The script was there to be written. Two years, one month and eight days after Alex Stalock spelled Antti Niemi when the latter yielded unseemly tallies to noted snipers Paul Bissonette and Keith Yandle, the Sharks' prospect goaltender could have once again backstopped the team to a win in relief during his first taste of NHL action since that February 2011 evening.
It was not to be. A hat trick by Vladmir Sobotka, perhaps surpassed in bizarreness only by Scott Gomez notching his second goal in three games, paved the way for Stalock to pick up his second win in as many appearances but a Patrik Berglund deflection of a Barret Jackman point shot just over a minute into overtime dashed any hope of history repeating itself at the Tank.
It also cemented once and for all that the hockey gods despise the Sharks with a passion. At no point during their 200-foot free fall of a season have they been able to synchronize all the facets of their game. They're on an historic run to open the year with the offense and power play single-handedly winning games? No harm in sweeping a tepid penalty kill, an incompetent third line and a largely immobile defense under the rug then. Wait, now the penalty kill looks better than it ever has and Antti Niemi is standing on his head on a nightly basis; why have the Sharks forgotten how to score? With Brent Burns back in the lineup, the defense looks like it should; how has the power play gone completely off the rails and taken the top six's even-strength scoring with it? It's enough to make you want to jump into a literal shark tank and this afternoon's 4-3 overtime loss to the Blues served as a microcosm of the season as a whole.
For the first time since February 5th, they scored multiple goals in a period and three goals in regulation. Granted, it was against a third-string goaltender in Jake Allen but this team couldn't put more than a single puck past Jonas Gustavsson last week so, you know, baby steps. Taking a two-goal lead into the third period should have been enough for a team that gives up an average of a little over two a game to close the deal. But, of course, for seemingly the first time all season, Niemi laid an egg. A brown-colored, corn-infested egg. He was woefully off his angle when Sobotka gained the blue line early in the third period and threw what should have been a harmless puck on net from the half-wall and allowed a Sobotka shot from essentially the same spot to squeak past him a minute later on the penalty kill.
Which isn't to suggest Niemi was the only issue in this game. He had a forgettable outing to be sure but the Sharks weren't particularly impressive even during their two-goal second period, which apparently constitutes an offensive outburst for this team these days. St. Louis was effectively bottling up the neutral zone like only a Ken Hitchcock team can and were hounding the Sharks, especially the hapless Douglas Murray/Brad Stuart pairing from hell, on the forecheck. Even when they forfeited possession, they were giving the Sharks very little room to operate. Still, San Jose created chances and to a large extent played one of the best teams in the NHL fairly evenly until those two Sobotka softies to open the third. The Sharks appeared to get increasingly sloppy following the tying goal, ceding territory to the likes of Ryan Reaves and Adam Cracknell, allowing odd-man rushes (including one that could have prevented the Sharks from even getting the Bettman point) and spending essentially the entirety of overtime in their own end until the Berglund goal put them out of their collective misery.
- Scott Gomez has scored 14.9 points per $1 million in salary earned so far this season. Sidney Crosby? Just 8.6 I'm not suggesting Gomez is your midseason Hart Trophy frontrunner but, um, well I guess I am suggesting that.
- In all seriousness, Gomez's success is as frustrating as it is welcomed. It's clear between him, Manny Malhotra, Kyle Wellwood and Daniel Winnik that the Sharks' front office has an eye for bottom six talent. They've simply been maddeningly inconsistent in their ability to successfully identify these types of bargain players that help drive winning in depth minutes and either reticent or unable to keep these players around when they have them.
- Despite allowing a goal to Logan Couture, St. Louis' Barret Jackman/Alex Pietrangelo pairing did a hell of a job on Joe Thornton in this game, limiting that trio to zero even-strength chances outside of the one that got past Allen. Jackman in particular played Jumbo as effectively as I've seen any non-Pronger defenseman play him.
- The Vlasic/Stuart pairing was split up. That's good. But Douglas Murray took Vlasic's place. That's bad. And it didn't even come with a free frogurt. Stuart had an understated, solid game in his own end but pairing him with Murray is just asking for disaster on the breakout, which predictably unfurled.
- Stalock's career SV% tragically dropped to 0.938 with this loss.
Ultimately, even the power of Stalock wasn't enough for the Sharks to recover from an awful third period effort to secure a win. While it might be considered encouraging that they skated with and scored three goals on an elite club, that club was playing without their injured top line and dressed a goalie who doesn't belong in an NHL crease. And as has been the case all season, even when the Sharks do one thing well, another three go awry. That has to change if they have aspirations of being anything more than a bubble team. Go Sharks, whoever you are.