Three years ago, nearly to the week, Sharks goaltender Alex Stalock experienced the highlight and lowlight of his career within the span of four days. His first-ever NHL win on February 1st, 2011, in which he stopped all 9 Coyotes shots he faced in relief of Antti Niemi as San Jose stormed back from a 3-0 deficit, came prior to suffering a laceration to his left leg during a game with AHL Worcester. Two surgeries, the painful regrowth of his peroneal nerve, minor league stints in locales as varied as Peoria and Stockton and over a thousand days later, Stalock stopped every last one of the 20 shots the Winnipeg Jets fired at him Thursday night at the Tank, notching his second shutout in as many starts and helping the Sharks to their fifth straight victory overall.
Goaltending is a fickle business and it isn't uncommon to see a netminder start his NHL career apparently en route to superstardom before utterly collapsing into mediocrity. It's possible that fate will befall Stalock who, after all, has still faced just 300 shots in his young stint in the big leagues. But the mere fact that he's playing in San Jose, let alone on the verge of setting a franchise record for minutes without allowing a goal, when his career, by all accounts, should have ended that fateful night in Massachusetts three years ago, is surreal. While it's difficult to say his play has sown the seeds of a goaltending controversy in the San Jose crease, mostly because the coaching staff rightfully remains committed to Antti Niemi as their number one, he's certainly making a case to take more starts from the man in front of him on the depth chart down the stretch.
As well as Stalock played in this one, the skaters in front of him were just as good. His countryman Joe Pavelski (who else?) notched the lone goal in a 1-0 win that moves the team eight points ahead of third-place Los Angeles, who lost tonight to Anaheim. But more importantly, this was a signature defensive effort from the Sharks, who largely buckled down and didn't give up many quality looks following an early power play on which the Jets managed four shot attempts. San Jose particularly took control of this game in the second and third periods, outshooting Winnipeg by a combined total of 21-9 over the final forty. Pavelski's winner, which came courtesy Justin Braun picking off a whiffed Olli Jokinen clearing attempt, felt as inevitable as Stalock managing to protect the lead over the remainder of the contest. The masked man from Minnesota has come a long way over the past three years, and this is still only the beginning.
- For those wondering, the franchise record for consecutive minutes without allowing a goal is currently held by Evgeni Nabokov, who went 170:58 without letting anything by him during the 2008-09 season. Stalock is currently at 140:59 and counting.
- Even beyond the great read that led to his assist, Braun was just lights out in this game. He was one of only two Sharks defensemen to start more shifts in his own end than the offensive zone and feasted on a steady diet of Evander Kane yet still managed to dictate play when he was out there as the Sharks outshot the Jets 14-6 (26-13 including misses and blocks) at even-strength with Braun on the ice.
- The improvements Braun has made in his skating ability since last season really can't be overstated and they were on full display against one of the league's premier burners in Kane.
- His line once again received the benefit of starting in the offensive zone nearly every shift but I thought Bracken Kearns had his best game since his first few following the call-up. He was a nuisance in front of the net on the second power play unit (although I have to admit I'm not entirely sure what he's still doing there with Tommy Wingels and Tyler Kennedy back in the lineup) and had a couple of grade-A chances sail wide in the third period.
- That third line also absolutely trampled the Setoguchi/Jokinen/Byfuglien combination for the Jets which, at least on paper, has to be one of the most fearsome third lines in the league. Andrew Desjardins won four of five draws against Jokinen and effective interchanges on the cycle between him and Tyler Kennedy pinned those three Winnipeg forwards in their own end essentially every shift they had.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Alex Stalock
2nd Star: Justin Braun
3rd Star: Ondrej Pavelec