The 4PM weekday starts against Columbus, the back-to-backs in Nashville and Phoenix, the mid-November snoozefest against the Panthers...this is why you sit through those games. Tonight's 5-3 Sharks win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the precious few instant classics like it, validates every terrible decision you've made as a hockey fan; it justifies every stinker you've had to stomach. Games like this one, that feature goals, lead changes, star power, individual efforts, and raw physicality galore, don't come around exceedingly often but when they do there's really nothing else like it in sports.
There's also nothing I can write that properly encapsulates or does justice to what 17,562 at the Shark Tank and countless thousands of others watching from home across the country just witnessed. In probably the most entertaining game the Shark Tank has seen since Tomas Hertl's 4-goal night in October, the Sharks overcame a 2-0 first period deficit to storm back and defeat the first-place team in the Eastern Conference in regulation. Olli Maatta opened the scoring for the Penguins, knocking in the rebound of a Tanner Glass point shot, a little over a minute before Chris Kunitz extended Pittsburgh's lead to two on a power play.
But the Penguins were content to sit on their lead and the Sharks took full advantage, dominating the second period territorially before finally getting rewarded for their efforts courtesy a fluke goal from the point by Justin Braun in the middle frame's dying minutes. That set up a remarkable third period that saw San Jose, particularly when considering the caliber of opponent, play its most inspired hockey of the 2013-14 season. Patrick Marleau drew the Sharks even with this magical shorthanded goal in which he turned one of the best players in the NHL inside out while the best player in the league had a front-row seat (thanks to Ann for the phenomenal enhancements to this GIF):
Unfortunately, the Penguins would score not twenty seconds later with the 19-year-old Maatta striking again, this time on a cross-ice feed from Brandon Sutter on the same power play. But the Sharks never let up and tied the score a second time on a shot from the slot by Brent Burns, who was his typical monstrous self on the forecheck all night. Joe Thornton, who matched up against Sidney Crosby at even-strength for the bulk of the evening and was crucial in neutralizing him, added the game-winner to his impressive docket of accomplishments tonight as Penguins goaltender Jeff Zatkoff whiffed on a floater from the blueline, giving the Sharks their first lead of the night. It was one that they, unlike their opponent, would not relinquish.
- This was certainly the worst game I've ever seen Sidney Crosby play and it's very likely one of the worst he's ever had in the NHL. He was on the ice for all five Sharks goals and was held off the scoresheet at the other end of the ice. Kudos to Todd McLellan for taking full advantage of last change to get Thornton on the ice against him nearly every chance he got and full marks to Thornton for stepping up and forcing Sid to spend the majority of the game defending in his own zone.
- San Jose outshot Pittsburgh 34-12 over the final two periods tonight. A lot of that was the result of the Penguins sitting on their two-goal lead but they were utterly outplayed in every area of the game over those final forty. In fairness to Dan Bylsma's club, they're currently without their top two defensemen in Paul Martin and Kris Letang.
- It strikes me as a severe case of confirmation bias to claim the Sharks turned things around because Raffi Torres started hitting Penguins in the second period, as some are arguing. Before Torres threw a single hit in that period, shot attempts were already 19-10 in favor of San Jose and that reflected their territorial advantage over that span; the Pens couldn't get anything going after the Kunitz goal. Maybe Torres' hits helped power the comeback, maybe they didn't, but to be confident they did when the Sharks were already dominating the attack before they were thrown seems to be kind of baseless.
- While the Penguins tallied twice on the power play, it was the Sharks' man-advantage that looked substantially more dangerous even though they were never able to put the puck past Zatkoff on any of their four opportunities. They did, however, generate 17 5-on-4 shots and 30 power play shot attempts overall. It was a masterful display by the reunited top unit who were in vintage form. The goals will come if they can move the puck around like that with regularity.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Joe Thornton
2nd Star: Brent Burns
3rd Star: Olli Maatta