WINNIPEG, CANADA - FEBRUARY 25: David Backes #42 of the St. Louis Blues is congratulated by teammates T.J. Oshie #74 and Andy McDonald #10 after a first-period goal against the Winnipeg Jets in NHL action at the MTS Centre on February 25, 2012 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
In an 82 game NHL season it's hard to classify any night as a must win-- each game is worth the same number of points, and a loss in October is just as much a missed opportunity as one in early March.
But with the way things have gone for San Jose as of late, which by all means includes their struggles against a Blues team that is now undefeated against them this season, tonight was as close to a must-win as you can get. Phoenix lost, Los Angeles won, and the Pacific Division continued to heat up with multiple teams vying for dwindling playoff spots.
Unfortunately the Sharks put together an uninspired effort in a game the Blues dominated from whistle to whistle, shutting down San Jose's attack and holding them to a mere 19 shots on net.
As Assistant Coach Matt Shaw said following the game, even those less than impressive totals might be overstating the Sharks presence in the offensive zone.
"That game is a little bit deceiving in a way. If you look at the scoresheet, and we had 19 shots, and we lost to a team [Buffalo] that had 19 shots-- those are different games," Shaw stated. "Those low shot totals, they might be generous tonight. I don't think it fully portrayed our lack of ability to create any sort of net pressure or zone time or put them back on their heels. It might be a bit deceiving."
Deception tonight, reality tomorrow. The 6-10-1 slide San Jose has undergone since the All-Star Break has put them in perilous playoff position, especially with Los Angeles beginning to creep up in the standings and the games in hand that buoyed San Jose's chances earlier in the year ending up in zeros.
This team, clearly in a funk, clearly searching for answers and health and anything else they can get their hands on right now, needed a win desperately.
But the Blues, ever the resilient bunch (you kind of get the feeling they actually bring lunch pails to the rink ya know?), took it to them tonight.
Halak set the tone for the game early with a beautiful save on Pavelski camped out on the doorstep and would follow that up with an equally effective stop on Patrick Marleau who flew down the left side shorthanded.
That save would prove to be instrumental in a sense as on the ensuing rush St. Louis would capitalize. Following a harmless dump into the zone by Kevin Shattenkirk the puck would hit a rough spot in the boards and kick out in front with Niemi circling back to play it behind the net. Blues centerman Andy McDonald didn't have to break a sweat as he tapped home the bad bounce to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead.
San Jose continued to struggle a bit in their own zone, with the ever rugged David Backes ripping a puck off the stick of Brent Burns on the backcheck, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic would come up big and break up the second give and go pass in front of the net to preserve the score. St. Louis would come back moments later with a quality shift but credit Niemi for standing tall and stopping a flurry of shots in tight.
San Jose would even the score later in the period with a good quality shift from the third line of Daniel Winnik, Torrey Mitchell, and Dominic Moore. Moore would take a hit to make a play coming into the zone, and some good puck possession and puck pursuit in the corners helped San Jose make something out of nothing. Torrey Mitchell would pick up the puck along the half wall and send one towards the net with Winnik providing some traffic in front.
It wouldn't last long.
Carlo Colaiacovo sent a bouncing shot to the front of the net that T.J. Oshie managed to get a piece of before it rocketed up over Niemi's outstretched pad and found twine to give the Blues a 2-1 lead.
San Jose would come out strong in the first period but struggled to put shots to the net despite some extended zone time-- Joe Thornton was a force behind the net for the first five minutes of the frame, but San Jose would be held to a mere 3 shots on net the entire period.
"They give up the fewest amount of shots per game in the League-- we knew we were going to only get six or seven Grade A scoring chances," Thornton said. "That's the way they play."
Part of that had to do with their parade to the penalty box, with Dominic Moore and Justin Braun both serving two minute minors, but credit St. Louis for playing their standard brand of hockey and keeping San Jose to the outside.
St. Louis would add a goal during that penalty parade, with Kevin Shattenkirk jumping on a loose puck during a battle in front of the net to put one past Niemi, as the Sharks continued to struggle getting anything going against the defensively adept Blues.
San Jose would get a pair of power play opportunities during the period, with the first ending halfway through after Joe Thornton got called for holding and the second power play ending with 27 seconds left and carrying over into the third period. It was a brutal period for a San Jose team that needed a big push, and with the Sharks getting outshot 12-3 in the frame, things didn't look pretty heading into the last 20 minutes of the game.
The third period was much of the same. The Sharks would find a little life in the last 5 minutes of the frame, with Tommy Wingels just misreading the puck on a gorgeous chance in the crease, but by and large the Blues did what they had done all night-- outwork the Sharks in the defensive zone, break out of their zone with ease, and grind the play along the boards as a sleepy HP Pavilion fell asleep.
It's easy to forget that this Blues team is an excellent one-- and that's without notables Alex Steen, Matt D'Agostini, Jamie Langenbrunner out with extended injury-- and full marks should be given to them tonight. They were flat out phenomenal tonight and strangled the life out of San Jose from the drop of the puck.
But whether it be a big hit, a scoring opportunity, a great shift, or an individual effort, San Jose didn't get anything tonight that could have made this one close.
It was another missed opportunity in a string of games that have seen far too much of it.
Time to bring out the lunch pails on Tuesday night.
"We are obviously in a funk and we need to get out of it," Douglas Murray said. "We have to work hard, it is the same old cliché, but we just have to get it going."
"Enough is enough."