Updated: Jan 10, 2019
It is clear now the Christmas break couldn’t have come at a better time for the men in teal. After dropping three straight games going into the holiday, including a pair of disappointing losses to Los Angeles and Phoenix on consecutive nights, the Sharks have found their groove once again. Since the break, the Sharks have reeled off 6 wins in 7 games including an impressive 5-2 victory over the NHL’s best team in the Tampa Bay Lightning.
At the center of the Sharks resurgence have been Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and the recently created line of Kane, Hertl, and Donskoi. When San Jose acquired Karlsson back in training camp, pundits around the NHL clamored at the thought of how lethal the Sharks blueline would be with Karlsson and Burns both at the helm. Early in the season, the lofty expectations were woefully short of being met as questions quickly arose about whether the two could ultimately work together in unison.
Fast forward to January, and wow, how the tides have turned. The two-headed monster of Burns and Karlsson has fully emerged and it’s not a pretty sight for opposing teams in their way. The duo has been pressed into even more minutes than usual thanks to injuries to Vlasic and Braun. Despite this, the extra ice time seems to have only emboldened their ascension.
Burns is now the leading scorer amongst NHL defensemen after compiling 4 goals and 14 points in the 7 games since the break. Karlsson has managed to post even more impressive numbers with 15 points in his past 6 games. However, Karlsson’s stellar play has been evident for over a month now as he has gotten on the scoresheet his last 14 appearances. Teammate Evander Kane recently spoke to Karlsson’s impact: “He’s been playing some great hockey. You see the little plays that he makes, the poise with the puck, especially in the neutral zone, it allows us to come through the neutral zone with speed and possession. That creates good offensive chances and it’s fun to play with.” At last, 88 and 65 are a dominant force for San Jose on the back end. It’s not out of the question to wonder if this might be the most dynamic duo ever assembled in NHL history amongst defensemen.
Up front, head coach Peter DeBoer’s constant line shuffling has uncovered a gem in the form of uniting previously struggling wingers Joonas Donskoi and Evander Kane with Tomas Hertl. Hertl had spent the entire season on the wing and made up part of the Sharks’ best line alongside Logan Couture and Timo Meier. Challenged with moving to center to add additional depth to the lineup, Hertl has exceeded all expectations.
The newly assembled line has accounted for an astounding 15 goals and 25 points in the last 7 contests. Donskoi has been particularly hot with 7 goals his last 6 games. Kane has also reignited with 5 goals in his last 4 appearances. It shouldn’t be surprising that Kane and Donskoi have fit seamlessly considering they saw tremendous success together alongside Joe Pavelski last season after Kane arrived at the trade deadline. While Hertl isn’t quite the goal scorer Pavelski is, his puck possession and big body create time and space. Donskoi recently attested to exactly that,
“I think Tomas is (a) really strong guy, he can stay on the pucks in the offensive zone and that way creates room for me and Evander.”
Despite the impressive stretch for the team, it hasn’t been without its challenges. Braun and Vlasic both went down with injury in Colorado on January 2ndand have yet to return from injury while Radim Simek also missed two games due to concussion at the hands of a questionable hit from the Flames’ Sam Bennett. Overcoming losing half their starting d-core for much of this stretch makes the recent run all the more impressive.
With the Sharks once again finding their stride, currently sitting in 4th place in the entire league, they head to Las Vegas for a critical game Thursday evening. Historically, the Sharks have struggled mightily in Vegas including a 2nd round playoff exit vs the Knights just last season. The Sharks have yet to win a regular season game in Vegas since the Golden Knights debuted last season. Their lone victory in Vegas came in double OT in Game 2 of their playoff series last April. For whatever reason, T-Mobile Arena has been a house of horrors for San Jose. As assistant coach Steve Spott described, “We know what we’re getting into in that building. They’re extremely talented, they’re extremely fast, and that’s a hostile environment in that building.”
With Vegas one point ahead of San Jose and tied for 1st in the Pacific Division with Calgary, a lot is at stake with Thursday’s tilt. Overcoming the mental hurdle that seems to exist in Vegas for the Sharks might be perhaps even more important than the 2 points. While it will be their third game in four nights, this game could tell us a lot about the Sharks’ hopes this season as they will likely meet Vegas at some point in the playoffs. No game at this point in the season is a must win but this is definitely a message sending type of game. At the end of the day, a place in the Western Conference finals for the Sharks likely runs through the Golden Knights.