Dan Boyle, Brian Rafalski, Jimmy Howard

The Sore Thumb: San Jose Sharks

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With the Western Conference finals primed to kick off on Sunday night (8 p.m. ET on Versus, to be exact), we have a little more time to explore the two matchups. The NHL’s final four teams have plenty of strengths, but even these squads have a weakness or two. With that notion in mind, we asked: what flaw sticks out like a sore thumb?

To best answer that question, we provided our own hypothesis and also polled a blogger from each team.

Let’s take a look at the San Jose Sharks. (Click here to read the Vancouver Canucks version.)

Our choice: The Sharks’ defensive depth.

From a pure talent standpoint, Dan Boyle is the best defenseman on either the Sharks or Canucks roster. He’s not the world’s best player in his own end (though he’s more than adequate), but he’s one of the NHL’s most dangerous scorers from the blueline. Boyle is accompanied by a solid positional defenseman in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and a hard-hitting Swede in Douglas Murray.

Unfortunately, the rest of the defense isn’t so great. Jason Demers has some tantalizing offensive skill, but he’s not necessarily adept at shutting down an opposing offense. Ian White’s been better than expected, but he’s not an elite blueliner by any means. Niclas Wallin is a limited player as well.

I’m not saying the Sharks defense is downright awful, but against a team as good as Vancouver, that group could get exposed.

For a second opinion, we polled Mr. Plank from SBNation’s Fear the Fin.

The San Jose Sharks blueline has long been a concern for many following the team. It’s a unit that doesn’t have a premier shutdown player, relying instead on a strong team defense mentality to keep pucks out of their own net. With the Sedins and Alex Burrows going up against Keith-Seabrook and Weber-Suter in their wins over Chicago and Nashville respectively, I don’t think there’s any real surprise they’ve struggled as much as they have– those are world-class shutdown pairings. The Sharks just don’t have that type of firepower. Although I’ve argued for years that Marc-Edouard Vlasic is one of the most under-appreciated defensive defenseman in the game today, his partner Jason Demers hasn’t gotten there yet– Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray are also two excellent defenseman but both lack polish in their own zone at times.

That being said, where San Jose really flourishes and makes up for those shortcomings is with their forward group. Captain Joe Thornton has really set an example for the team this year with his attention to defensive play, and just about every forward under the California sun has followed suit. With the Sedins cycling the puck as much as they do you have to be sure that everyone is engaged in the play (especially your centerman), collapsing to the front of the net and helping out along the boards. If you don’t do that, the blueliners are going to be running around all night long and changing constantly after a prolonged stint in the defensive zone.

Vancouver’s forward depth isn’t as good as San Jose’s, but those top two lines are something special. No surprise there considering both Henrik and Daniel were nominated for the Hart Trophy in separate consecutive years. If the Sharks can hold the Sedins off the scoresheet I don’t think Vancouver has the offensive horses to run (swim?) with the Sharks depth. It’s just a matter of shutting them down consistently. That’s something that’s going to take a lot of work (and a little luck) to pull off.

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So there you go, Mr. Plank and I agree: defense might be the Sharks’ biggest question. I’m more concerned with San Jose’s lower ranks while he has concerns about the group as a whole. San Jose has been tested already, but the Canucks present the deepest team they’ll face in the playoffs. We will see how their defense responds.

Little-known Langhamer spurns Ducks comeback for Coyotes

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 14:  Ryan Getzlaf #15 of the Anaheim Ducks skates with the puck during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on January 14, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. The Ducks defeated the Coyotes 3-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Both of Monday’s games could have gone beyond regulation, yet the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks were left kicking themselves after failing to generate standings points.

In the case of the Ducks, they simply couldn’t overcome a lousy start to the Arizona Coyotes. They erased most of a 3-0 deficit but ultimately fell 3-2 on Monday.

Again, it was an ugly opening for Anaheim.

Randy Carlyle turned to John Gibson to start the second period and the red-hot goalie didn’t give up a goal; even so, his strong work wasn’t rewarded with anything but nice numbers.

Ryan Getzlaf scored both of Anaheim’s goals, including one with less than 30 seconds remaining in the third period and the Ducks’ net empty. You’d think that would be the end of the drama, but that wasn’t the case.

Mike Smith needed to leave the net during the third, likely because of a collision with Jakob Silfverberg. (Sounds like he’s OK, though.)

This forced Marek Langhamer to close out the game, meaning he had to deal with Anaheim’s endgame barrage. That included making quite the clutch stop against Sami Vatanen, spurning quite the attempt to tie:

Wow.

A quick primer on Langhamer: he was a seventh-round pick by the Coyotes (then Phoenix, 184th overall in 2012). He’s spent chunks of this season in both the AHL and ECHL, so this must be quite the moment for the 22-year-old.

As cool as that story is, the Ducks have to be kicking themselves. Instead of going ahead of the Edmonton Oilers for the second spot in the Pacific, both teams remain locked at 72 points (with Edmonton holding two games in hand).

Coyotes fans might have mixed feelings about the returns for Michael Stone, but beating their division rivals had to feel like a resounding win.

Yes, the Florida Panthers are indeed on fire

SUNRISE, FL - FEBRUARY 09:  Michael Sgarbossa #48 of the Florida Panthers is congratulated after scoring a goal during a game against the Los Angeles Kings at BB&T Center on February 9, 2017 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers are on a ridiculous roll right now. They’re even hotter than the also-quite-hot St. Louis Blues.

You could practically hear the air leave the building in St. Louis as Vincent Trocheck‘s goal made it 2-1 with just five seconds remaining in regulation. To little surprise, that ended up being the final score on Monday in what was otherwise quite the goaltending duel between James Reimer and Jake Allen.

The Panthers won all five games of what seemed to be a harrowing road trip on paper:

Feb. 11: 7-4 win against Predators
Feb. 15: 6-5 OT win against Sharks
Feb. 17: 4-1 win against Ducks
Feb. 18: 3-2 win vs. Kings
Tonight: 2-1 win over St. Louis

The Panthers now face a four-game homestand to close out February and also play seven of eight in Florida. (Actually, eight of nine, as they close out that run by visiting the Lightning on March 11).

Anyway, the Cats are in the catbird seat, and they finish the night back in front of the Boston Bruins for third in the Atlantic Division:

1. Canadiens – 70 points in 59 GP
2. Senators: 68 in 57
3. Panthers – 66 in 58

Bruins – 66 in 59
Maple Leafs – 65 in 58
Sabres – 62 in 60
Lightning – 60 in 58
Red Wings – 58 in 59

As you can see, games in hand stand as Florida’s advantage over Boston, but with the Bruins holding the second wild card spot, the Panthers’ position in the playoff picture is clear (if vulnerable).

Again, it wasn’t like the Panthers outright dominated the Blues.

St. Louis and Florida both looked sharp in this one, but the Blues have lost two straight games in regulation after reeling off a six-game winning streak. With a ton of road games on the docket through the next month, the Blues will just need to keep fighting.

At least Mike Yeo has an easy team to point to in explaining how the Blues can overcome such challenges.

Video: Reimer, Allen shut down dangerous one-timers

SUNRISE, FL - FEBRUARY 09:  James Reimer #34 of the Florida Panthers makes a save during a game against the Los Angeles Kings at BB&T Center on February 9, 2017 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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In an ideal world, goalie equipment wouldn’t be such an issue. Teams would be able to “get goalies moving” with great passing and chances just about no one could stop.

Then again, there are also those saves that a select handful of humans can pull off. A big reason why there’s only been one goal between the Panthers and Blues tonight is the lateral movement shown by both James Reimer and Jake Allen.

First, watch as Reimer robs Jori Lehtera on what’s likely the save of the night:

Allen really hasn’t been that far behind Reimer, right down to making a similar stop:

Considering the two nearly identical one-timer goals scored by Arizona against Anaheim in finding seams for big passes through opposing defenses, tonight’s goalies might want to do some extra stretching during intermissions.

Dvorak, Coyotes put Ducks in early hole with slick goals (Video)

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 11:  Connor Murphy #5 (second from left) of the Arizona Coyotes celebrates with Alexander Burmistrov #91, Shane Doan #19 and Christian Dvorak #18 after Murphy scored the game winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime of the NHL game at Gila River Arena on February 11, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Coyotes defeated the Penguins 4-3 in overtime.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Arizona Coyotes’ happy thoughts are mostly centered on the future. Christian Dvorak possibly being more than a guy who put up nice junior numbers with Matthew Tkachuk and Mitch Marner could fuel some really nice thoughts.

He’s been red-hot in February, in particular, including a goal already tonight as the Coyotes raced off to an early 2-0 lead against the Anaheim Ducks.

Check out that smooth play for his 10th goal of 2016-17:

Again, he’s been on quite the roll lately.

February: nine points (and counting?) in nine games
Rest of the season: 13 points in 45 games

He only had one assist in 12 January contests, so this outburst is even more unexpected than the Coyotes racing off to this lead.

Interestingly, the Coyotes two goals looked awfully similar, at least in the finish:

Randy Carlyle’s mood? Probably not too chipper right now.