While the Chicago Blackhawks were the team playing their second game in as many nights, the Sharks resembled the more fatigued club in this afternoon's 5-1 blowout defeat at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup champions, San Jose's worst loss of the young season. Granted, the Sharks were playing the final contest of a five-game road trip that saw them visit five separate cities in three different time zones over the course of seven days so it stands to reason that their performance was that of a team out of gas as they registered just 24 shots, their second lowest total of the campaign.
But that doesn't explain their poor play earlier in the trip, against opponents much weaker than the powerhouse Blackhawks squad they faced here. And while the Sharks do finish their swing through Western Canada and the Midwest 3-1-1, having picked up 7 of a possible 10 points, that record masks a decided slip in play compared to their performance earlier in the year. Issues that have recurred all month long, ranging from an ineffective breakout to sloppy own-zone coverage to less-than-optimal line combinations by the coaching staff, came to a head this afternoon in Chicago and the result wasn't pretty.
Things started out well enough for San Jose in this one as the Sharks registered 9 of the first 13 shot attempts as well as 5 of the first 6 scoring chances of the game. But a bungled breakout pass by Scott Hannan led to an icing call which led to an extended run of zone time for the Blackhawks which led to a Sharks penalty which led to more Blackhawks possession and eventually to a goal off the rush for rookie Brandon Pirri with a pinching Jason Demers getting back in time but failing to deter or even recognize his man on the play. Another missed coverage led to Chicago's second goal, which untied the game minutes after Joe Pavelski evened the score on a terrible misplay by Corey Crawford. Justin Braun failed to pick up Patrick Sharp in the left faceoff circle, leaving the Hawks' sniper all the time in the world to tee up a cross-ice one-timer from Marcus Kruger.
Time was in abundance for Jonathan Toews on his tally as well with neither Braun nor Joe Thornton engaging the Blackhawks' captain in time to deny him the space to generate a quality look from the right circle, the rebound of which he promptly slipped past Antti Niemi. That was 3:39 into the third period, and it was effectively game over. But if there's a place the Sharks really lost this game, it was in the second period where they had just five shots and zero scoring chances despite Pavelski's lucky goal. The game was still very much in reach at that point but, as was the case far too often on this trip, San Jose had issues cleanly exiting their zone frequently enough to pepper Crawford, who looked shaky all night, with scoring opportunities.
- Let's talk line combinations. If Todd McLellan is serious about wanting to see some production out of Matt Nieto and Martin Havlat, as he told the media after the win in Vancouver, having Andrew Desjardins center them probably isn't the best way to go about facilitating that. If they want Havlat to be a factor, they need to play him with Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture, where he's had success in the past and appeared to be rekindling that flame prior to being taken off the line after one mediocre period ten days ago, not on the fourth line.
- It's going to be difficult for any team on which Hannan and Brad Stuart each play upwards of 18 minutes to consistently control play. Stuart started 75% of his non-neutral five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone tonight and finished with a 38.5% shot differential. Chicago's success is largely built on every single one of their defensemen being able to execute a breakout pass. For nearly forty minutes of every game, one of the two blueliners on the ice for the Sharks can't even come close to doing that. Matt Irwin needs to draw back into the lineup and Doug Wilson should probably be working the phones looking for a left-side option who can move the puck in second-pairing minutes.
- Not to be outdone by Hannan and Stuart's ineptitude, Jason Demers' defensive coverage on the Pirri goal was suspect to say the least. Pavelski had Demers' man tied up at the side of the net, which means Demers needs to be on the lookout for Pavelski's man. That's as basic a switch as it gets and yet Demers stood aimlessly in the slot rather than picking up Pirri.
- Prior to a quiet third period, I thought the Thornton line was the Sharks' best in terms of eating up zone time but it's concerning that the trio combined for zero shots and zero chances. Hertl had a couple of good opportunities but didn't pull the trigger in time and both were blocked.
- Chicago keeps trading valuable bottom-six forwards after winning Stanley Cups yet, somehow, they seem to replace them without missing a beat. Michael Frolik and Dave Bolland left town in this year's post-championship exodus but Andrew Shaw looks more than capable of being a great replacement. After last spring's playoffs he mostly has a reputation as a pest, which is well-earned, but he was a beast through the neutral zone this afternoon and completely dominated the Nieto/Desjardins/Havlat line at evens.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Patrick Sharp
2nd Star: Kris Versteeg
3rd Star: Andrew Shaw