Tonight saw a dominating performance by the second line as the Sharks downed the Flames, 4-3, in a game that was a little too close for comfort.
The game started out with an absolute dominating shift by the second line. They controlled the play for the first minute of the game, cycling the puck in the Flames' zone, eventually drawing a penalty. If that was how the entire team played, it would have easily been a repeat of the January 19th game last season, where the Sharks beat the Flames 9-1. But alas, it was not to be.
Joe Thornton opened the scoring eight seconds into that first power play, continuing his surprisingly goal-filled season. However, the Sharks showed their inconsistency by icing the puck the first shift after the goal, and then allowing Calgary to slowly take over.
As has been a running theme this year, the Sharks got into penalty trouble, with 29 PIMs, although that number goes down to 14 when you discard Mayers' fighting major and game misconduct. But that still means that the Flames got seven power play opportunities, including one long 5-on-3. While it didn't hurt the Sharks much tonight (the Flames only scored on the 5-on-3), it will burn them at some point. Taking seven minors in a game does not help a team win.
The power play, with five opportunities on the night, looked good in the offensive zone despite only scoring one goal. They cycled, they put plenty of pucks on net (12 shots in 6:57 of power play time), and had several close calls. What is worrying is that once the puck got out of the offensive zone, more often then not the Flames had an odd-man rush going the other way. For a team that has already given up three shorthanded goals this season, this is a continuing problem.
There was one such shorthanded rush that was played great by Logan Couture. Actually, Logan Couture played great the entire game, as did his linemates Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe. All three scored and registered two assists - the first three point night of Couture's young career. But with how the line was playing, it was a wonder that they didn't score more. There wasn't a shift during the game where they didn't threaten to score - it was probably one of the best performances by a line this season, and this includes the 13 point first line game.
Both Clowe and Pavelski were on eight game schnides coming into tonight. It was fitting, then, that they get off them against the same team that provided such a large busting of schnides back on January 18. As play-by-play broadcaster Randy Hahn said after Pavelski's goal: "HALLELUJAH!" Pavelski, and the entire second line for that matter, had been playing great for a while with nothing to show for it. Pavelski in particular seemed the most snake-bit: he had forty-four straight shots without a goal. You don't get 44 shots in roughly nine games without playing well, so it's good to see Pavelski finally get rewarded for his play.
Tonight was probably Niemi's best night with the glove. He allowed no goals to his glove side, and actually made a few nice glove saves. Now, Neemo was still no Evgeni Nabokov with the glove, but he didn't let in any catchable goals, which is a definite improvement on all of his past starts in a Sharks uniform.
However, Niemi did allow two goals to slip under his pads: one that looked five-hole, and another that scooted under his right leg pad as he was pushing off to cover the other half of the net. It continues the theme of Niemi allowing weak goals, albeit in a less worrying manner; his troubles this season have largely been with the glove, with his leg work being his strong suit. It's likely that his weak pads were an abberation or that he was focusing too much on his glove work in practice.
Jarome Iginla - who was publicly demoted to the fourth line - absolutely sniped his goal, the Flames' third on the night and one that would make the Sharks sweat for the final thirty seconds. One would be hard-pressed to find a goaltender that could stop that shot even half the time.
Jamie McGinn returned tonight after being scratched, and ended having the second-least amount of ice time on the Sharks - only 11 seconds more than Jamal Mayers, who spent 17 minutes in the penalty box after getting an instigator for a fight with Corey Sarich. McGinn's play had him go for the hit instead of the puck most of the time, often allowing the Flames player he was trying to hit slip away with the puck and create a breakout.
The Sharks held three two-goal leads in the game, and lost all of them. While they never allowed the Flames to tie it up, there was always a feeling that it could happen. In the last minute especially, after the Flames pulled Miikka Kiprusoff, it felt inevitable that the Flames would score (and Iginla eventually did, although it was not enough). The Sharks' defense was scrambling, and they had trouble clearing the puck from the zone.
Outside of the second line, it was a bit troubling that the Sharks had this much trouble against a Flames team that was on the second half of back-to-backs, but it was good for the Sharks to get those two points. And it was really good to see the second line, Pavelski especially, get off the schnide.