When the Sharks have won games this season, and despite slumping through much of December that hasn't been an uncommon occurrence, they've often stuck to a similar pattern: a strong first period effort is followed by a weaker second as score effects generally favor the opposing team before giving way to a tight defensive display by team teal in the third to preserve victory. Tonight's 5-4 shootout win over the Colorado Avalanche didn't just flip that script, it ripped it to pieces before feeding the shreds to one of Brent Burns' pet reptiles.
San Jose got off to a brutal start as the Avs outshot them 10-5 through the first half of the opening frame before going up 1-0 courtesy a Nathan MacKinnon power play goal. The Sharks began the second period sporting a one-goal deficit and promptly put together one of the most impressive twenty-minute displays of their season spanning a period that has traditionally been their weakest. San Jose outshot Colorado by a ludicrous 21-5 margin in the middle frame, getting goals off bombs from Burns and Matt Irwin to take a lead that they wouldn't relinquish until the 18-minute mark of the third when a point shot from Erik Johnson beat Antti Niemi five-hole. Just twelve seconds later, a bad-angle shot by John Mitchell from the left wing half wall gave the Avs an improbable lead with a minute and a half to play.
Facing a gut-punch of a loss that threatened to ruin their three-day holiday break, the Sharks pulled Antti Niemi for an extra attacker and a perfectly executed saucer pass from behind the net by Joe Thornton to Joe Pavelski tied the score with twenty seconds remaining in regulation. Despite failing to capitalize on a two-minute four-on-three advantage in overtime, the Sharks thrived in the friendly confines of a shootout as Patrick Marleau scored the clincher on Semyon Varlamov. While I'm sure the coaching staff would have preferred a more muted finish, I can't think of a better Christmas present to the fans in attendance and watching at home than an exhilarating, drama-filled game like this one that encapsulated everything awesome about hockey.
- Another stunning performance by the Vlasic/Braun pairing. Despite being hard-matched against O'Reilly/Duchene/MacKinnon and starting eight of their ten shifts together in the defensive zone, the Sharks controlled upwards of 70% of all even-strength shot attempts when those two were on the ice. Duchene was a non-factor after a couple of good shifts to start the first and the Sharks' shutdown tandem was the reason why.
- As was the play of Marleau, Couture and Wingels in front of them, of course. Couture in particular went four-for-five against Duchene in the dot and generated a bevy of chances only to see his scoring drought drag on.
- Antti Niemi made some key saves early in the game, including a pair of stops on Paul Stastny rebounds midway through the first, but the Johnson and Mitchell goals were awful. Niemi's save percentage on the season is now down to a below-league average .912 and while I still think he'll end the year closer to his career average of .916, letting Alex Stalock start a little more often can't hurt.
- It didn't end up mattering all that much since the top two lines were so good but the Sharks' bottom six was a dumpster fire. Scratching Marty Havlat in favor of inserting the likes of John McCarthy and Mike Brown into the lineup, especially with Havlat coming off one of his best weeks of the season, was a curious move to say the least and it led to the third and fourth lines largely getting clobbered in their minutes. You can mostly get away with it against a team like Colorado with iffy forward depth but good luck beating the Ducks in back-to-back games next week with lines configured like this.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Joe Thornton
2nd Star: Justin Braun
3rd Star: Brent Burns