Who would have guessed a month ago that the two hottest teams in the middle of February would be San Jose Sharks and New Jersey Devils?
And yet it is today's reality. The Sharks earned 19 points in the last 10 games before arriving to New Jersey. During the same stretch, the Devils earned 17. Someone's streak had to end. In the game that saw equal chances for both teams, the Devils prevailed, as they outlasted the Sharks 2-1 in one of the less memorable games of the season.
The game itself turned out to be just what we got used to seeing whenever Jacques Lemaire is behind the bench - a defensive struggle. With the Sharks paying also more attention to defense nowadays, the first two periods are almost gone from my memory - and for a good reason. I'll be brief - not a whole lot happened then. The Sharks did appear to shoot the puck more, as they dominated in that category after the two periods, 22-11. But that was about it. There were not a lot of scoring chances, they were no fights and virtually no big hits.
As the pressure continued to rise, it was in the third period when the action began to happen. With six minutes into the third period, Patrick Marleau drove to the net, and with nifty a tap on defenseman's back, he got him confused for just long enough to get wide open in front of Johan Hedberg and to redirect a pass from Niclas Wallin into the net.
Just a minute later the Sharks had another chance to increase the lead, as Henrik Tallinder was sent to the box to give the Sharks another power play in the game. But instead of capitizing on it, the Sharks took a penalty of their own - this time it was Joe Thornton who got penalized for hooking.
If the Sharks have one consistent weakness this season, it is their 4-on-4 play. The pace of the game changes, and the team doesn't adjust too well in these situations. This is what happened once again tonight. As the Devils kept the puck, the Sharks were falling behind, and it resulted in another costly error when Logan Couture tripped Anssi Salmela near the Sharks' net. It is almost as if the team begins to panic in these situations, and all kinds of bad things happen.
In this league, 4-on-3 power play is essentially a 5-on-3 power play with all that skill on the teams and with all the extra space. If the defending team wants to survive, it needs to win faceoffs. That the Sharks failed to do, and less than half a minute later, the Devils tied the game on a shot by Brian Rolston.
At this point the momentum of the game changed entirely, and only Niemi could have saved the Sharks from conceding another goal. The Devils were winning faceoffs, they were winning the battles in the corners, and they took over the puck. Niemi was sharp all night, but with four minutes left he allowed a goal he'll likely want to quickly forget. Ilya Kovalchuk - the player who was resurrected with the coaching change the Devils made - saw that there was quite a crowd in front of Niemi, and sent the puck towards that pack ala Kent Huskins. Except he's still Ilya Kovalchuk and his puck flies 73 mph faster on average. The Finn didn't position himself too well, and probably didn't see the puck heading towards him. But it did go in, and the Sharks fell behind in the game they were leading not so long ago.
The four minutes left in the game was still enough to tie the game, and the Sharks looked determined to do just that. Perhaps they would have, if not for the untimely and a rather unwise penalty taken by Torrey Mitchell. Fighting for the puck in the offensive zone with skates and his body, Mitchell didn't pay too much attention to where his stick was, and it ended up in the face of Dainius Zubrus. The Lithuanian Hockey Treasure fell to the ice and left the game with blood on his face, giving the Devils four minute power play at the most important time in the game.
That penalty pretty much ended the Sharks comeback we were all hoping for. The Devils went on to preserve the win and to continue their amazing rise in the standings. Wouldn't that be something if they actually made playoffs this spring?
Overall, the Sharks played a good defensive hockey once again, but the offense has to step up if they want to continue winning games. They won't win too many scoring just once. They also did not look great on faceoffs - Pavelski, for example, won just 2 out of 12. Finally, Joe Thornton's zero shots on goals and general invisibility all night is something that must change. What a different kind of game for Big Joe from the game when he scored a hat trick against the same Devils earlier in the season.
But the road trip continues on Sunday, and San Jose Sharks will have a chance to redeem itself as they take on Florida Panthers - one of the many sinking ships in the Eastern Conference. Panthers won just two games in the last 10. After playing one hot NHL team after another, it'll be good for the Sharks to take on a struggling team.