This one was a doozy. No doubt about that.
There's been a lot of talk about the Sharks early game struggles this year; while that may be true in regards to the compete level, the Sharks have been getting on the board quickly. Again tonight, the Sharks got the first goal of the game, a gift from Semyon Varlamov.
As the puck entered the zone, Varlamov turned the puck over to Couture who quirky put the puck on net. Although Varlamov got back to his crease quickly, he sent a rebound right to the stick of Ryane Clowe, who roofed one past the Colorado netminder for the score.
Then, the period became a battle of special teams. And in those battles, you might as well call the Sharks the French; they've rolled out the welcoming mat for invading armies this season and tonight was no exception. After failing to convert on the power play, the Sharks gave up two power play goal in two straight shorthanded situations.
Paul Statsny got the first goal off a tip from an Eric Johnson shot, and Ryan O'Reily got the second following up on a rebound allowed by Antti Niemi. Neither goal was really Niemi's fault, the defensive pressure by the forwards on the penalty kill left much to be desired and the Avalanche had far too many opportunities to convert.
The second period saw the Sharks jump back into the game again, this time with Michal Handzus getting a beautiful feed from Martin Havlat behind the net which he buried. The play started with Jamie McGinn winning puck possession on the boards, and then kicking the puck to Havlat's stick. It may seem like we praise McGinn too much around here, but stepping back it is quite amazing to see him transform from a ancillary piece to a legitimate NHL player. He's been dynamic, physical, and committed, which is more than you can say about many of the other Sharks during the current run.
Unfortunately, the rest of the second period was all Colorado. First, Marc Edouard Vlasic would make an uncharacteristic turnover in the defensive end which ultimately resulted in Statsny's second goal. It was a break down that shouldn't have happened, and the result was a 3-2 deficit that the Sharks brought on themselves with sloppy play.
The fourth goal allowed wasn't a factor of sloppy play, but instead tired skaters. The Sharks would get caught on a very long shift, and after the Avalanche cycled the puck for a chunk of time that seemed like an eternity, Daniel Winnik scored his second goal in as many games against San Jose. The goal put the Avalanche up 4-2, and you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who thought the seemingly hapless Sharks would have any chance to turn it around.
Something happened in the second intermission, though, which obviously had an affect on the team. It wasn't a motivational speech, it wasn't a coach's tirade. It was a calm discussion that Joe Thornton described in the post game locker room.
"In between periods we talked about how teams have done this to us," said the Sharks' captain, commenting on his team's penchant for giving up third period leads of late. "Why don't we just turn it around for once? Shift after shift we came at them and it just worked for us."
That's an understatement. The Sharks would score in bunches in the third period, starting with a determined play by both Havlat and Brent Burns. Havlat, who had a strong game, fought to create a turnover and caught Brent Burns, who muscled a puck past Varlamov to trim the lead to one. The way that Havlat has struggled, a strong game was exactly what he needed. The effort didn't escape his coach.
"He was very good tonight.," said Todd McLellan of Havlat. "You can't take that away from him one bit. He was good defensively. He was good on the penalty kill. He created chances for his line mates. We are really happy with that type of game from him. I think for him he is still feeling his way through a new organization again. I have said it before, we do expect more from him, but maybe this was his coming out and he'll continue to go that way."
The Sharks themselves continued as Havlat did: strongly. Just thirty seconds later, it was Joe Pavelski with a goal of his own. Thornton, behind the net (a play the Sharks used frequently tonight), forced a pass up to Jason Demers who blasted a shot towards Varlamov. The puck dropped into the crease, where Pavelski was positioned to wrestle the puck into the net.
"That is how a lot of goals are being scored," said Pavelski, of his tally and the others tonight which were scored around the net. "We just missed on a few, but it is definitely good to see guys battle back and get into the hard areas to score goals."
At that point, it looked like the Sharks were an unstoppable force. But like Superman shivers at the sight of kryptonite, the Sharks were forced to face their own weakness head on; a Justin Braun boarding penalty put them on the penalty kill for the third time after allowing two already in the game.
It was the Sharks' best effort of the night on the kill, and two minutes later with the game back at evens, there was no question which team carried the momentum. A few moments later, Patrick Marleau's shot was tipped in by Logan Couture, a goal which would prove to be the game winner.
Couture, by his own account, stated this game was an important one for the team's confidence.
"Right now we are a fragile hockey team," admitted Couture. "We need the confidence and I think this third period will go a long way. We need to build off of it with a good practice tomorrow and get ready for Edmonton."
Not only is the team fragile, but so is the fan base. A loss tonight would have probably seen an increase in the cries for wholesale changes to the roster and coaching staff... a determined win may silence that group for now.
Perhaps this third period is the building block to the success that the Sharks feel they should have been seeing all along. We always look for turning points to a season, and hopefully, tonight's effort proves to be just that.