Aaron Dell

Sharks vs. Blues PHT 2019 Western Conference Final preview

Even though it is a rematch of the 2015-16 Western Conference Final it is probably not the matchup we expected this season.

The San Jose Sharks being here is in no way a surprise.

They loaded up for this season and built a team that should have had Stanley Cup expectations from the very beginning. Re-signing Evander Kane and acquiring Erik Karlsson to add to a roster that was already full of stars was a definite “win-now” approach to the offseason. Even though they were some valleys during the season, the Sharks have mostly met expectations. They are good. Really good.

It is the Blues that are a surprise.

After narrowly missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago they were one of the busiest teams in the offseason in an effort to fix their offense, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak, and David Perron to their forward group. At the mid-way point of the season it all looked to be for nothing because their goaltending dropped them down to the worst record in the Western Conference.

But since January they have been one of the league’s best teams, made a run at the Central Division title, and are playing like a true contender.

SCHEDULE
Saturday, May 11, 8 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBC
Monday, May 13, 9 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBCSN
Wednesday, May 15, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Friday, May 17, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Sunday, May 19, 3 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBC
Tuesday, May 21, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Thursday, May 23, 9 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBCSN
(All times ET, subject to change)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

OFFENSE

The Sharks’ offense is clicking on all cylinders in the playoffs, averaging more than 3.07 goals per game. They have four of the top-eight individual scorers in the playoffs and played almost all of Round 2 without a 38-goal scorer from the regular season in Joe Pavelski. It’s a deep group that doesn’t have any real weaknesses and is loaded with impact talent. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl enter the series tied for the postseason lead in goals (nine) while the Sharks also have the two best offensive defensemen in the league in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson.

The Blues, meanwhile, have been … solid. They spent a ton of resources over the summer to improve an offense that was one of the league’s worst a season ago, and improved it to the point where they could make a late season run at the Central Division and are just four wins away from the their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970. They could use a little more from Vladimir Tarasenko, especially at even-strength, and he is probably due to bust out at any time.

ADVANTAGE: Sharks. They have the deeper group and more impact players at the top.

DEFENSE

Just like at forward the Blues do not have quite the star power that the Sharks do on the blue line, but you can not argue with the results they get. The Blues were one of the best defensive teams in the league during the regular season when it came to limiting shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances, and once Jordan Binnington took over in net all of that started to translate into fewer goals against. Alex Pietrangelo is playing great hockey this postseason and quietly making a Conn Smythe case for himself if the Blues can keep winning.

For San Jose, it’s all about the superstars. Burns and Karlsson might be one of the best duos any team has had on its defense since Anaheim had Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. They are the most dynamic offensive blue liners in the league and both control the pace of the game when they are on the ice. And they are on the ice A LOT. Burns is playing more minutes than any other player in these playoffs (by a wide margin) while Karlsson is playing more than 25 minutes. For at least two thirds of the game the Sharks have a Norris Trophy winner on the ice. That is a tough matchup for any team to deal with.

ADVANTAGE: Sharks. When your blue line has three Norris Trophies (and maybe a fourth in a few weeks) that is a huge advantage.

GOALTENDING

This was the biggest question mark for both teams coming into the playoffs.

On the San Jose side, Martin Jones and Aaron Dell were statistically the worst goalie tandem in the league during the regular season and one of the worst any championship contender has ever had. Four games into Round 1, it was looking like that was going to be their undoing. But Jones caught fire starting in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights and has been pretty good ever since.

But can he keep that going? If he does, the Sharks might be completely unbeatable. If he doesn’t, it could sink a potential championship team.

One of the biggest reasons the Blues found themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference standings in early January was because their goaltending was getting torched on a nightly basis and it was sabotaging a team that was much better than its early season record indicated. They didn’t need someone to steal games, they just need someone to not lose them.

That is where Jordan Binnington came in and ever since making his first NHL start in mid-January he has been one of the most productive goalies in the league. He had a small slump early in Round 2 against the Dallas Stars, but rebounded nicely in Games 6 and 7.

ADVANTAGE: Blues. Jones has a more extensive resume and more of a track record, but Binnington is the better goalie at the moment.

SPECIAL TEAMS

On paper you would think that the Sharks would have a pretty significant advantage here, especially on the power play given the players they have their disposal. But it has not played out that way at all during the playoffs where both special teams units have been pretty much identical in their performance. Neither one has been great, neither one has been bad, they have both just been mostly average.

ADVANTAGE: Push, but with the qualifier that the Sharks have the potential to make this advantage IF their power play unit gets hot, which it is perfectly capable of doing.

PREDICTION

Blues in 6. On paper everything is there for the Sharks to take this. Star power. Depth. Everything they have done as an organization has been built around winning it all this season. But while the Sharks have some advantages, the Blues are no slouches and have been an incredibly good team for about four months now. The way they have played since Craig Berube took over behind the bench is at a Stanley Cup level and even though he has almost no track record in the NHL I am more confident in him being able to get through this series without a meltdown than I am in Martin Jones. In a close series, that might be the difference.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT Roundtable
• Conference Finals predictions

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sharks getting the Martin Jones they need

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If Peter DeBoer had received a good performance from his backup goaltender during the regular season, he might have been inclined to turn to Aaron Dell after pulling Martin Jones twice in Round 1.

While Games 2, 3 and 4 against Vegas Golden Knights were forgettable for Jones, the San Jose Sharks head coach didn’t throw his goaltender under the bus and stuck with him, even as they faced a 3-1 series deficit. The decision — which was the head coach really having no other option — worked out and here we are ready to throw praise on what was an Achilles’ heel for them.

Through the opening four games of Round 1, Jones’ play put him at the bottom of goaltenders in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was dead last in even strength save percentage (.836), high-danger save percentage (.696), and had a -5.15 goals saved above average, which is the number of goals allowed compared to the number of goals that would have been allowed by a league average goalie.

Those numbers have been flipped in Jones’ last six games, during which the Sharks have gone 5-1. The netminder can boast a .948 ESSV%, .849 high-danger save percentage, and a 2.83 goals saved above average, which is tops among all goalies since April 18.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as Jonesy wasn’t any good and now he’s good. I don’t think that’s the story,” said DeBoer. “He was great to start the playoffs. We fell into a little bit of a whole in the Vegas series where we were chasing games and he came out a couple of those games because of that. And then he re-found his game, and we re-found our game as a team in Game 5, 6, and 7 facing elimination, and he’s been good again.”

Even now, as the Sharks eye a 3-1 series lead against the Colorado Avalanche with Game 4 Thursday night (10 p.m ET; NBCSN; Live stream), DeBoer still pinned most of the blame on Jones’ early playoff struggles on the team as a whole being “off.”

To his credit, Jones didn’t panic and overhaul his game to find a way through struggles. He said he tried to relax and stop overthinking on the ice. His 58-save performance in Game 6 against Vegas certainly did wonders for his confidence.

Jones re-finding his game is a huge boost to a Sharks team that is currently on a roll, one that we could look back on being a key point in a potential run to the Cup Final.

“He’s such a good goaltender. It was a tough year for him, I’m sure,” Sharks forward Logan Couture said after Game 3. “Start of the playoffs didn’t go the way we wanted it to as a team, we left him hanging out to dry a bunch of times and he’s the one who took it. He’s playing great right now.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sharks vs. Avalanche: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff preview

The San Jose Sharks entered the season as one of the serious contenders for the Stanley Cup, but they are a team with a major concern and it nearly resulted in them losing to Vegas in Round 1. That concern is goaltender Martin Jones.

Certainly Round 1 wasn’t all bad for Jones. He was solid in Game 1 and stopped an incredible 58 of 59 shots in Game 6. In between that though, he was a disaster. Vegas chased Jones out of Games 2 and 4 and beat him six times in Game 3. One of the things that stretch also demonstrated is Sharks coach Peter DeBoer’s lack of faith in backup Aaron Dell, who struggled this season. If Dell was ever going to start in a playoff game this year, it would have been after those three ugly starts by Jones. For better or worse, the Sharks will stick with Jones.

Regardless, the Sharks deserve credit for rallying. They overcame a 3-1 series deficit against Vegas and had a Game 7 that will be discussed for years to come. With San Jose down 3-0 midway through the third period, Cody Eakin crosschecked Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, resulting in a scary injury and a five-minute major to Eakin. The Sharks scored four times during that power-play en route to a 5-4 overtime victory.

Colorado’s series against Calgary was far less dramatic. Although the Flames were regarded as the heavy favorites, the Avalanche surged to get into the playoffs and weren’t slowed down by Calgary. Colorado eliminated the Flames in five games thanks to hot goaltending and two very effective scoring lines.

Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon were everything the Avalanche could have hoped for in Round 1 while on the Flames side, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan combined to score just a single goal. Colorado has emerged as a great Cinderella story, but this is a year where there have been plenty of Cinderella stories to chose from.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Sharks: Erik Karlsson was unavailable for most of the last third of the season due to a groin injury, but he has excelled in the playoffs. He’s tied with Jaccob Slavin for the league lead in assists with nine and has averaged 27:15 minutes per game in the postseason. Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture were also major factors in Round 1. Each forward finished with six goals and eight points and both are entering Round 2 on a three-game goal scoring streak.

Avalanche: As mentioned above, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon did everything possible for Colorado in Round 1. With the exception of Game 1 where the Avalanche were shutout, the Flames simply couldn’t contain them. Rantanen had five goals and nine points in the five-game series while MacKinnon finished with three goals and eight points. In Rantanen’s case, he’s also on a four-game multi-point streak.

Struggling Players

Sharks: Gustav Nyquist was fine in the regular season after being acquired by the Sharks, but he was quiet in Round 1. He had no goals and three assists in the seven-game series and was held off the scoresheet in Games 6 and 7. They could certainly use more from him going forward, especially if Pavelski’s injury ends up sidelining him for a significant amount of time.

Avalanche: Colorado was led by its star forwards in Round 1, but in Round 2 the Avalanche will likely need more from their supporting cast. Carl Soderberg and Alexander Kerfoot each had just one assist against Calgary. There were only nine forwards in Round 1 that averaged at least 17 minutes and finished with no goals. Of them, only four are playing on teams that advanced to Round 2 and Colorado has two of those four forwards in Soderberg and Kerfoot.

Goaltending

Sharks: Martin Jones has been the Sharks’ main weakness this season, but it wasn’t always that way. He was a solid netminder for San Jose from 2015-16 through 2017-18, but he was horribly inconsistent in 2018-19 and finished with a 2.94 GAA and .896 save percentage in 62 starts. Among goaltenders who started in at least 40 games, only Jonathan Quick on the Western Conference-worst Los Angeles Kings finished with a lower save percentage.

The Sharks continued to lean on Jones though because Aaron Dell was even worse. Dell, who had been a solid backup in his previous two seasons, finished 2018-19 with a 3.17 GAA and .886 save percentage in 25 contests.

As mentioned in the intro, those goaltending woes extended into Round 1 and are something the Avalanche will need to exploit in Round 2.

Avalanche A hot goaltender can take you far in the playoffs and right now Philipp Grubauer is very hot indeed. He’s certainly had rough patches this season, but he’s also a big part of the reason the Avalanche were even able to make the playoffs. From Feb. 23 onward, he posted a 9-2-2 record, 1.44 GAA, and .956 save percentage in 14 contests.

Grubauer proved to be a big problem for Calgary in Round 1 too. The best the Flames did against him was in Game 1 when he allowed three goals on 31 shots. After that, Grubauer surrendered just seven goals over the final four contests, giving him a 1.90 GAA and .939 save percentage in five postseason starts this year.

He also had a chance to lead the Capitals at the start of the 2018 playoffs, but struggled out of the gate, resulting in Braden Holtby taking over in Game 2 and leading Washington the rest of the way. Grubauer has taken advantage of this second chance to show that he can be a strong playoff goaltender.

Special Teams

Sharks: San Jose had eight power-play goals in Round 1, but four of them came on that major penalty to Eakin. While it was a dramatic way to end the series, it has also skewed their power-play numbers. That said, the Sharks ranked sixth in the regular season with a 23.6% power-play success rate and they’re certainly capable of continuing to be very effect with the man advantage going forward. Their ability to kill penalties is a far bigger question mark. The Sharks were a mid-tier team in that regard in the regular season with an 80.8% success rate and their PK was heavily exploited by Vegas in Round 1. Of the teams that advanced, San Jose has the worst playoff penalty kill percentage at 72.4%.

Avalanche: Colorado was 5-for-25 on the power play in Round 1. Unsurprisingly, it was MacKinnon and Rantanen leading the charge there too. The duo combined for four of the five markers and MacKinnon got a point on all five power-play goals. In the regular season, the Avalanche ranked seventh on the power play with a 22% success rate. The Avalanche killed only 78.7% of their penalties in the regular season though, making them one of the worst teams in that regard. Colorado wasn’t any better in Round 1, killing 77.3% of their penalties. It’s looking like this is going to be a series where both squads will be able to frequently take advantage of their power-play opportunities.

X-Factor For Sharks

Not to be a broken record about it, but their goaltending. There’s just so much else to love about this team. They have both star power and depth up front. They have two Norris Trophy winners on defense. They have veterans loaded with playoff experience and plenty of reason to be hungry. The one element that’s potentially missing here is goaltending.

Jones doesn’t need to be great, he might not even need to be good. It’s hard to see the Sharks getting through without him being at least passable though. San Jose managed to just barely recover from Jones’ meltdown from Games 2-4. The Sharks might not be able to survive if he endures a similar slump going forward.

X-Factor For Avalanche

Everything beyond the Avalanche’s big three. Rantanen and MacKinnon couldn’t have been asked to do more in Round 1 and while Gabriel Landeskog wasn’t as effective as that duo, he certainly contributed too with a goal and four points in five games. The larger question is if the Avalanche have the offensive depth to go deeper into the playoffs. If the Sharks manage to shutdown the Avalanche’s stars, can the supporting cast step up?

The Avalanche don’t have a lot of offensive weapons beyond their big three, which made Soderberg and Kerfoot’s quiet first round all the more alarming. They ranked fourth and fifth respectively in Colorado’s forwards scoring race in the regular season. They’re also the only two forwards on the Avalanche that recorded at least 40 points outside of the big three.

The silver lining is that the Avalanche did get some secondary scoring from other sources in Round 1. Matt Nieto, who had 23 points in the regular season, scored two goals and four points in five playoff contests. After finishing 2018-19 with 27 points, Colin Wilson came up big in Game 5 with two goals and an assist.

Prediction

Sharks in 6. I think I’ve made it clear at this point that Jones gives me pause and there’s also the question of Pavelski’s status, which at the time of writing is still unknown. Even with that though, San Jose is far closer to the complete package than Colorado. I can certainly envision scenarios where the Avalanche win this series — especially in what is becoming the year of the upsets — but if you’re asking for what I believe is the most probable outcome, it would have to be San Jose advancing.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info
Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Jones stops 58, Hertl scores shorthanded in double OT as Sharks force Game 7

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Martin Jones wouldn’t face the media following a Game 4 benching following a disastrous first period.

The official story from the San Jose Sharks’ public relations team was that the couldn’t find the embattled goaltender. This was hardly surprising after Jones had been chased twice in the first four games of the series, including Game 4 after two goals on seven shots led to his benching.

However long Jones was lost for, he emerged as the starter for Game 5 and began what would become a mini redemption tour, one that will make a stop in Game 7 on Tuesday after the Sharks battle back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Vegas Golden Knights, winning Game 6 on Sunday night 2-1 in double overtime at T-Mobile Arena.

And what theatrics he had to make getting there, stopping 58 shots total to set a new franchise record in any game in their history, and a shorthanded snipe by Tomas Hertl just when it looks like Vegas might finally breach Jones’ defenses.

Part of sticking with Jones came down to not having a better alternative. Aaron Dell, San Jose’s backup, fared no better between the pipes as Mark Stone et al crushed the Sharks.

Vegas, of course, knows a thing or two about incredible goaltending — it carried them to the Stanley Cup Final last season. On Sunday, it obstructed them from taking another step toward hockey’s holy grail.

The Sharks really had no business being in a tie game when the clock read zeroes after three periods. Jones made it possible.

Jones has worn a couple hats in this series. He’s a big reason why the Sharks found themselves trailing 3-1 in the series. He allowed a whopping 11 goals on 54 shots between Game 2 and Game 4, a save percentage that is almost unfathomable.

Somewhere between his disappearance after Game 4 and being located in time for Game 5, Jones had some sort of epiphany. Horrible regular-season save percentage be damned, he was going to show everyone.

And he has.

Jones made 30 saves while facing elimination in Game 5 a couple of days ago to pull a game back for the Sharks. On Sunday, Jones had to be sharp again, stopping 17 shots in each of the second and third periods as the Sharks were wildly outplayed.

Somehow Hertl found the oomph needed to work Shea Theodore, sniping a wrister from the top of the left circle.

As crazy as this series has been, it gets more nutzo knowing that there’s yet to be a lead change through six games. The Sharks are also 35-0 this season when allowing two goals or fewer. Vegas set a new record for shots on goal in a game with 59. They had 119 shot attempts, which is all sorts of madness.

And it all sets up for a brilliant Tuesday night where the Sharks and Golden Knights will join the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for a Game 7 extravaganza.

The hockey world can hardly wait.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Wraparound: Sharks sticking with Jones as they face elimination

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Eleven goals on 54 shots. An .847 even strength save percentage. Two consecutive games allowing a goal on the first shot. Martin Jones couldn’t be found to speak to reporters after Game 3, which matches his on-ice performance during this series.

On Wednesday, he did speak, and he wasn’t there to talk about the past.

“What’s done is done,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter at this point. We’re down 3-1. We’ve just got to win a game [Thursday].”

Peter DeBoer said he’s sticking with Jones as the San Jose Sharks face elimination tonight (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) against the Vegas Golden Knights down 3-1 in the series. Related to their goaltending problem, the Sharks have been playing catch up far too often, something you don’t want to happen with this Golden Knights team.

Since their Game 1 victory, the Sharks have not led at all and have allowed the opening goal after 58, 16, and 71 seconds, respectively, in the last three games. In their three losses they also allowed the second goal of the game to fall behind 2-0. That can quickly change your gameplan, and as they’ve tried to play more aggressively — sometimes succeeding when it’s far too late — Marc-Andre Fleury has been in their way.

“You’ve got to give him some credit, he’s made some good saves,” said Sharks captain Joe Pavelski. “[There has been] some posts, some pucks popping out the other side. But next game that can’t happen. Bottom line.”

The Sharks are 0-6 in franchise history when staring down a 3-1 deficit. Overcoming history is a big enough mountain to climb.

And when it comes to goaltending, DeBoer’s hands are tied. Aaron Dell wasn’t any better during the regular season, so it’s Jones, who has five years left on a deal carrying an annual cap hit of $5.75M, who will have to be the one to help bail them out of this situation that he played a role in creating.

“We’ve just got to make sure we take care of our home games here,” Jones said. “If we can push it to a Game 6, we know we can win a game in that building. And you never know what can happen.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 4: Capitals at Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 2-1): A forgettable Game 3 performance is in the rear-view mirror for the Capitals, who won’t let a tough game derail them. “As this group maybe proved last year, we kept calm,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “If anything happens — you score a goal or you let in a goal — you’ve got to keep calm, I think, and make sure you stick to the game plan.” PNC Arena will be lively again in hopes that the Hurricanes can even the series. (NBCSN; Live stream)

Game 5: Blues at Jets, 8:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2): Mission accomplished for the Jets. They went to St. Louis down 2-0 in the series and head back home with things even following their 2-1 overtime win Tuesday night. “It’s going to look like this quite possibly for the next three games,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “It’s going to be very, very tight. The whole team is going to have to play well, but you’re going to need one guy to put you over the top.” (USA Network; Live stream)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.