Despite it being their third straight loss, marking the first time this season San Jose has dropped three in a row, there were a slew of positives to take from the Sharks' 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul on Sunday afternoon. Matt Nieto's reinsertion into the lineup in his first game since being recalled from Worcester was seamless, as the 21-year-old rookie fired a team-high six shots on Minnesota goaltender Josh Harding. San Jose as a whole put up 38 shots against a team that had allowed an average of just 25.2 a game coming into this one, while holding the Wild to just 13 of their own. And despite trailing 2-0 at the 18-minute mark of the third period, a Patrick Marleau goal with Antti Niemi pulled for an extra attacker spoiled the shutout and gave the Sharks a chance to even the score late.
They didn't take it, instead yielding an empty-netter to Zach Parise and so, for the first time this season, the Sharks are facing some real adversity. Granted, it's not the kind of seven-game winless streak adversity they dealt with last season but three regulation defeats in a row is cause for legitimate concern, especially as San Jose has now lost its foothold atop the Pacific Division.
Still, if the Sharks can replicate the effort they showed today, chances are good they'll be able to end this losing streak in short order. At even-strength, San Jose generated 51 shot attempts compared to just 32 for Minnesota, including a 20-10 edge in that category when the score was tied. Unfortunately, a bit of a bad break for the Sharks untied the score for the Wild four minutes into the second period as Parise's slashing of Justin Braun's stick out of his hands in the corner went unnoticed by either referee. Parise then streaked to the front of the net and deposited a Marco Scandella rebound past Antti Niemi to stake Minnesota to a 1-0 lead. An ill-timed San Jose line change later in the frame gave Minnesota a 4-on-2 that Mikko Koivu capitalized on for the eventual game-winner.
San Jose had plenty of chances throughout, with Tomas Hertl generating one quality look early in the second period with an individual effort and another off a pass from an activated Justin Braun. The aforementioned Nieto stripped the puck from Jonas Brodin on a Wild power play and fired two quick shots on Harding midway through the second. And the newly constructed Patrick Marleau/Logan Couture/Joe Pavelski line was able to translate their bevy of offensive zone time into a couple of opportunities. But Harding, now second in the NHL in save percentage, stood tall for all sixty minutes and was the best player on the ice. A loss is a loss but being felled by an unbeatable goaltender is certainly indicative of a better effort than the stinker in Carolina in which the Sharks failed to win despite an awful night by Hurricanes netminder Cam Ward.
- After watching the game in Carolina from the press box, Brad Stuart commemorated his return to the lineup by...taking two needless penalties, the second of which came in the aftermath of him firing yet another shot into an opponent's skates, kickstarting a rush the other way. I'm glad Stuart is no longer playing over Matt Irwin or Jason Demers but I think there's a convincing argument to be made that he's worse than Scott Hannan at this point. A sobering thought, considering he carries a $3.6 million cap hit through next season.
- Following a couple of ineffective Sharks power plays, Todd McLellan apparently had enough and changed up his units, mixing and matching the Tom, Dick & Hairy and Marleau/Couture/Pavelski forward lines with Irwin/Braun and Demers/Boyle defense pairings. It seemed to work, as the Sharks generated four shots on goal during their first new-look man advantage.
- As much as Harding deserves a ton of credit here, the Wild defensemen were also doing a terrific job boxing the Sharks out in front of their goaltender all game long. In the first period alone, Ryan Suter decked Joe Pavelski to the ice to prevent him from getting to rebounds while Tommy Wingels was denied a route to a loose puck as well.
- Claiming a certain player is the "most underrated in the league" always feels a bit stupid but I'll throw Jared Spurgeon's name into the discussion. Suter gets all the glory but Spurgeon anchors a terrific second pairing for the Wild and boasts the best shot differential numbers on Minnesota's blueline despite starting more shifts in his own end than the offensive zone. Never ceases to amaze me how teams fetishize terrible defensemen just because they're huge while a diminutive guy like Spurgeon who can actually play goes in the sixth round of the draft.
- Speaking of the draft, former Sharks first rounder Charlie Coyle had a pretty forgettable outing here. He took two minor penalties and the Wild were outshot 11-5 when he was on the ice at even-strength.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Josh Harding
2nd Star: Zach Parise
3rd Star: Matt Nieto