Playoff-like atmosphere. It's a buzz phrase that gets tossed around with reckless abandon this time of year but tonight's matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks in Orange County was one of the few regular season games legitimately deserving of that moniker. Not just because the stakes were heightened, with the Pacific Division title and right to avoid the L.A. Kings in round one on the line, but because the result was all too familiar; the Sharks came unraveled while suffering a deflating loss to a chief rival. I can't think of many things more playoff-like than that.
The goal for the Sharks at this point is avoiding that sinking feeling when the games really matter starting a week from now, at which time they'll host the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Pacific Division Semifinals, a matchup they have no one but themselves to blame for drawing. Squandered opportunities against bottom-feeding clubs like Washington, Florida, Winnipeg and Nashville in recent weeks coupled with the nail in the coffin that was tonight's 5-2 loss to the team they were chasing for the pennant sunk the Sharks, and deservedly so. You can make the argument that it's patently unfair the Sharks have to face the Kings so early in the postseason when these two clubs may have been among the three best teams in the NHL this season. But anyone who watched this game, and really the last couple of weeks of Sharks contests, would rightfully laugh at you.
Because this just isn't the same Sharks team that set the league ablaze in the season's opening months. A lot of that comes down to injuries to Tomas Hertl and Raffi Torres but the coaching staff's inadequate lineup changes in response to those losses and a terrible season from Antti Niemi following his Vezina-caliber campaign a year ago have changed things in a hurry. Those factors came to a head once again tonight with Niemi pulled after allowing three goals on 19 shots, all of them of the unsavory variety, while the bottom six was once again a black hole of uselessness. James Sheppard, who the coaching staff inexplicably continues to trot out as their third-line center despite his significant defensive struggles in the role, lost yet another defensive-zone faceoff that led directly to a goal against and was once again beaten soundly in the possession game. Shockingly, putting a sub-NHL player on his wing in Bracken Kearns to "stir the drink" didn't change a damn thing.
Oh, and did I mention Joe Thornton got injured? He limped to the bench late in the game, apparently favoring his left arm, but thankfully seems to be fine. At the same time, this isn't the time of year when teams and players are forthcoming with injury information; if Thornton is forced to play hurt in the playoffs, the Sharks will be in tough to beat anyone let alone the Kings.
The bright side is that the Sharks have nowhere to go from here but up. They can learn from the mistakes that have plagued them of late, they can possibly receive good news on the health front with regards to Hertl and Torres and they can hope for some positive regression in Antti Niemi's goaltending numbers. If those things happen, they have more than a fighting chance against a Kings team it would feel liberating to defeat. At any rate, it's going to be a hell of a ride. I just hope I don't need to throw up when it's over.
- Despite playing their third game in four nights, Anaheim pounced on the Sharks early and didn't let up until the third period by which time it was already 4-2 Ducks. As much as I think they've been something of a paper tiger this season, full marks to them for this win tonight. They deserved it.
- It certainly helped the Ducks that the Sharks' twin towers of past-their-prime ineptitude on defense, Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan, were as easy to force turnovers against on the forecheck as ever. Stuart and Justin Braun, who deserves some blame for getting worked on Corey Perry's goal although Niemi really can't let that sneak underneath his pads, had an awful game with the Ducks controlling upwards of 65% of possession with those two on the ice together. If that pairing continues to struggle, and the coaching staff insists on playing Hannan over Matt Irwin in the playoffs, San Jose's defense corps becomes as big an issue as their putrid bottom six up front.
- One pairing the Sharks can be confident in is Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers. Demers, having a career year offensively, opened the scoring in this one and was part of a tandem that was so effective defensively that Bruce Boudreau made sure to use last change to avoid the Ryan Getzlaf line going out against them.
- I have little doubt John Gibson will be an excellent goaltender (although you can never quite tell with goalies) but he looked shaky at times tonight; it's a shame the Sharks weren't able to take greater advantage of scrambles in the crease created by his lack of rebound control.
- With the exception of their first opportunity, I thought the Sharks looked pretty good on the power play tonight. They didn't score but their zone entries were sharp, they generated chances, hit a post and created 22 shot attempts in 10 minutes of 5-on-4 ice time. They'll need to be that good, and ideally score, against the Kings. If there's an area the Sharks have a significant edge over L.A., it's special teams.
- If there's an advantage to the Sharks losing the division title tonight, it's that they have the opportunity to rest some of their key players (Dan Boyle in particular could use it) in the final two games of the season, which now become meaningless.
- It might not seem like the Sharks have much hope of beating the Kings with the way they've played recently (and how dominant L.A. has been) but just remember that you're never out of a series when you're staring down Jonathan Quick at the other end of the ice:
- In all seriousness, we'll have plenty of Sharks/Kings coverage starting tomorrow. I wasn't expecting the Sharks to have a chance for revenge (both for last year's series and The Hertl Assassination) so soon but here we are, a week away from another brutal, exhausting, entertaining matchup. Get stoked.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Patrick Maroon
2nd Star: Corey Perry
3rd Star: John Gibson