The San Jose Sharks continue to prove their versatility.
They have won games by scoring a lot of goals and by holding opponents to a single goal (as yet they lack a shutout). They have won by putting a lot of shots on net and when being out-shot. They have held the puck through winning faceoffs and by taking care of the puck once they had it.
Saturday, the Dallas Stars tried to drag them into a physical match.
Dallas took runs at their guest's biggest stars, registering an astounding 53 hits to the Sharks 17. They drew them into scrums and fights, with the two teams combining for 100 penalty minutes.
In the aftermath, Dallas had its fifth consecutive loss and San Jose had the best record in hockey. They have attained that status because through any efforts of the opposition, the Sharks remain more efficient with the puck.
For one, the Sharks won three more faceoffs and gained two additional possessions through the giveaway/takeaway margin. While they attempted six fewer shots, they had seven more get through to the net because they blocked four more and missed nine fewer.
More importantly, three more beat the opposing goalie. It was Antti Niemi's best game of the season, turning away 30 of 31 shots while his team built a commanding 4-1 lead, overcoming a slow start to take over the game in the second period.
But Dallas had come home from playing the Colorado Avalanche the night before, the third game in four nights for the weary Stars. Sunday, it was the Sharks' turn to travel to Denver to play their third game in four nights against a rested team.
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Thomas Greiss was in net for San Jose. While he looked shaky at times, he battled to his best game of the season.
This allowed his teammates to play smarter and wait for ideal scoring chances: While Colorado peppered the goal with 37 shots on 54 attempts for one goal, the Sharks needed just 17 shots on goal to get four scores.
Colorado put so much effort into blocking shots (15) that the Sharks began shooting wide (14 misses) and taking advantage of defenders not being on their feet. Meanwhile, San Jose blocked 10 shots and a couple of them created odd-man rushes that took the Avs shot-blocking out of the equation.
The Sharks started out with the puck often, winning 31 of 53 faceoffs. But the Avs made the most of their time on defence, laying nine more hits and regaining five of those possessions with a better giveaway/takeaway differential.
Patrick Marleau evened the score one second after the power play ended in the first, and his power play empty-netter was his third goal with 43 seconds left in the game. Marc-Edouard Vlasic had the primary assist on all three of those goals to vault him to the leading scorer on the Sharks blue line and earn him NHL second star of the week—his seven points were tied for league best last week.
Joe Thornton had two secondary assists and also found Joe Pavelski from behind the net for an easy one-timer goal in the slot. Marleau and Thornton also had two points against Dallas, and the Sharks top lines are rolling.
How will San Jose fare against Chicago?
Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks have had two miserable games in a row in Alberta, Canada, being out-scored 14-4 by two teams not expected to make the playoffs. They are 5-5-1 on the road, but the Sharks are only 5-3-1 at home.
Chicago is one of two teams with a worse penalty kill (73.4 percent) than the Sharks (74.6), and will have to stay out of the box to keep the Sharks third-ranked power play (22.1) off the ice. Chicago ranks just above the middle of the pack with a 17.3 percent success rate on the man-advantage, but the Sharks are among league leaders in fewest power play chances against.
Chicago wins only one more faceoff in every 200, the two teams give up the same number of shots per game and San Jose averages one more shot on goal. But the teams are hardly even otherwise statistically, with the Sharks having a plus-10 advantage in goal differential despite playing three fewer games.
Expect a high-scoring game: Chicago ranks third in scoring (3.26/game) and San Jose fifth (3.06). Meanwhile, Chicago is eighth-worst in the league at 3.10 goals against per game, and the Sharks rank ninth-best at 2.39.