Symmetry can be a wonderful thing. It's been the bane of the Sharks' existence fourteen games into this shortened 2013 season. After winning their first seven games of the year, San Jose has dropped seven in a row, punctuated by an embarrassing effort (or, more appropriately, lack thereof) tonight in Chicago as the Blackhawks schooled them in every facet of the game and skated away 4-1 winners.
But as captivating of a story as it makes to paint this as a tale of two seasons, the latter featuring an utter collapse by the Sharks, I just don't see the point. The order of wins and losses is ultimately irrelevant in the regular season where you aren't eliminated from contention for losing four in a row and don't advance to a further round for rattling off four straight. At the end of the day, the Sharks have won seven games and lost seven games. Just as their flawless run to open the year didn't mean they were Stanley Cup shoe-ins, this seven-game winless streak doesn't signal that it's time to blow up the team and trade Patrick Marleau for some magic beans (they would be beans with heart and leadership, naturally). The ebb and flow of any NHL season has certainly been accentuated for the Sharks so far this year, but it's the ebb and flow all the same.
That certainly isn't an attempt to sugarcoat the position San Jose now finds itself in. They were abysmal against a supremely talented Blackhawks team, unable to successfully navigate the neutral zone, yielding far too many transition chances that allowed Chicago to exploit gaps in coverage with their immense team speed. The Hawks outchanced San Jose 15-8 (and 12-6 at even strength) through two periods of play when this was still a hockey game. They're a better team than the Sharks and that was painfully evident for much of the night. More concerning is that San Jose's top line, starting with Joe Thornton, continues to be woefully ineffective for the first extended stretch in recent memory. They weren't even playing exceedingly difficult minutes tonight, rarely out against the Jonathan Toews line outside of the shift that led to Toews and Thornton dropping the gloves. The first two weeks of the season was clearly a mirage as far as their goal production is concerned but the Sharks just aren't set up to be successful when their top line isn't driving play and creating chances. Until that happens again, they're going to be in tough to win games, especially against the NHL's elite.
- Brent Burns was not good tonight. He's still firing bullets on the breakout that are tough for his teammates to catch, his own-zone coverage was brutal and he really didn't make a dent offensively, although in his defense the Sharks as a whole were rarely in a position to do so. Hopefully he's able to shake off the rust and be the player he was last season again. San Jose needs him.
- The officiating was awful but I just don't see a reason to pinpoint it as a significant factor. When you give up that many scoring chances in a game, most of them of the high quality variety, you don't deserve to win.
- Speaking of penalties, here's the Toews vs. Thornton fight, where Jumbo reluctantly acquiesces to Toews' demand that he punch his face in. It's still bewildering that Captain Serious didn't get two for instigating here, but whatever.
- I'm really not sure how Stuart and Boyle managed to botch the coverage on Dave Bolland's 4v4 goal quite so badly. Stuart played it like a 2-on-1 for far too long before realizing Boyle had easily gotten back in time to neutralize Patrick Kane as a passing option. Mistakes like that happen but Stuart really needs to have a little more faith in his veteran partner there in my opinion.
- They gave quite a bit back the other way (zone exits continue not to be Ryane Clowe's strong suit) but the Kennedy/Couture/Clowe line that generated the Sharks' only goal was dangerous behind the opposing blueline once again. Kennedy's finish was mesmerizing but that tally was all Couture. He passed it to himself in the neutral zone, pushed past Duncan Keith, drew Brent Seabrook to him and then set up Kennedy flawlessly. That's a line that needs sheltering but it allows for interesting options throughout the forward corps.
- Such as the lines Todd McLellan opted to ice in the third period: Marleau/Thornton/Wingels, Gomez/Pavelski/Havlat, Kennedy/Couture/Clowe and Galiardi/Handzus/Burish. There were pretty clearly some adjustment issues with that Pavelski unit but, at least on paper, those look like they could be effective.
- Antti Niemi's .940 even-strength SV% was probably due to be deflated with a couple of softies.
FTF Three Stars
There's no disputing the Sharks dropped a metaphorical turd in this game but I think it's a mistake to paint the rest of the losing streak with the same brush. They were awful tonight and awful in Columbus but the other five losses were each decided by one goal; there's little more than the bounces determining results in those contests. I still don't think it's time to panic just yet but I also guarantee the Sharks aren't making it out of this road trip with more than one win if the top line doesn't come out of its uncharacteristic funk. Go Sharks.