Despite the theory that the Sharks tend to tighten up defensively when playing in front of their backup goaltender, San Jose's 4-2 win over New Jersey that secures them four out of a possible six points on their post-Olympic road trip was anything but a defensive gem even with the presence of Alex Stalock in net. Stalock, along with the goalposts behind him, was called upon frequently to make a slew of difficult saves, with the Sharks yielding three breakaways, a number of close-range opportunities and one inexplicable 2-on-0 in tight featuring Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias.
But Stalock, with an assist from the hockey gods, was up to the task and the Sharks were able to generate enough offense at the other end of the rink to escape with a victory before heading back to the Bay Area for a four-game homestand. Logan Couture opened the scoring for the Sharks in the second period with his seventh goal in the last eight games he's appeared in, dating back prior to his hand surgery, as Schneider inadvertently coughed the rebound of a Patrick Marleau deflection right to the Sharks center parked at the side of the net and Couture capitalized.
The Devils got that one back a little over a minute later as former Shark Steve Bernier beat Tyler Kennedy on the right wing half-wall to create a 2-on-1 that Henrique shoveled into an open net. Elias gave New Jersey its first lead of the game, deflecting a Jon Merrill point blast past Stalock fourteen and a half minutes into the middle frame. But another quick response, this time by San Jose, deadlocked the contest once more as Raffi Torres and Joe Pavelski combined for one of the prettier 2-on-1 goals you'll see. Here it is in all its GIFtastic glory, courtesy Ruthless Sports Guy:
Merrill and Schneider overcommit to the potential Pavelski shot in somewhat hilarious fashion here but that's still a highlight-reel worthy play by two guys who ought to be playing together more often. Despite nailing it in terms of a dressing a roster, with Adam Burish and Mike Brown mercifully healthy-scratched, Todd McLellan's line combinations and defense pairings in this one were somewhat curious and no doubt contributed to the lackluster defensive showing and overall lack of territorial prowess by his team. Going three-deep down the middle with Torres centered by Pavelski on that third unit would be terrifying to match up against, considering #13 now has three goals in two games this season with his pivots almost exclusively being Andrew Desjardins and James Sheppard.
Which isn't to take anything away from Sheppard, who's currently on a four-game point streak of his own and started the play above with a terrific outlet pass from his own end, but bumping him down to a fourth line with Desjardins and Tyler Kennedy while icing a third line of Torres, Pavelski and Tommy Wingels might avoid games like today wherein the bottom six, and fourth line in particular, spent much of their ice time chasing the play in their own zone and yielding quality opportunities.
Matt Nieto was not in the bottom six tonight, drawing back into the lineup on the top line with Pavelski and Joe Thornton. He rewarded Todd McLellan for that decision by scoring the game-winner, firing a one-timer top shelf on Schneider after a perfect backhand pass by Pavelski. Marleau issued the dagger, picking up a loose puck in the high slot before beating Schneider five-hole to give the Sharks a 4-2 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Quibbles about line combinations and defense pairings aside (Irwin and Braun had a nightmarish outing together), the fact that the coaching staff relegated Burish and Brown to the press box is certainly a step in the right direction, provided they do it again Tuesday against Carolina. The most intriguing lineup decision at this point could revolve around the crease, where Stalock continues to impress when given the opportunity while Niemi has had his struggles.
- After an uncharacteristically sloppy performance against Buffalo, Marc-Edouard Vlasic had a great bounce-back game here, as you would expect from him. He and Jason Demers were far and away the team's best defense pairing and they had to be given that Hannan/Boyle and especially Irwin/Braun were borderline disastrous in their own end.
- Speaking of disasters, Marty Havlat struggled mightily away from Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau and worked his way down to the fourth line by the end of the game. I'm not sure what the coaching staff saw that prompted them to take Havlat away from those two but they were terrific as a combination in Philadelphia and Buffalo and, despite their two goals tonight, Couture and Marleau weren't as dominant territorially (and gave up quite a bit more on the defensive side of the puck) without Havlat to help gain the zone.
- Ryane Clowe was so focused on trying to hit all of his former teammates in his first game ever against the Sharks that he pretty much forgot to play hockey. He, Andrei Loktionov and Michael Ryder were easily the Devils' least effective line. Clowe was essentially invisible at even-strength but did set up a pretty good Andy Greene chance on a power play that the New Jersey defenseman air-mailed.
- This isn't something you see every day: Joe Thornton had *4* shots on goal in this game, despite the Sharks mounting just 22 overall. His reconstructed line, with Nieto and Pavelski, was San Jose's best.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Joe Pavelski
2nd Star: Alex Stalock
3rd Star: Adam Henrique