For the second time this postseason the San Jose Sharks find themselves in a winner-take-all Game 7 on home ice.
After a miraculous comeback against the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 1, they are back at it on Wednesday night (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) where they will try to knock out a young, upstart Colorado Avalanche team that is starting to position itself as a major player in the Western Conference.
The winner moves on to play the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final.
Trying to predict which team that will be is a difficult proposition because this has been an incredibly tight series where no team has anything close to the upper hand.
Let’s take a look at what to watch for and some of the factors that could determine the winner.
1. No advantage for anyone six games in
Whether you’re looking at traditional numbers like wins and losses or goals for and against, or shot-based advanced analytics no team has carried the play in this series.
The Sharks lead the goal department by the slimmest of margins, outscoring the Avalanche by a 17-16 margin overall and 13-12 during 5-on-5 on play.
The Sharks have had a slightly bigger advantage when it comes to the possession game and total shot attempts (53 percent to 46 percent) but the Avalanche have actually done a better job generating scoring chances (52 percent) and high-danger chances (54 percent). On one hand, the Sharks have to like that they have been able to control the territorial edge, but they can’t like the fact they are giving up as many chances as they are. One mistake or breakdown against Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, or Gabriel Landeskog and there is a very good chance it is going to end up in the back of your net.
2. Both goalies have been really good
This was probably the big question mark for both teams coming into this season (or at least one of them). Martin Jones had a terrible regular season for the Sharks and struggled early in the playoffs against Vegas before catching fire late in that series and continuing that play into Round 2.
Philipp Grubauer had a tough start to the season for the Avalanche but played lights down the stretch and has been one of the team’s best players in the playoffs. But it probably wouldn’t have been unfair to wonder about him entering the postseason just because he has such a limited track record as a starter in the NHL and flopped in his first playoff experience with the Washington Capitals a year ago. But he has definitely risen to the challenge for the Avalanche.
Usually in a Game 7 you throw everything out the window and just go with the team that has the better goalie, but even that mindset kind of makes this game a huge toss-up because it’s hard to see which team has the advantage.
Neither goalie has a track record of being one of the NHL’s elite, and their performance through the first six games has been fairly similar as they have mostly matched each other save for save.
3. What will the Sharks’ power play look like?
The Sharks’ power play was the driving force behind their Game 7 comeback in Round 1, but it has gone cold in Round 2 against the Avalanche. One strategy that Peter DeBoer and the coaching staff has utilized has been splitting up Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, a decision that seems to be a little unconventional given how the two of them are among the best offensive defensemen in the league and are both dynamite on the power play.
The mindset behind it is that it allows DeBoer to limit Burns’ minutes so he can play more during 5-on-5 situations and be matched up against the Avalanche’s top line that is centered by MacKinnon. I get the strategy behind it, but the Sharks’ power play has struggled mightily in this series and has had its most success when the two of them have been on the ice together. And by “most success,” I mean their only success.
Karlsson and Burns have played just four minutes together on the power play in this series with the Sharks scoring two goals. They have zero power play goals in 22 power play minutes with them split up.
I know the Sharks want to keep Burns fresh to go against MacKinnon, and power plays are often hard to come by in a Game 7, but when the Sharks do get the man-advantage they should not be holding anything back. This is Game 7, and one power play or one goal could be the difference between an extended postseason run and an extended summer.
4. The Joe Pavelski factor
It is still not yet known if Pavelski will return to the Sharks’ lineup, but if he does you know there is going to be an emotional lift for the crowd and the team.
More importantly, there’s an on-ice hockey lift, too.
Remember, this is a player that scored 38 goals during the regular season and the Sharks haven’t had him for a single game in this Round 2 series. And they still made it to Game 7 without him. Getting him back would be a huge addition with your season on the line.
(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)