In a lot of respects, the Sharks' 4-3 shootout win over the Phoenix Coyotes tonight felt more like a rerun of a game from San Jose's 2011-12 season. Their top two forward lines, particularly the first, were dominant territorially and generated their fair share of offense while the bottom six was a wasteland, bleeding goals and shots against. It's everything that plagued them prior to the trade deadline (and, to a large extent, even afterward) two years ago and, in the wake of injuries to Czech mates Tomas Hertl and Marty Havlat, it ate at the Sharks again tonight in Arizona.
Fortunately, Mike Smith wasn't exactly in his godlike 2011-12 season form, a campaign in which the Coyotes goaltender shut out the Sharks in three of six meetings. This time around, he allowed three goals in regulation then another two in the skills competition as San Jose reeled off its third straight shootout win and pulled even with the Los Angeles Kings in standings points. It was far from a flawless victory as the Sharks slumbered through much of the first period, struggled to execute clean breakouts throughout the game and were routinely hemmed in their own zone with their third and fourth lines on the ice. But banking two points prior to their crucial home-and-home against the Anaheim Ducks was important, and they accomplished that.
San Jose's first ten minutes of post-Christmas hockey weren't pretty. After yielding two scoring opportunities to the Coyotes that were the direct result of turnovers, an errant breakout pass by Matt Nieto hit Phoenix's David Moss rather than teammate Tyler Kennedy and the ensuing shot deflected off Brad Stuart en route to the back of Antti Niemi's net. The Sharks would settle down over the remainder of the opening frame before eventually tying the game on a sharp-angle snipe by Joe Pavelski midway through the second, quickly answered by another Moss tally. Patrick Marleau scored off the rush in the dying seconds of a power play minutes afterward and a tie score held until Brent Burns cashed in on a perfect centering pass from Pavelski ten minutes into the third period. Radim Vrbata got that goal back for Phoenix on a power play and so, for the second time in three meetings this season, the Sharks and Coyotes headed to extra time and finally to a shootout where conversions by Logan Couture (who has a two-game goal-scoring streak if you count shootout tallies) and Marleau won it.
- Only Brad Stuart could turn a game-opening center-ice faceoff win into a grade-A scoring chance against in less than fifteen seconds. The veteran defenseman aimlessly throwing the puck up the left side-boards, leading to a 2-on-1 the other way that Rob Klinkhammer couldn't put home for Phoenix, did just that. Most of the Sharks looked lethargic out of the gate tonight but Stuart had a particularly sloppy start. Maybe he was still in a food coma from Christmas dinner.
- If the coaching staff doesn't put an end to their "John McCarthy is our 3rd-line center now" experiment after this game, they never will. McCarthy started zero five-on-five shifts in the defensive zone and yet the Sharks were outshot (including misses and blocks) 14-7 and outscored 2-0 when he was on the ice five-aside. Dave Tippett was merciless in getting Mike Ribeiro out against that line and it paid off big time, generating both of Phoenix's even-strength goals.
- That's not to say Nieto and Kennedy, McCarthy's wingers, should be absolved of any wrongdoing. They were both at fault on Moss' first goal and Kennedy in particular hasn't had a great game in a while. But at least there's a track record of those players having success with a competent center. McCarthy isn't that. Not at the NHL level anyway.
- Not hard to see why the coaching staff would be reticent to move Pavelski between them, though, with the way he's been playing alongside Joe Thornton and Brent Burns these past two games. Another two-point effort from Captain America tonight, including a terrific showing in the neutral zone with eight offensive zone entries, six of which were with control (sticktap to Jake Barrow).
- There's really no better way to describe Pavelski than to call him a swiss army knife; he's just so incredibly versatile. Want an elite, play-driving center? He can do that. Need a right wing to pot thirty goals for you? Pavs is your man. Crave a left wing to ensure your top line doesn't miss a beat in the absence of your injured rookie? Pavelski comes through again.
- The lone bright spot in the bottom six tonight was James Sheppard, who continues to impress and probably deserves a longer look with some talented linemates, particularly if Havlat is out of the lineup long-term.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: David Moss
2nd Star: Joe Pavelski
3rd Star: Brent Burns