For an all-too-brief moment, the Sharks appeared to be well on their way to a guaranteed playoff berth. Despite entering the third period trailing 3-1 to a Columbus team that has given them all sorts of trouble this season, the Sharks gnawed their way back on a highlight-reel tally by Andrew Desjardins and a power play marker by Joe Pavelski. Riding out the remaining five minutes of regulation would have been enough to mathematically ensure a team that was out of the postseason picture one month ago to the day would be making their ninth consecutive trip to the promised land.
It wasn't to be. At least not tonight anyway. Realistically, the Sharks will qualify for the 2013 playoffs with relative ease but an opportunity to do so in dramatic fashion on home ice was blown with a minute and a half left. Justin Braun and Joe Pavelski combined for an errant zone exit that ended up on the stick of Ryan Johansen in the high slot. A misread by Scott Hannan, who was disastrous on a pairing with Brad Stuart for much of the night, allowed Johansen the requisite time and space to snap the puck past Antti Niemi and provide a resurgent Columbus team three points worth of cushion over Detroit.
To put it in as unpleasant a way as possible, the Blue Jackets gave 17,496 patrons of the Shark Tank blue balls. San Jose lost for just the second time in regulation on home ice all season; one loss to the Blackhawks, the other to the Jackets because hockey makes all kinds of sense. Things began inauspiciously as the aforementioned Hannan/Stuart pairing spent their first two shifts almost exclusively hemmed in their own zone, albeit while relegating the Jackets largely to the perimeter. The Logan Couture line drove the bus for the Sharks for the first two periods of this game and peppered Sergei Bobrovsky with offensive chances throughout the initial frame. Offense in general wasn't the issue for San Jose as they generated more than their share of opportunities, most of which were smothered by Bobrovsky, defused by metal piping or skittered through Officer Bob's pads and wide. Defensive sloppiness, like that on display from Braun late in the first period when beaten wide by Jack Johnson on Mark Letestu's game-opening goal, did the Sharks in.
A predictably terrible attempt at exiting the defensive zone by Stuart and Hannan ended as embarrassingly as you can imagine as the Jackets sent the errant outlet pass straight to a streaking Vinny Prospal who scored on a breakaway to give Columbus a two-goal lead. Havlat, who may have been the most dominant Shark on the ice, returned the deficit to one before Letestu's second goal of the night, this time on a power play, re-opened that wound.
Despite stretches of listless play in which they allowed the Johansen and Brandon Dubinsky lines to control territory, the Sharks played a solid, if uncharacteristically offense-oriented, game. A handful of spectacular mistakes cost them and they were burned twice on those errors via Prospal and Johansen. It's a thoroughly disappointing result, and hopefully one that will convince the coaching staff Scott Hannan doesn't belong in an NHL lineup at this point in his career let alone while paired with the next least mobile defenseman on the team's blueline. But at least they were able to keep things relatively close against the Blue Jackets this time. That, and the fact that the Sharks are likely better off losing a few games in an attempt to draw Anaheim in the first round rather than Los Angeles or St. Louis, is something to cling to.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Mark Letestu
2nd Star: Martin Havlat
3rd Star: Ryan Johansen