Despite being dominated in the first period, the Sharks rode a terrific middle frame to a 4-1 win over Calgary in their first game in nearly nine months.
For the first twenty minutes, it appeared as if no one had bothered to inform the Sharks that the lockout was over. They looked positively shiftless, in that none of their skaters turned in a single good shift. San Jose made mental mistakes in their own end, ceded territory far too easily and were rarely in position to contest the Flames' blueline. No one would characterize this Sharks team as speed demons on the best of days but when Calgary makes you look slow, you've got problems. They were outshot 16-9, outchanced 9-2 and outscored 1-0 in that first period as Antti Niemi (and the crossbar behind him) was the only thing keeping the Sharks within striking distance.
But after the first intermission of the 2013 regular season, the Sharks returned to the Scotiabank Saddledome ice and looked...competent. It was almost as if their first twenty minutes back from a nine-month layoff wouldn't dictate the remainder of their season. Imagine that! An effective cycle by, believe it or not, the team's third line led to FTF Hero and everyone's favorite fourth-grader Tommy Wingels drawing a roughing penalty. With his team on the power play, that gutless puke of a big-game choker Patrick Marleau stormed the front of the net undetected before Joe Thornton found him with a centering feed that Marleau tucked past Miikka Kiprusoff on his backhand.
A little over a minute later, Ryane Clowe won a puck battle against three Flames near the half-wall and set up Marc-Edouard Vlasic at the point. Kiprusoff assumed he had the ensuing shot in his grasp—presumably because, hey, how do you not smother a Vlasic shot?—but he assumed wrong and Martin Havlat slammed home the rebound. To cap what was an excellent comeback period, Dan Boyle expertly led a break out of the Sharks' defensive zone like only he can, hitting Joe Pavelski with a pass at the Flames' blueline before getting open in the slot. Boyle took the return feed from Captain America and found Marleau at the mouth of the crease, despite the fact that he never goes there according to hockey genius Jeremy Roenick. 3-1 Sharks, as they outshot Calgary 14-4 in that second period in addition to outchancing them 6-2 and beating them on the scoreboard 3-0.
Calgary's slickly talented duo of Sven Baertschi and Mikael Backlund, in addition to an early-period power play that generated chances galore, led the Flames to a third period resurgence as the Sharks were largely content to sit back on their two-goal lead. But after repeatedly failing to beat Niemi, who was outstanding in this game, the Flames proved that nothing changes in Calgary regardless of who's behind the bench and decided to goon things up at the end of a loss in patently Flames fashion. Curtis Glencross upended Havlat with a play that looked dangerously close to a slew-foot and the Sharks finished the job on the resulting 5-on-3 power play, courtesy a goal by Dan Boyle that made things 4-1.
- Matt Irwin's first NHL game didn't get off to the greatest start as a failed zone exit on his first shift led to extended zone time for the Flames. But, like the Sharks, he appeared to improve steadily as the game went on, making some nice plays in the offensive zone, breaking up at least one scoring chance in front of his net and handling Baertschi one-on-one in the third period. All in all, a solid debut.
- The Sharks' new-look penalty kill, on the other hand, didn't have a solid debut. San Jose gave up four scoring chances and a goal in 4:23 of shorthanded ice time. It may have been confirmation bias, but they did look to me as more relentless in pursuit of the puck-carrier, almost to a fault at times. As capable as he has been on the PK in the past, Douglas Murray might not be the best fit for this new unit as he made pretty clear on the Lee Stempniak goal. Of course, it's still far too early to draw any conclusions.
- Tommy fuckin' Wingels. He drew two penalties and helped the team's third line not be the black hole of suck they were for much of last year and looked set to be this year. Still, how much better will this kid look with Scott Gomez feeding him passes?
- Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brad Stuart were essentially what we should have expected them to be as a pairing. Quietly excellent in their own end (Stuart in particular saved at least one goal by clearing the crease shorthanded) and while defending against the rush but brutal at advancing the puck. The two combined for several icing calls and the Sharks had a tough time getting things going through the neutral zone when they were manning the blueline. They still managed to finish +1 but I'm not sure that this is the best use of the coaching staff's resources on defense.
- Frazer McLaren played a whopping 6:54 so he didn't exactly have the opportunity to hurt the team but I would have really preferred to have seen James Sheppard dressed.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Antti Niemi
2nd Star: Patrick Marleau
3rd Star: Mikael Backlund
One down, 47 to go. Sharks should head to Edmonton shortly for their matchup with the Oilers on Tuesday. Perhaps we'll see Gomez in the lineup then.