As the Boston Bruins return home Thursday night, a lofty task awaits in trying to hatch the goose-egg in the San Jose Sharks’ “L” column. The only NHL team boasting a better record than Colorado drops in as Boston’s second Western Conference challenger two weeks after the Avalanche reaped a 2-0 decision from the TD Garden.
San Jose’s last game, a 1-0 shootout triumph in Detroit on Monday, is proof that preserving a zero in its goal column is not necessarily enough. Even so, it does lend timely clarity to the topmost X-factor in Thursday’s heavyweight bout.
Defensively, the two parties enter their encounter with a comparable track record as the 2013-14 landscape begins to take shape. The Bruins stand second on the league’s GAA leaderboard with 1.50 while the Sharks are third with 1.67 setbacks per night.
The Sharks, however, are the only team sitting among the top five, let alone the top three, in both defense and offense. A consistent surplus of support for goaltender Antti Niemi has amounted to a league-high 4.33 strikes per game and an 8-0-1 hot streak to start.
If the Bruins cannot curb the San Jose strike force in a similar fashion to the Red Wings, their odds of any gains in the standings will plunge. Through their tone-setting tear, the Sharks have shown they can spin their adversary’s collective heads in any situation once they have rhythm.
They lacked that requisite rhythm Monday night, which was the first time they scored fewer than three goals, let alone none, in regulation this season. Almost everyone involved appeared to agree that the shortage of flow came from a shortage of space.
As Sharks skipper Todd McLellan told NHL.com after Monday’s bout, “It was a chess match, there’s no doubt about it. Even on the power play and penalty kills, the teams didn’t get a lot of looks.”
The same account of the game quoted Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard as follows: “We didn’t give them a lot of room and space. Another thing that was a positive was we didn’t give up a lot of odd-man rushes.”
If possible, Boston’s skaters―defensemen and forwards alike―will want to ensure that presumptive starter Tuukka Rask observes the same basic sequences on Thursday. Those who do not take as much space or inflict much punishment through size, e.g. Patrice Bergeron, will want to impose Selke-caliber suffocation.
Doing so within the boundaries of the rules will be more important than usual, though, if such an extension of importance is even possible. San Jose has cultivated 11 of its 39 total goals over the course of a league-high 47 power-play opportunities, which translate to 5.2 man-up segments per night.
Delete those 11 conversions and the Sharks would still average roughly 3.05 goals per game with 28 at even strength or shorthanded or on an empty net.
Logan Couture may be the greatest personification of San Jose’s multifaceted, often cyclical threat. He co-leads his team in terms of drawing opposing penalties with four and is tied for second with 11 points, with a solid balance of seven even-strength points and four on the power play.
If the play-by-play records of the last four games are any indication, Couture will center Patrick Marleau and Tyler Kennedy, who have combined to draw five opposing infractions. With his defensive credentials and general ability to stay disciplined, Bergeron will most likely join his linemates in trying to neutralize Couture and company.
In that regard, the recent San Jose-Detroit matchup drops another small, but existent hint as to one of the keys to Thursday. As his final observation of Monday’s action, Sharks beat reporter Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area made a point of highlighting the two-way stalemate between Couture and Pavel Datsyuk, another certified Selke contender.
Although, the Red Wings did mildly luck out en route to the 65 scoreless minutes given the early trouble Couture’s line induced. Couture landed the game’s first two shots on goal, one coming at the 30-second mark along with a Datsyuk interference penalty against Marleau, the other on the ensuing power play.
One reason the Sharks did not kindle another firestorm, though, was because Howard summoned stoppages on four of the seven shots he faced in the opening frame. He did the same at 5:49 of the middle frame on what turned out to be his last test on Detroit’s third and final penalty kill.
It will be on Rask to similarly whittle down any given San Jose onslaught at the Garden Thursday night. That is, unless his defensemen―particularly the towering, long-reaching Zdeno Chara―and centers take it upon themselves to lasso loose rebounds and set up a smooth exit.
The official box scores of many previous San Jose games speak to the consequences of conceding an edge to the Sharks. A jutting example is Oct. 12, when Couture drew a penalty on Ottawa and Marleau buried a 2-2 equalizer on the advantage at 16:12 of the second period.
Afterwards, the Senators incurred three additional unanswered penalties and, in between, Brent Burns slugged home the 3-2 decider one second after Jason Spezza’s roughing sentence expired. The primary setup was one of Joe Thornton’s two game-clinching assists this season and almost gave him five on the year with the man advantage.
All of this barely even introduces San Jose’s threats beyond the top line, of which there are plenty in quantity and quality. Thornton, the former Bruin and seemingly ageless assist machine, entered Wednesday’s action as one of only four playmakers to have already cracked 10 helpers this season.
Whether as the scorer or the co-playmaker, eight teammates have been a credited collaborator with Thornton on a scoring play. His two most frequent associates are his usual linemates, rookie Tomas Hertl (three plays) and Burns (four).
Per David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News, Thornton described Burns as “full blast” on the ice while McLellan admitted, “We don’t want to over-harness Brent Burns.”
If Burns suits up after missing Monday’s contest due to sore gums, the Bruins will want to harness him, perhaps by trying to match him pound-for-pound. That would mean matching forwards in the range of Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic against him and looking to either Johnny Boychuk or Dennis Seidenberg in back to help inhibit the plows of Burns and Thornton alike.
And then Joe Pavelski will be in the equation somehow at some point. To reiterate the depth of this club, Pavelski leads the Sharks with 12 points and immediately trails Thornton with nine assists, yet it has taken this long to get around to mentioning him.
Lately, when not joining in with the prime suspects on the power play, Pavelski has spent his full-strength shifts spreading his wealth to team hits leader Tommy Wingels (25) and Matt Nieto. His situational distribution features six power-play, five even-strength and one shorthanded point.
That further underscores the overwhelming set of layers the Bruins are confronting, especially in Part 2 of back-to-back games. Odds are the comparatively rested Rask, who sat in favor of Chad Johnson in Buffalo on Wednesday, will be their most crucial asset in this card.
Rask’s season high of 33 shots faced looks ripe for revision.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com