With the Sharks offense struggling to find goals after Tuesday night's loss to the, going up against Blues goaltender probably wasn't the best cure for their ails.
And if tonight's shutout is any indication, San Jose could have a mini-crisis of offensive production on their hands.
Halak made twenty five saves in his third shutout of the season, while Matt D'Agostini andadded a goal apiece to keep the Blues undefeated at home to start the year. Their current 12 game home winning streak stretching back to the 2009-2010 season is a franchise best, and one that has put St. Louis at the top of the Western Conference standings.
With Sharks goaltendergetting his first start in over a week tonight, one had to wonder how he would handle a St. Louis team that was pumping 34.6 shots on net coming into the contest, good for second in the NHL. Niemi didn't start out on the right foot however, letting in a weak Matt D'Agostini goal from the far edge of the right circle off the rush with no Blues trailers threatening the backdoor pass. A replay of the shot confirmed that Niemi was playing his angle much too aggressively on the shot, allowing D'Agostini to thread the puck to the far post and across the goal line. It wasn't the start Niemi or the Sharks needed, but it was the one they received.
However, both leading up to and following the goal, Niemi played a very sound game in between the pipes, making some brilliant stops in between some routine ones. His rebound control was spotty at times, with multiple crease crashing plays resulting in a puck being kicked out into the low slot, but for the most part Niemi managed to keep the Sharks in the game. It was likely his best outing since joining San Jose in the summer of 2010, and one that could be seen as a potential turning point for a league-average goaltender struggling to get back to the .910 SV% range.
Throughout the game San Jose continued their recent infatuation with the penalty box, racking up 41 minutes of penalties that forced them to skate a massive 15:00 of the game shorthanded. And while the penalty kill unit did a stellar job tonight, generating numerous quality scoring chances a man down and killing all seven opportunities, there's no doubt that it was a real issue for the team. Staying disciplined during a stint when offensive production has dried up is a hallmark of great teams, something that the Sharks will need to correct in practice before Saturday night's matchup against the red-hot.
The lack of offensive production tonight, as well as the season-long struggle with even strength goal scoring, has only recently become something that I find to be concerning. Four games into the season I scoffed at the idea that the Sharks would have difficultly scoring goals, both at even strength and with the man advantage:
In the offensive zone the Sharks have looked fine outside of the giveaways at their own blueline-- their power play entries last night were fairly subpar, but once they gained control of the puck in the zone they moved their feet and opened up some shooting lanes. A post here and there killed whatever momentum they could try and wrangle out of the situation, but it's not like the well has completely dried up in this regard. I'm not concerned about even strength scoring just yet-- the forwards on this team are way too talented to really struggle in this area of the game.
While I still think that the current collection of offensive talent amongst the forward group is too good to get shutout on most nights, the lack of even strength scoring against quality teams has begun to worm its way into my brain like a Yeerk looking for a host. It's quite possible I overlooked the contributions of in the offensive end, both on the breakout as well as from the point, as my analysis of the blueline this offseason centered around the defensive zone.
Is it possible that the Sharks offense is struggling due to their inability to generate shots from the point? What about their lack of traffic in front of the net? Outside ofno Shark has consistently gone to that area. Maybe a focus on running the offense off the halfboards and behind the net has made San Jose easier to defend against, making their gaudy shot totals (34.6 per game, first in the NHL) look better than the scoring chances resulting from those shots. Or perhaps a low team shooting percentage due to luck and other factors outside of their control has played a part in their recent drought.
Whatever the case may be, the Sharks have fallen to 5-5-1, struggling to find consistency in their game all season long.
And while it may not be time to hit the panic button just yet, the Sharks are in a position where each game from here on out seems to feel bigger than they usually do at this time of year.
Analysis of Joe Thornton's hit on David Perron that earned the Sharks Captain a game misconduct penalty can be found here.