PITTSBURGH — Never have the Sharks arrived at the halfway point of the season in the last 20 years in such a noxious state.
The Sharks are last in the Western Conference, 27th in the NHL in goals scored per game and 29th in goals allowed per game. Their power play, so often a source of organizational pride, is 2-for-49 over their last 20 games and entered 2020 third-last in the league at 14.3 percent (their penalty kill is the NHL’s best at 87.9 percent).
The Sharks have two players in the NHL’s top 75 point scorers, with Logan Couture tied for 50th with 33 points and Tomas Hertl tied for 72nd with 30. Their team save percentage of .888 is third worst in the league.
A coaching change has done little to provide a spark, as the Sharks fell to 2-5-1 under interim coach Bob Boughner with Tuesday’s 2-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, the worst team in the league record-wise by a wide margin.
The Sharks have 37 points with a 17-21-3 record. The last time it was close to this bad was in 2002-03, when they had 38 points at the midway point and went on to miss the playoffs. That season also included a coaching change, as the team transitioned from Darryl Sutter to Ron Wilson.
How much worse can it get now?
Actually, probably by a fair amount.
The Sharks continue their five-game road trip Thursday against the Pittsburgh Penguins who have won eight of their last 10 — followed by a game Saturday with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
They then play the teams that have won the last two Stanley Cups — the Washington Capitals on Sunday and the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday.
Of the Sharks’ next nine games, seven are against teams that currently hold a playoff position. The only exceptions are the two games against the Blue Jackets, who were five points out of a postseason position as of Wednesday morning.
That’s what made Tuesday’s loss so tough to digest, as the Red Wings were easily the most beatable opponent the Sharks will have on this road trip.
The only problem with that is the Wings were probably looking at the Sharks along similar lines — that this was the most winnable game they’ve had in at least a couple weeks.
Scoring the first goal against a fragile Wings team, which had lost six straight, probably would have gone long way Tuesday. Instead, the Sharks fell behind in the second period and were shut out for the first time this season as they couldn’t solve goalie Jonathan Bernier despite 34 shots on net.
The most disappointing part for the Sharks, though, was that they had established a blueprint for how they needed to play to have success just three days earlier.
In their 6-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday, the Sharks were the more physical team, played with urgency and were direct in getting shots to the net.
It only happened in bits and pieces against the Wings.
They did not have a good start, managing only one shot on net through nearly the first seven minutes of the first period. When they did play in the Wings’ zone, there was a lot of one-and-done, a recurring theme for a team that scored two goals or fewer in 10 of 13 games in December.
The Sharks are now 0-2-2 this season in the opening game of road trips of at least three games.
Boughner tweaked his lines for the third period, moving Stefan Noesen up to play with Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl, Kevin Labanc down with Joe Thornton and Marcus Sorensen and Patrick Marleau to the fourth line with Antti Suomela and Joel Kellman.
The Sharks outshot the Wings 14-3 in the third, not including Filip Hronek’s empty-net goal with 49 seconds left.
“You try not to get frustrated, and you say the right things on the bench,” Boughner said. “Even going into the third period, we felt pretty good with where we were at. We weren’t giving up a lot, and we said ‘win a period, win a game.’”
The Sharks have been getting better goaltending of late. Since Dec. 12, Boughner’s first game as interim coach, Jones, who stopped 21 of 22 shots, has a .904 save percentage in four games. Aaron Dell has a .915 save percentage in four games.
That only goes so far, though, considering how hard it has been all season to create offense. As they stumbled to a 2-9-2 through December, the Sharks managed just 27 goals, tied for fewest in the NHL with, you guessed it, Detroit.
“We didn’t get traffic in front of the net and make things hard on their goaltender,” said Couture, who added that goalie Martin Jones. “was great and we did some nice things on the penalty kill, but we’ve got to be better offensively if we are going to win games.”
Sharks’ worst records at the halfway point
2002-2003: 15-18-5-3, 38 points*
2019-2020: 17-21-3, 37 points
1998-1999: 13-18-10, 36 points
1997-1998: 15-21-5, 35 points
1996-1997: 14-22-5, 33 points*
1993-1994: 12-20-9, 33 points
1991-1992: 9-28-3, 21 points* (season was 80 games)
1995-1996: 8-29-4, 20 points*
1995: 9-13-2, 20 points (season was 48 games)
1992-1993: 6-34-2, 14 points* (season was 84 games)