Many of the San Jose Sharks players deemed tonight's game to be the most important of the season. A multitude of reasons were given: it was the final game of the season's longest road trip. It was against a team which was closely competing with the Sharks for a playoff spot. It came after two games in which the Sharks blew leads in the third period to lose in regulation against less than stellar competition.
Yes, tonight's game was indeed important for those reasons. However, as Coach Todd McLellan has said all season, every game is important in this race for a playoff spot. Unlike in seasons past, when the Sharks would be almost certain of a postseason birth at this point in the year, San Jose will have to continue to fight for their playoff lives with 24 games remaining. As it currently stands, the Sharks are in a four way tie for fourth in the conference with 68 points. Technically, they sit in seventh as each team ahead of them in the standings holds a game in hand over them. A losing streak of even the shortest duration could put San Jose out of the immediate playoff picture. Los Angeles, who currently sits in ninth, is just three points out of fourth. It's an uncomfortable and unfamiliar situation for the Sharks.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. The tight nature of the Western Conference also has its benefits; tonight's win puts San Jose just one point out of third in the conference and first in the Pacific Division. A continuation of the Sharks' point securing ways (7-2-1 over their last 10, earning 15 out of 20 possible points) would put them in position for home ice advantage.
San Jose would prefer to earn points without giving any back to other teams, though. But tonight, Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne made sure that his team would earn at least a consolation point in this evening's match, stopping 48 out if 50 shots in regulation and overtime. Thankfully for the Sharks, Devin Setoguchi and Patrick Marleau were able to beat the stellar netminder who was matched by the almost equally impressive Antti Niemi, securing a win to end their seven game trip with a 5-2 record.
Not surprisingly, tonight's game was a low scoring affair in which the Sharks were pressured by a relentless Nashville group. Coach Barry Trotz expects a strong defensive games from his entire team, and that philosophy was evident tonight. Even though the shot clock was heavily in San Jose's favor, the majority of the Sharks' chances were from low scoring areas. Credit Nashville's strong defensive corps for that fact.
The difference between Nashville's defensive unit and San Jose's was evident throughout the game; where as the Predators limited quality opportunities and kept the Sharks to the outside, the Sharks defense was often hemmed in their own zone, looking discombobulated and outmanned. There were more than enough scary situations for San Jose.
If this was a one time occurrence, you could chalk it up to the long road trip. It hasn't been, though, as the Sharks saw similar lapses in their last two games: losses to Florida and New Jersey. It's an issue that has haunted the team since early in the season, and will undoubtedly continue to be talked about with great ferocity until the Sharks make a move to address the need. With the deadline approaching, all eyes will be on the Sharks General Manager, Doug Wilson.
That's not the team's only issue right now, as scoring has been a real problem for the team. They've only scored five goals in their last three games, a disturbing fact for a team blessed with so much offensive talent on paper. If this team is going to succeed in the long run, Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton are going to have to pick up their games for the stretch run. Although they share the team lead in points, they have been ice cold recently. Kent Huskins, possibly the least gifted offensive player on the roster, has outscored both Heatley and Thornton combined on the road trip. Shot generation hasn't been the issue on the whole; the Sharks lead the league in shots on goal. It's shot selection and conversion which has affected this squad.
There are things the team needs to address. Thankfully, they're in a better place now than they were when in the midst of the six game losing streak.