey left”.
Bold Prediction: Since this will be my parents’ first hockey game, I’m assuming the Sharks will come through for me and beat the Kings 5-3. There might even be a Tomas Hertl hat trick in it, just for fun.