The Sharks' season is on the line on Wednesday, but there is still reason to believe their game is trending upward.
Although the Colorado Avalanche forced a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoff second-round series thanks to Gabriel Landeskog's overtime winner in Monday's Game 6, San Jose's loss was its best game of the series from a shot-quality perspective. Despite ceding puck possession for the first period and change, the Sharks finished the night with their clearest edge of the second round in terms of creating chances in 5-on-5 situations.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Sharks out-chanced the Avalanche (34-25) and created far more high-danger chances (17-10) in just under 56 minutes of 5-on-5 play Monday. San Jose also generated 3.13 expected goals compared to Colorado's 1.94 -- the former mark is the Sharks' best this series, and the latter is second.
This is an important development for the Sharks, considering the series began with the Avalanche creating the bulk of 5-on-5 chances while San Jose had a slight edge in shot attempts. The Sharks have maintained those latter margins, but have also closed the gap when it comes to chances. The table below shows where San Jose stood in those three categories after two, four and six games played in the series, respectively, and offers optimism if those trends continue.
|2 GP||4 GP||6 GP|
The Avalanche has still gotten more good looks, but the Sharks' improvement over the course of the series is clear. Much of that is owed to how well they've defended against the Avalanche's top trio compared to the start of the second round.
After the first two games of the series, Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog created chance after chance against San Jose. The Avalanche outchanced the Sharks 21-11 with the trio on the ice in 5-on-5 situations, and won the high-danger chance battle 10-4.
But in the last four games, the Sharks have out-attempted (56-50), out-shot (31-26), out-chanced (33-29) and out-scored (4-2) the Avs' top line in their time together. San Jose has also created more high-danger chances (16-13) and expected goals (3.06-2.85) in 53:42 of 5-on-5 play against the trio of All-Stars. They don't necessarily need to control play in order to make the Sharks pay, as Landeskog's game-winning goal Monday showed, but it's a good sign for San Jose headed into Game 7 where Landeskog, Mackinnon and Rantanen likely will play a lot.
Colorado coach Jared Bednar dressed 11 forwards in Game 6 (at least in part) to ensure he could ride his top forwards. MacKinnon (26:31), Rantanen (24:39) and Landeskog (24:31) played more minutes that night than any other Avalanche skater -- including minutes-eating defenseman Tyson Barrie (22:30). It's safe to assume the same with Colorado facing elimination once more, and San Jose will need to get the better of those minutes once more in order to advance.
Yet, Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen can't play every shift in Game 7 -- even if it will seem that way. Sharks players and coach Peter DeBoer pointed to the need for the Sharks' forward depth to improve after Avalanche third-liner J.T. Compher scored or assisted all three of Colorado's regulation goals in Game 6. Of San Jose's four forward lines, Logan Couture, Timo Meier and Gustav Nyquist were the only Sharks line that controlled the majority of attempts, shots, chances and expected goals. Each of San Jose's three other lines was beaten in at least one of those areas Monday, and a repeat is a risky proposition Wednesday.
In a series where each team has allowed just two power-play goals, 5-on-5 play carries additional importance in a do-or-die Game 7. It's by no means the end-all be-all, and the Sharks need to look no further than their own Game 7 experience this postseason for proof. Still, their overall improvement in creating quality chances as the series has worn on bodes well for Wednesday's Game 7 at SAP Center.
That is, as long as said improvement continues.