Improbably, this much-anticipated tilt between the top two teams in the NHL appeared to be living up to its considerable billing in the early going. Let's face it, the most likely outcome here was a 2-1 snoozefest of a game decided by a skills competition, thereby completely deflating the buzz that had been building all day around an early-February contest. Instead, the first period provided an injection of the skill-laden entertainment these two teams are capable of delivering. There were end-to-end rushes! Four goals in a minute and a half! Michal Handzus doing things with a hockey stick and hockey puck akin to what people who are good at hockey do with those items!
And yet, like a guy on a defenseman's back, deflation eventually came. An unbelievably bad call, even by the lockout-rusted official standards we've become acclimated to so far this season, led to Andrew Desjardins being ejected from the game for delivering a perfectly clean hit to Jamal Mayers. The call was so bad Desjardins' game misconduct has reportedly already been rescinded by the NHL. On the ensuing sequence of 4-on-4 play, which really should have been a Sharks' man-advantage after Duncan Keith needlessly instigated a fight with Desjardins, Douglas Murray and Brad Stuart were inexplicably put on the ice together. Murray's pocket was picked expertly by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane pounded the puck into an open net like it was the face of a Buffalo cab driver collecting his fare. Kane's goal broke a 3-3 tie and the Sharks were never able to recover, dropping their third straight game and failing to capitalize on their opportunity to hand Chicago its first regulation loss of 2013.
- To be completely honest, I thought the Sharks looked considerably better in this game than they did in most of their wins last week, especially factoring in the quality of opponent. They outchanced Chicago 13-12, outshot them 33-31 and were generally able to counteract what's usually an effective neutral zone forecheck by Joel Quenneville's team.
- With, of course, the exception of the Vlasic/Stuart pairing but I'm sure everyone is tired of me complaining about their lack of puck-moving ability and the negative effect that's had on the Sharks' possession game.
- Giveaways were an issue tonight and Justin Braun was a frequent culprit. I really don't think the glaring disparity between Braun's play when he's paired with Murray and his play when he's paired with literally anyone else is a coincidence, though. Not saying Murray telepathically influenced Braun to cough the puck up to Marcus Kruger in the crease...although, let's be honest, he's probably fashioned his three-spout keg tap to do exactly that.
- Not a great night for Joe Thornton as Jonathan Toews got the best of him in that head-to-head matchup at even strength.
- Who the hell was that wearing #26 for the Sharks tonight? Michal Handzus had by far his best game since signing with San Jose and I honestly have no idea what his second-best game has been. He and Tommy Wingels were the two best Sharks on the ice by a healthy margin. The big question is whether this is something that can repeat itself on a regular basis. I doubt it can but I'd loved to be proven wrong. Along with James Sheppard, these three were everything you could ask for out of a third line and more.
- Of course Brandon Saad scored his first NHL goal against the Sharks. This isn't even funny anymore.
- Loved the Joe Pavelski shoot-and-follow zone entry technique borrowed by fellow Badger Adam Burish. More teams and players should use this.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Jonathan Toews
2nd Star: Tommy Wingels
3rd Star: Michal Handzus
The Sharks are still 7-2-1 which is a pretty darn good record (analysis!). It's probably a good thing that they're hitting something of an early roadblock here because, again, the perfect start masked some pretty substantial underlying issues. The coaching staff will have three days to sort those problems out before the team hosts Phoenix on Saturday. Thankfully, the Sharks' early cushion means competing clubs likely won't be able to gain enough ground to close the gap on them in the interim. Go Sharks.