Waking up Wednesday, the Sharks are a short-odds Stanley Cup contender, some oddsmakers selecting San Jose as the third-best bet to best the field and stand in the winner’s circle come season’s end. Makes sense, too, right? The Sharks are second in the Western Conference and second in their division. San Jose is also a dominant home-ice club with a deep and threatening attack and a blueline, when at full strength, that can be lethal offensively and stifling defensively.
But as they wake up Wednesday, the Sharks are also spiralling at the worst time of year. Six consecutive games, six consecutive losses. And suddenly a San Jose group that has been fighting tooth-and-nail with the Calgary Flames for top spot in the Pacific Division is hoping to ward off the Vegas Golden Knights, who are inching ever closer to home-ice in the first round and now trail the Sharks by five points with six games remaining on both teams’ schedules. Worse than the string of defeats and the potential of coughing up home-ice, though, is that the Sharks have gone from looking like a post-season threat to potential first-round fodder.
The primary cause for concern in San Jose is the same as it has been for the better part of the campaign: the play of the Sharks’ keepers. The losing streak, of course, has exacerbated the situation, but already difficult to ignore, it’s become increasingly impossible to overlook San Jose’s shortcomings in the crease. Across the current six-game losing streak, the Sharks have allowed three or more goals against in all six games, four or more in five of those and a whopping seven in a laugher against the same Golden Knights who are in hot pursuit of San Jose’s second-place spot in the division. The blame can’t really fall on one goaltender or the other, either, because both have been equally as suspect this season.
Despite that, it should go without saying that it’s the play of Martin Jones that is most worrisome. The Sharks’ No. 1 netminder, who has started 58 games this season, is having far and away the worst season of his career. In fact, one season removed from a campaign in which he posted perfectly average numbers – maybe even slightly above-average – with a .915 save percentage and 2.55 goals-against average, Jones’ base statistics have plummeted. Among the 28 goaltenders with at least 40 games played this season, Jones’ .898 SP is the third-worst in the NHL. His 2.91 goals-against average is worse than all but six netminders on that same list. And his inability to keep the red light dimmed has been ever more evident lately.
Take Jones’ last dozen starts, beginning with a Feb. 23 contest in Columbus. Despite boasting a 5-6-0 record over that span, Jones has an .896 SP and 3.02 GAA, and in eight of the 12 games, he’s posted a sub-.900 SP. The only game in which he allowed fewer than two goals against was the Sharks’ March 11 victory over the Minnesota Wild. Jones stopped all 24 shots he faced in that contest, posting his third shutout of the season. The unfortunate reality, however, is that games like the three-goal against, .880 SP victory over the Colorado Avalanche in early March or the four-goal against, .852 SP mid-month loss to the Florida Panthers have been far more frequent than Jones’ stymying of the opposition.
What compounds the problem in the Sharks’ crease is that the so-called hot hand has been the Sharks’ version of Bigfoot: talked about, rumored, but never seen. At times when a starter is struggling, teams often turn to their backup looking for a spark, and there are times when the second-stringer can carry the load while the No. 1 gets his game sorted. Aaron Dell hasn’t been able to provide that, though. While he has two shutouts in 23 appearances, he’s sporting an .887 save percentage on the season and his numbers have continued to tank in the back half of the season. Since Jan. 1, Dell’s .883 SP is the fourth-worst mark of any goaltender with at least 10 games played.
This all leaves the Sharks in a rather precarious position. Despite boasting the league’s third-best offense, sixth-best power play and some of the best underlying metrics in the NHL, San Jose is left waiting for one of its goaltenders to show up come the post-season with their season likely hinging on one of Dell or, much more likely, Jones shoring it up when the games matter most. The good news is there’s precedent and a reason why Sharks faithful can have conversations about Jones’ alter ego, Playoff Martin Jones.
In 42 post-season games, the 29-year-old has posted a .926 SP and 2.07 GAA, and in every season in San Jose, Jones has seen his numbers improve in the post-season. That’s true of the 2015-16 season, where Jones’ .918 SP and 2.27 GAA in the regular season were bested by his .923 SP and 2.16 GAA in a post-season in which he helped guide the Sharks to the Stanley Cup final. It’s likewise true of the 2016-17 season, where Jones’ .912 SP and 2.40 GAA improved to a .935 SP and 1.75 GAA in a brief six-game playoff stay. And again Jones showed he could rise to the occasion when he posted a .928 SP and 2.26 GAA in 10 games during the 2017-18 post-season after his aforementioned .915 SP and 2.15 GAA across last campaign.
And maybe, finally, Jones can pull it together behind one of the leagues most limiting defenses. The Sharks have allowed the fewest shot attempts against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (51.3), as well as the fewest shots (27) and third-fewest scoring chances (24). That sets the table for Jones, insulates him from the opposition attack, and the Sharks' defense continuing to do so will provide him the stage to be at his best in the post-season.
Hope, however, isn’t much for a top-tier Stanley Cup contender to hang its hat on, and that is exactly what the Sharks are doing with Jones in goal, hoping he can provide the goaltending an otherwise Western Conference powerhouse needs in order to fulfill its playoff potential. That might be all the Sharks can do at this point, though, and if Playoff Martin Jones doesn’t show up and Regular Season Martin Jones sticks around, it’s likely to be curtains for San Jose sooner than the Stanley Cup odds would lead us to believe.