The scoreline said it was close, the scoring summary would indicate it couldn’t have been any closer, and when Joe Pavelski found twine in the waning seconds of the third period Tuesday night to propel the San Jose Sharks past the Winnipeg Jets, it was the near equivalent of an overtime winner. The only difference, of course, is that Pavelski’s marker was the type of heartbreaking, dagger of a tally that saw San Jose skate away with two points while Winnipeg walked away empty-handed.
What the game summary said and what actually took place on ice, though, were almost two entirely different stories. Yes, the Sharks avoided splitting points and what surely would have been a frantic 3-on-3 overtime against the Jets by about four-or-so seconds. Yes, it was an eked-out, one-goal victory over a Central Division-leading club that is considered a true-blue Stanley Cup contender. But no, it wasn’t really all that close; not in terms of the run of play, not in terms of which team controlled the action and not in terms of which team had the better opportunities.
If anything, Tuesday night’s affair between the Jets and Sharks – insert West Side Story reference here – served not as a preview of an impending Western Conference final but as an indication of just how dangerous San Jose can be against even the top competition. Because while the Jets may have been shorthanded on the back end, without the services of Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey, what the Sharks displayed by walking into Winnipeg, one of the toughest barns in the NHL, and picking up a win in the second half of a difficult back-to-back was an almost remarkable ability to push back, control a game and hurt an opponent with any of its top three lines.
Let’s start at the top, with San Jose’s sheer puck possession dominance. Head-to-head with the Jets, who are by no means an advanced statistical juggernaut, the Sharks were simply brilliant. Against a perceived Stanley Cup favorite, San Jose controlled play to the tune of a 58.1 Corsi percentage, 56.6 shots percentage and 56.5 scoring chance percentage at five-a-side. And when push came to shove late in the second period and into the third with the Sharks trailing by one, coach Peter DeBoer’s club put their foot on the gas and shoved the pedal through the floor.
Nothing about San Jose’s performance in that regard should have been surprising, however, as the Sharks have maintained a place atop the NHL as one of the league’s elite possession clubs this season. With a dozen games remaining, San Jose ranks second in Corsi percentage (54.6), first in shots percentage (54.5), second in scoring chance percentage (54.3) and fourth in high-danger chance percentage (54.6) at 5-on-5, giving them all the hallmarks of new-age on-ice dominance. But more than owning the puck, the Sharks have had an ability to convert like few teams in the NHL, boasting a 9.1 shooting percentage at fives and a 10.8 conversion rate at all strengths, marks that rank fourth and fifth, respectively. The result is 254 goals and a rate of 3.63 goals per game, both good for second-best in the league.
What makes the Sharks that lethal isn’t puck luck. It’s not a bounce here or there. And, really, you might not even be able to chalk it up to simple puck possession play. Rather, it’s the depth of the attack. Say what you will for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs or Pittsburgh Penguins, but no other team has an arsenal – from first line through third – that can do quite as much damage as San Jose’s.
Count the weapons. The first line of Pavelski, Logan Couture and Timo Meier might not get mentioned in the same breath as some of the best lines in the league, but the trio has a mix of size, speed and skill that’s difficult to match. And while Pavelski and Couture are known quantities, skilled veterans who are expected to lead the offense, Meier has been a revelation. The 2015 first-round pick is enjoying a true breakout campaign, his 26 goals and 59 points only points behind his veteran linemates. Stopping San Jose’s first line is the first task for any opposition staring down the Sharks. Easier said than done.
But if a pair of blueliners manage to slow the first unit, the second pairing then has a difficult task of its own. San Jose’s second line, composed of Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi and Evander Kane, is every bit as prolific. And while the latter didn’t suit up and is nursing an injury at the moment, any unit with the Sharks’ top-scoring forward and one of the most purely talented power forwards is going to be a handful for the opposition. Combined, it’s every bit as effective as the top line, effectively giving the Sharks a 1A-1B duo they can throw over the boards.
The Murderers’ Row doesn’t end there, though, because once the top two lines have cleared the ice, the punishment continues when middle-six spare parts Gustav Nyquist, Kevin Labanc, Marcus Sorensen and wily veteran Joe Thornton hop onto the ice. The attack then continues with a blueline led by Brent Burns and what has been a sometimes-healthy Erik Karlsson. And when you take it all in, really understand the full extent of the Sharks’ attack, it’s no wonder San Jose leads the league with five 20-goal scorers, nine – count ‘em, nine – 40-point players and six 50-point scorers. If one line is stopped, the others almost certainly will not be.
Does that mean there’s no way to beat the Sharks? Not at all. The goaltending has and continues to be suspect at times in San Jose, with neither Martin Jones or Aaron Dell exceeding a .900 save percentage on the season and the duo combining for an .897 SP on a hair less than 2,000 shots this season. It’s an issue, one the Sharks failed to address at the deadline and one that will be worth watching as the regular season winds down and the all-important post-season tilts draw near.
The thing is, though, San Jose has managed to mask their goaltending deficiencies, mask any crease concerns they’ve had, by controlling play and turning what should be a disappointing defeat into a track meet style victory. That’s exactly what they did Monday against one of the Western Conference’s top teams. And if that’s not proof that this team is to be feared going forward regardless of what shortcomings they might have, we’re not sure what is.