San Jose Sharks Host Chicago Blackhawks in Battle of Sleeping Giants
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Chicago held the most difficult of posts—Central Division leader—with 58 points in 45 games. San Jose led last season's toughest division with 55 points in 41 games.
The Blackhawks outlasted the Sharks, 4-3, and lead the season series four points to three. They went on to win their next two games, but have not won in six games since, earning just one point.
It has been no picnic in San Jose, either. The Sharks are just 4-5-1 in their last 10 games, starting with that loss in the City of the Big Shoulders.
This time it is the Sharks playing host and both teams need the win. And no matter what either will tell you, traveling is on their minds.
The 'Hawks have been on the road for four straight games and will have four more after Friday's game. The Sharks will embark on a 15-day, nine-game odyssey this weekend and need to get the last home win they can before the trade deadline.
In late January, it was the Sharks scoring abandoning them. They scored seven goals in the last five games before the All-Star break.
The broke out with a 6-0 victory over a Columbus Blue Jackets team with so many injuries that their normally insufficient roster may no longer be NHL-worthy. They beat a mediocre Dallas team that was fatigued 5-2.
How alarmed should the Sharks be about their struggles against good forechecks?
Also scoring three goals in each of the last two games shows that the scoring is back. But you cannot have four shots per game beat your goalie—almost all of them were the fault of the defense—and win. Expect Antti Niemi in net Friday—he is 4-2-1 against his old team with a 2.59 GAA and .921 save pct.
Both the Sharks last two teams were in that desperate, outside-looking-in position. Chicago is no less desperate because of their free-fall.
They have allowed at least three goals in all six of their losses and five or more in three. They will have to score to keep up—expect them to copy the aggressive forecheck employed successfully by those lesser Sharks foes. The problem will be worse if Dan Boyle is out again with the flu.
(A look at Wednesday night's recap reveals just how important Boyle is. The Sharks gave up four goals to the top line Boyle—fourth on the blue line in hits and blocked shots while leading it in takeaways—would have faced.)
By this point in the season, things have had a chance to even out and teams can be judged on their body or work. Chicago is a point up on San Jose, but has played three more games. They are two points below .500 on the road, while San Jose is eight points better than .500 at home.
The Blackhawks are fifth in scoring at 3.09 goals per game, but the Sharks are fifth in goals against (2.31). San Jose's penalty kill is still in the NHL's bottom-five (78.3 percent), but they do not take many penalties and Chicago's power play is ranked just 14th (17.9 percent).
How do you see this game ending?
Meanwhile, the Sharks are 10th (2.78) in scoring, while the Blackhawks have the fifth-worst defense (2.96). Chicago also possess a penalty kill with just a 78.3 percent success rate and San Jose's power play is sixth (19.4 percent).
Chicago is in the bottom half of the league in five-on-five play (.97 goals scored per goal yielded) while San Jose is fifth (1.32). The Blackhawks are in the top-20 percent of the NHL in face-offs (51.8 percent), but the Sharks are second (53.2). San Jose has the second-best shot differential in the NHL (plus-6.6), but Chicago is seventh (plus-2.7).
But none of that matters if only one of these sleeping giants awakens.
(MJ Kasprzak is not only a featured columnist on the San Jose Sharks for Bleacher Report, but is employed to cover the NHL Pacific for The Hockey Beat. Links within this piece refer to articles written in that capacity.)
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