In a game they needed to have, and one that they will look back on with resignation as this mountain becomes ever more difficult to climb, the San Jose Sharks came out of the gates flat, turned in an even flatter second period, and fell into penalty trouble early in the third period to seal a 5-2 regulation loss to the Los Angeles Kings.
Following a two-game winning streak against the Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators last week San Jose looked headed in the right direction. Now, with back to back regulation losses to the Anaheim Ducks and Kings under their belt, the numerator has begun to stagnate as the denominator of games played grows ever smaller and puts them in precarious position sitting 10th in the West.
Mike Richards, Alec Martinez, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Penner, and Jeff Carter would score for the Kings, while Martin Havlat and Dan Boyle would tally goals for the Sharks.
Los Angeles came out strong in the opening frame, finishing their checks hard and pinning the Sharks in the defensive end for the majority of play. Niemi had a couple of big saves early, stoning Jeff Carter in front of the net multiple times, but he withstood the early test from a swarming Kings team that outshot the Sharks 12-8 and carried the momentum for nearly twenty minutes.
At the 5:26 mark of the frame Andrew Desjardins bumped Kings center Anze Kopitar into Niemi during a mad dash to the net, but the Sharks would catch a break when the officials dinged Kopitar with the goalie interference call. That break wouldn't pay off for San Jose (at least immediately) due to the shorthanded exploits of Mike Richards who collected a loose puck that rimmed along the boards and broke down the ice before blowing one through Niemi to give the Kings a 1-0 lead.
The Sharks, learning from their recent issues of successfully completing a shift following a goal, didn't let Los Angeles get comfortable with the differential. 22 seconds later Martin Havlat capitalized on the rush, following up his initial blocked shot with a pretty wrister that beat Quick high glove-side.
Theories that Havlat was not actually injured from late December to mid-March but instead went on a Buddhist excursion that saw him reach Nirvana are unconfirmed as of this posting. Having said that, the evidence is compelling.
Just when you were willing to chalk up the first period to a case of something other than a trend, the second period occurred and amplified the struggles of a pillow soft first. San Jose was outshot 16-5 in the frame, outbattled along the boards, and outplayed in just about every conceivable area of the game. Outside of a few good shifts from the third line, and scraps of pushback from the top six, San Jose would stay bottlenecked in their own zone for nearly the entire frame and leave Niemi to carry the day.
He would turn in an admirable effort in the face of adversity, but wouldn't be able to hold the fort all period. The Kings took a 2-1 lead when Anze Kopitar, after winning a puck battle behind the net, circled around behind the net and sent a pretty looking backhand feed to Alec Martinez who was pinching in from the point. Martinez received the pass right in the wheelhouse and drilled it into the twine.
After what was presumably an intense locker room during the second intermission San Jose came out and proceeded to do their damnedest to bury any hopes of coming back in the game. Torrey Mitchell went to the box for a double minor after hacking Willie Mitchell in the face and Andrew Desjardins would make it a 5 on 3 after getting rung up for high sticking as well. A weak interference call on Jeff Carter at the blueline sliced the advantage to one man just 17 seconds after the 5 on 3 began, but Anze Kopitar would give the Kings a two goal advantage when he buried his chance in the slot after waiting out Niemi.
It seemed like the final dagger. But once again Martin Havlat gave San Jose some much needed life when he served as the catalyst on the Sharks second goal of the evening.
Entering the zone with speed Havlat patiently circled around the zone, looking off the Kings defense before swinging a sweet pass to Couture who followed that up with an equally sweet touch pass to the stick of Dan Boyle. Boyle put the icing on the cake and roofed his shot, completing what might be the prettiest team-effort goal San Jose has potted this season.
That goal, however succulent, wouldn't do much in the way of winning the hockey game. The backbreaker came with 4:06 in the third period when Dustin Penner, sprung on a rush following a neutral zone turnover, beat Niemi from a terrible angle. However good of a night Niemi had before that goal, and he did have a very good night considering the circumstances, was erased on that play. It is a stop he needs to make 100% of the time, especially with San Jose beginning to finally show some life after being dormant for 45 minutes of play.
Jeff Carter would finish things off with an empty net goal to make the final score 5-2.
Things aren't looking good for San Jose, who have now fallen to 10th in the Western Conference and turned in back to back efforts filled with little positives besides the play of Martin Havlat. The road to the Pacific Division title, let alone a playoff spot, is tenuous at best.
The only glimmer of hope is the fact that San Jose will play Los Angeles, Dallas, and Phoenix twice more this season, and Colorado once, in their remaining nine games. They still manage to control their own destiny.
Whether that's a good thing will be decided when the clock strikes midnight on April 7th.