San Jose Sharks Struggling Against The Good Teams

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As Sharks fans, we’re typically used to a few things:

• Outshooting 90% of the teams out there on a regular basis, and dominating puck possession even in games we’re losing–even when we deserve to be losing
• Beating the Detroit Red Wings every time and making them look like one of the worst teams in the league

But the Detroit Red Wings aren’t one of the worst teams in the league; they’re above average at worst, and very good at best. And that is precisely why consistent victories against a team like the Wings, or in most recent seasons the Chicago Blackhawks, etc., are so assuring. Those wins represent more than mere points in the standings; they prove that the Sharks are capable of beating the very best, at least in the regular season, and they offer solid hope that the Sharks can have success come playoff time.

But in the last couple weeks, a disturbing trend has emerged, culminated by a 1-0 shutout loss to the St. Louis Blues last night.

The Sharks are not beating good teams anymore.

This trend started at home on November 26th, at the hands of, guess who, the Vancouver Canucks.

Leading up to that fateful game, the Sharks were on a high, coming off four straight victories, including against the Detroit Red Wings, in typically dominant fashion, and Dallas Stars, as well as in not-so-dominant fashion over the Chicago Blackhawks. But they came away with the win no less against the Hawks in that fourth game of the winning streak, and looked ready to build on it after three days later against Vancouver.

But while the Sharks remained competitive against the Canucks, they failed to put pucks passed Cory Schneider, and ultimately, Sharks fans had to concede that the Canucks were the better team on that night, and deserving of their win.

Since then, the Sharks have struggled, having won only two of their last seven games, one in the shootout. The victories came 5-2 against the Dallas Stars and 4-3 against the Montreal Canadiens (S.O); losses came at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks (3-2), Los Angeles Kings (2-0), Florida Panters (5-3), and St. Louis Blues last night (1-0).

A very poor stretch, no doubt. But ask most Sharks fans, and they will tell you it hasn’t been that bad. For all the losses, many would claim there have been major positives.

‘The Sharks showed great resilience tying the game against Montreal in the last-minute of regulation and coming up big in the shootout. This shows great heart, leadership, and a never-say-die attitude!’

‘The Sharks showed great resilience blowing a two-goal lead against the Stars–ahem, I mean… heh… after the Stars, err, after they came back against the Sharks and tied it at 2-2 in the second period, the Sharks showed great leadership and poise in responding immediately and scoring the next three goals to win the game 5-2. They demonstrated real backbone and mental fortitude. In fact, I wish I had a better thesaurus so I could explain to you in more words just how much moxie they demonstrated in that game. What chutzpuh! That Stars game really showed us we have a team capable of great flaccidity.

Wait, sorry. That’s for flexible, not resilience. How stupid can a computer thesaurus be? It doesn’t even know the difference between resilience and flaccidity!

… But the Sharks do. They proved as much against the Stars, and that’s what’s important. Yeah.’

Those are the thoughts echoed by many Sharks fans, that the Sharks responded well to adversity in both games. First, in Montreal, tying the game late and winning in the shootout, and then in Dallas, responding to the Stars’ two-goal surge with three unanswered goals of their own en rout–> to a <–route victory.

Hmmm. Tying the game in the last minute against Montreal, eh, and winning in the shootout?

That wouldn't happen to be the same Montreal that has blown four third period leads in their last seven games, and subsequently lost in the shootout in all four? The Montreal that had a huge chunk of their defense injured when they played the Sharks, and had their best goal scorer, Max Pacioretty, suspended? The Montreal with a notoriously terrible shootout goaltender in Cary Price, who decided to jump the gun and gift the Sharks a soft rebound goal in regulation just so he would have the opportunity to give them a few more gifts in the shootout?

Ladies, I know what you’re thinking. He sounds an amazing boyfriend. He just wasn’t a very good goalie against the Sharks; he made the Sharks look better than they were.

But what about the Stars? Surely that victory was all due to the Sharks talent and resiliency. Because leading up to that game, the Sharks had gone a six-game stretch with only 10 goals scored, and that was supposed to be the performance Sharks fans could look back on to quell their concerns about the offense, an antidote of sorts to Sharks-related anxiety. A custom valium for hardcore Sharks fans. After all, the Sharks went out and executed their incredible resiliency spiel to a tee, even putting up five goals in the process. Surely you can’t take credit for that away from the Sharks any more than you can take valium away from Pierre Mcguire.

Right? But wait. I hate to do this again, but that wouldn’t happen to be the same Stars team with an injured starting goaltender? The one that had backup Andrew Raycroft in net when they played the Sharks, who is 2-7 on the year with a 3.53 GAA and .897% SV%?

If that GAA jumps out at you as bad, you would be correct. Only Michael Neuvirth, Rick Dipietro, Steve Mason, and Dwayne Roloson are worse out of goalies who have played more than five games.

As I wrote about in my 30 Teams, 30,000 Thoughts: Dallas Stars blog, the Stars were 13-4-1 with their starting goaltender, Kari Lehtonen, in net. He was playing out of his mind, playing at a Vezina Trophy level; Jamie Benn was one of the hottest forwards in the NHL, ditto for renaissance-man Sheldon Souray on defense. But since their great start, there’s been many a falling star visible in the Dallas sky, both in terms of injuries to key players, and the play of the remaining players.

But first and foremost in the Stars struggles has been goaltender Andrew Raycroft. He lets in more soft goals on average per game than Antti Niemi lets in goals, period. He would be the Sharks worst penalty killer. Yeah, think about that one. That’s how bad.

So it is no coincidence that the Sharks one breakout game on offense over the last eight came against a Dallas Stars team at its lowest point, with an AHL goaltender in net.

I know that winning against a division rival like the Dallas Stars makes Sharks fans happy, but it’s important to remember that the Stars did not become a worthy rival to the Sharks with an AHL goaltender in net. That team the Sharks beat last week, they’re weren’t the Sharks rival we all know and despise (and some of us respect). On that night, they weren’t themselves. They were one of the league’s very worst teams.

So while a victory over the Stars is always gratifying, these were the Stars in name only–not in essence, and aside from the two points, this victory didn’t mean anything. This Sharks team has aspirations of winning the Stanley Cup, and guess what, they won’t get to face Andrew Raycroft in the playoffs.

They will face the likes of the Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, the Florida Panthers if they were in the Western Conference, maybe even the Minnesota Wild. That’s why it is so discouraging that the Sharks lost to all these teams over their recent seven game stretch. The only two teams they beat could either be characterized as the worst teams they played over that stretch, or the teams playing the worst at the point the Sharks played them (which is more important). Put more simply, though, the Sharks lost every game they played against playoff-calibre opponents.

That is why, although the Sharks record says they are 2-5 over the last seven games, I see them as 0-5, because all that matters for this team is how they fare against good opposition, so in that sense their victories against poor opposition don’t “matter” or “count” for anything more than points in the Standings.

Points that don’t carry over to the playoffs aside from determining home ice advantage.

Ultimately, it is not all dark clouds and grey for the Sharks. They may be struggling to beat good teams at the moment, but earlier in the season they excelled against them, earning victories against the Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, and Pittsburgh Penguins (although Boston was struggling against everyone at the time, and Pittsburgh was missing Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal). Nevertheless, the Sharks found ways to win, and even outplayed their Western Conference rivals, if not the two best teams in the East as well, at least for stretches.

The team, as always, has potential, but they are definitely struggling right now, perhaps even more than most realize. The Sharks could easily be 0-7 in their last seven games if they hadn’t drawn Dallas and Montreal at their worst points. On the bright side, the losses have mostly been close and hard fought, largely thanks to the defense. It’s been the lack of offense letting the team down, but once it returns–and it should, given the team’s firepower, we will see the Sharks start to win more of these one-goal games instead of losing them.

Written by Shark Circle

Check back tomorrow for my trimester report card on the SJ Sharks defencemen and goaltenders, and click here if you missed my thoughts on the forwards.

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