Thursday night, the San Jose Sharks got just their second win in seven games on their current road trip. It was hardly a convincing win, not just because of the close 2-1 score but because they were beaten in faceoffs, shots and hits.
Antti Niemi withstood a third period in which his teammates clearly did not have the extra gear the Toronto Maple Leafs did, getting outshot 16-9. But that is only fair, given Nemo blew a game earlier in the trip in which the Sharks scored five goals.
The good news is that San Jose still has a chance to salvage a .500 record on the trip over the weekend. The bad news is they will have to beat the sixth-best team in the league (point percentage being the real mark of a team's success) then win a game that starts less than 20 hours later.
First things first. The Nashville Predators have only the fourth-best home record in their division at 12 points above .500. Of course, that is because Detroit and St. Louis are vying for record-setting home numbers; only the Blackhawks, Capitals and Rangers are between those rivals and Nashville.
Despite their slide, the Sharks are still in the top third of the league on the road with a .550 point percentage. They have the right formula for winning on the road: fewest times shorthanded, second-best faceoff percentage (52.8), league-high shots on goal (34.7 per game) and top third of the league in blocks despite allowing the sixth-fewest shots on goal (28.6).
But Nashville wins by keeping its players out of the penalty box (third-fewest average penalty minutes) and by pouncing on its power-play opportunities (second-best at 21.6 percent). The Predators' plus-12 goal margin compared to the Sharks' plus-23 despite two fewer games and three fewer wins shows their ability to win tight games.
Now how many points do you think the Sharks will end up with on this road trip?
San Jose's power play ranks right behind Nashville's at 21.5 percent. However, the Preds' penalty kill is in the middle of the NHL at 82.2 percent while San Jose's is third-worst at 77.5 percent.
If the Sharks are going to win, they want to keep the attack five-on-five, where they rank sixth at six goals per five yielded, while Nashville is only plus-1 for the entire season. That is where almost the entire narrow margin in scoring and defence comes from—the Sharks are ninth (2.81 per game) and eighth (2.48) while the Preds are 11th (2.74) and 10th (2.52), respectively.
In their previous two meetings this season, the Sharks won in regulation in Nashville and lost at home in overtime. That regulation win this season was one of only three in the last three seasons to be decided by more than one goal, and five of those 14 games have gone to overtime or a shootout.
San Jose will likely be without injury-plagued forwards Martin Havlat and James Sheppard and recent trade acquisition Dominic Moore and ace defender Douglas Murray. Nashville is missing Patric Hornqvist and Brian McGratton.
The Sharks need the win because the rest of the NHL Pacific is breathing down their necks this month. The Preds need the win because while catching Detroit is almost a pipe dream, they are two games behind St. Louis for the right to have home ice in the opening round of the playoffs.
Expect Nashville to have much more in the tank and win this one in regulation. The Phoenix Coyotes will technically pass the Sharks for the division lead with a win in Edmonton, though San Jose's point percentage will be better (.592 vs. .589).