Sharks lose stinker in Chicago

In the grand scheme of things, "moral victories" only mean so much. That's doubly true in today's NHL, where winning games is the ultimate indicator of whether or not a team is successful.

Lately, the Sharks have not earned themselves the results, despite the fact that they have been the dominant team. After an impressive streak which saw San Jose earn 18 of a possible 20 points from mid-February to early March, the Sharks dropped back-to-back home games in the shootout against Vancouver and New York. The losses were qualified by those surrounding the team, deemed "moral victories". It's hard not to get caught up in that kind of talk.

Still, two points were lost, and in the extremely tight Western Conference race, the two points are all that's important. 

The types of games the Sharks lost can still be used as building blocks to progress, but only if the players are committed to continuing the effort. 

Tonight in Chicago, it didn't seem as if they were.

Patrick Sharp had four assists in Chicago's five-goal onslaught in the second period as the Sharks were out-played and out-worked for the balance of the middle frame. It was an extremely disheartening effort for a team who looked to be putting the pieces together as they approached the playoffs.

There were countless issues with the Sharks' overall play tonight, but perhaps what stands out the most was the team's sloppy play which led to penalties. After earning themselves a two-man advantage early in the night on questionable calls, the Sharks should have been aware that the game would be a tightly called affair. Even still, San Jose seemed eager to send the Blackhawks to the power play, committing five minor infractions in the first forty minutes of the game. Chicago would score on two consecutive power plays early in the second, erasing San Jose's one goal advantage and earning themselves their own lead shortly thereafter.

The Blackhawks would not look back from there, scoring another against Antti Niemi on Jonathan Towes' 30th goal of the year. Niemi, who had his former team's number all season, was pulled after that goal. His main weakness tonight was the five-hole; Chicago pounded the puck through Niemi's pad throughout the evening. Niemi, who has gone 17-3-3 over his last 23, is granted an off night now and again. It's just unfortunate that off night came against his former team.

Antero Niittymaki, who entered the game in relief, didn't fare much better. With the score 4-2, the rusty Niittymaki allowed a goal on a shot from the point by Niklas Hjalmarsson that found its way through heavy traffic.

Down by three goals, Logan Couture would score his 26th of the season to give San Jose a shot of confidence. That confidence was short lived, as Patrick Kane would give his team another three-goal lead as they headed into the third.

The third period was mostly a formality; Chicago simply went through the motions of a blowout victory. San Jose held the shot advantage during the period, but any advantage other than that on the scoreboard is inconsequential in the third.

Games like this illustrate the danger of relying on moral victories. As has been said countless times this season, tangible victories should be the only concern. The Sharks are no exception to that rule, and now see a 1-2-2 record over their last five games staring them in the collective face. 

As a result of this recent lull, San Jose now holds a tenuous three point lead over Los Angeles and Phoenix for the Pacific Division lead and just a four point lead over rival Dallas. The Kings and Stars hold a game in hand over San Jose, whose division lead seems tenuous at best at this point in the season. In addition, the continuance of this slump could see the Sharks in danger of falling out of the playoffs altogether. 

That's why tomorrow night's game in Dallas is crucial, to say the least. Just twelve games remain on the docket for San Jose after the loss to Chicago. 100 points is likely necessary to win the Pacific Division, so the Sharks will have to win seven of their final twelve to feel comfortable. 

A 7-5-0 record (or any combination of wins and overtime wins to equal 14 points) seems doable for San Jose, but consider this: nine of these final twelve games see the Sharks face a Pacific Division opponent, while eleven come against a team fighting for a playoff spot.

The fact of the matter is that none of the final twelve games of the season, including next Saturday's home game against St. Louis, will be an easy for San Jose.

Perhaps that's a good thing for San Jose, a team which is used to a cakewalk into the playoffs over the last quarter of the season. Adversity though, like the moral victories discussed above, can be a double-edged sword. If adversity comes at the expense of points, then there's not much benefit for a team fighting for their playoff lives.

It was assumed that Niittymaki would get the start against Dallas, but after the events of tonight's game, it's unclear if that remains the plan. 

If San Jose doesn't turn their game around, though, it won't matter who's in goal.

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