On a night when Scott Hannan was in the building, the Sharks performed their best impression of that legendary 3-on-5 penalty kill against the Oilers in the 2006 playoffs when they found themselves down a man and desperate to preserve their perfect record in overtime against the Nashville Predators. Douglas Murray and Brad Stuart sacrificed their feet by extending their skateblades to deflect Predators shot attempts, Logan Couture made a crucial clear down the length of the ice and Martin Havlat stormed out of the penalty box in time to thwart a Shea Weber slapshot.
Thank Goc for that sequence, because almost everything that came before it during the Sharks' 2-1 shootout loss to Nashville was less interesting than an NHL Network infomercial (and also less effective at suggesting homeopathic remedies for benign skin growths). Give the Predators a ton of credit. They're an obviously well-coached team that knows exactly how to play to their strengths; run-and-gun hockey is not one of those strengths. Run-and-hide is probably a better way to describe it, as the Predators' conservative play in all three zones and willingness to let all-world goaltender Pekka Rinne clean up messes that arise when holes are formed and exploited allows them to hang around games long enough to pick up points. They picked up two on Saturday night as the Sharks lost their first game in nearly ten months.
Basically nothing of consequence happened in this game until the third period, save for an embarrassingly botched scoring chance by Martin Havlat where his premature celebration got in the way of slamming a puck into an open net. A minute into the third, an attempted zone exit by Brad Stuart was picked off along the boards by Colin Wilson who fed a wide-open Sergei Kostitsyn in the slot to make it 1-0 Nashville. The Predators came close to extending their lead (and thereby effectively ending the hockey game) twice on the following shifts until the Sharks were finally able to wrestle some semblance of control over the contest back from Nashville. They would finally tie it on a for-real-this-time goal by Havlat, courtesy an effective offensive zone forecheck on the power play by Scott Gomez. Unfortunately, despite the aforementioned brilliant penalty killing effort in overtime, The Great Gary Bettman Parity-Creatin', Coinflippin' Contest (sponsored by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, probably) would spell the doom of their flawless record. For the first time in 288 days, the Sharks lost a hockey game.
- I'm a big fan of this coaching staff and I know I've taken a cleaver to and feasted on the entrails of this dead horse after beating it but their use of Scott Gomez has me flabbergasted. Honestly, my flabbers are thoroughly gasted here. He's the Sharks' seventh-best forward by a mile yet played less than 10 even-strength minutes tonight. Gomez instantly improved the territorial play of the Sharks' third line (who were largely ineffective when saddled with Andrew Desjardins on the wing in Gomez's stead) and created the Havlat goal on the power play but still rode the pine. I really don't have an explanation for this, unless Michal Handzus has compromising photos of Todd McLellan which would actually explain a lot.
- Another headline in Questionable Lineup Decisions Weekly: Murray over Matt Irwin. Yes, he was fantastic on that final penalty kill but Murray's play at even-strength, especially his decision-making after puck retrievals, was headache-inducing.
- On the other hand, I loved the Marc-Edouard Vlasic/Justin Braun pairing that developed over the course of the game.
- Bottom line: regardless of who's playing or not playing in the bottom six or third defense pair, the Sharks aren't going to win many games in which their top line plays this poorly at even strength. Thankfully, this is an extremely rare occurrence.
- Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture and James Sheppard were clearly the Sharks' best line all night and it wasn't even close.
- To my eye, Brad Stuart looked solid in his first game playing his natural left side for the first time in at least five years. His keep-ins at the blueline, much easier to navigate now that he's on his strong side, were noticeably pivotal to the Sharks' possession game.
- This seems obligatory:
- In all seriousness, unless the Sharks were planning on going 64-0 en route to a Stanley Cup, this was probably the best time and best way in which to pop that loss column cherry. They still picked up a point, giving them an impressive 15 out of a possible 16 so far, and the loss will hopefully give the coaching staff pause to reconsider, at least around the edges, aspects of player usage and neutral zone defense. The 7-0 start masked some real underlying issues and maybe this loss, despite it coming via coinflips, will provide the impetus to rectify them.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Pekka Rinne
2nd Star: Antti Niemi
3rd Star: Mike Fisher
Two huge games at the beginning of next week, as the Sharks travel to Ponda to face the Ducks on Monday before what should be a tremendous "measuring stick" game against the Blackhawks at the Tank on Tuesday night. We should know a good deal more about this team by Wednesday morning. Go Sharks.