Realistically, expecting the Sharks to do more than split their home-and-home series against the defending Stanley Cup champions and best team in the NHL was a bit greedy. But after eking out a 4-3 win at the Tank on Thursday, San Jose was in a position to complete the sweep tonight in Los Angeles. It didn't happen. Kyle Clifford hurt his team by removing Douglas Murray from the ice for five minutes but made up for it with two goals in the Kings' 5-2 trouncing of the Sharks that keeps them ahead of San Jose in the Western Conference standings.
Despite allowing three goals in the second period, it was the initial twenty minutes of hockey that really did the Sharks in tonight. A blueline that has struggled to advance the puck this year at the best of times had no answer for Los Angeles' forecheck and were consistently hemmed in their own end by successive waves of the Kings' attack. Clifford opened the scoring just two and a half minutes in, firing a one-timer from a weak angle past an unprepared Antti Niemi. Justin Williams staked the Kings to a 2-0 lead ten minutes later, swatting his own rebound off Brad Stuart and into the San Jose net. And even though that was all she wrote on the scoreboard that period, the Sharks' sloppy, listless performance continued to yield chance after chance.
The good news is that the team was able to turn the tide, at least temporarily, at the beginning of the second period. Anze Kopitar blocked a shot from the slot by Joe Thornton less than a minute into the second then watched the puck bounce right to Patrick Marleau for a goal that proved eerily reminiscent of Thornton's series-winner against the Kings two years ago. Just like in Game 3 of that playoff matchup, the Sharks eventually fell behind 4-1 in the middle frame despite grade-A opportunities to tie the score by Logan Couture and Tommy Wingels on a penalty shot. Unlike that remarkable contest, a comeback wasn't even remotely in the cards tonight.
Blowing an opportunity to take four points from a team they're chasing in the standings certainly stings but a split is really the best anyone could have hoped for. These are clubs that have been heading in opposite directions since the first week and a half of the season and clearly aren't on the same level right now. It's during the remainder of this road trip, when the Sharks will have the chance to feast on some mediocre opponents, that they'll really have to make hay.
- This was easily the worst game I've ever seen Justin Braun play. He's usually very reliable on the breakout but played hot potato with the puck all night and looked like a lost puppy in his own end at times. The coaching staff's inexplicable insistence on pairing Douglas Murray and Brad Stuart means that, should Braun falter, the Sharks have all of one pairing capable of moving the puck. We witnessed the consequences of that tonight.
- It's tough to blame Niemi on any goal but the first. Perhaps he could have played the Stoll shot better but the Sharks' coverage on that play was egregious. Expecting him to operate at a 0.935 SV% all season was foolish; the hope is that the Sharks' offense rebounds in order to compensate for Niemi's regression.
- Not the greatest relief appearance for Alex Stalock; certainly the worst of his three so far in the National Hockey League. He didn't face a single shot from the scoring area but still managed to allow a goal to Dwight King.
- Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams are really good at hockey.
- It was unfair to expect him to replicate his performance from Thursday night but Burns was amazing yet again and perhaps the Sharks' best forward (although Joe Pavelski certainly gave him a run for his money in that regard). The experiment, if it even makes any sense to call it that at this point, has been a rousing success.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Kyle Clifford
2nd Star: Justin Williams
3rd Star: Brent Burns
Hey, at least Tyler Toffoli didn't score his first NHL goal. Go Sharks.