Fresh off signing dual contract extensions, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau provided all the offense the Sharks needed in their 3-2 overtime victory over the Minnesota Wild. The win was the Sharks' sixth in a row, giving the team their third six-game winning streak of the season and moving them ten points ahead of third-place Los Angeles, who lost tonight and will face San Jose on Monday.
Despite falling into an 0-2 hole against the Wild early in the second period and spending long stretches of time in their own end between Minnesota's first and second tallies, the Sharks mounted a successful comeback effort, capped by a Thornton slapshot past Darcy Kuemper in the extra session. San Jose received effective shifts from all four lines over the first half of the opening frame but an errant pass by Thornton in the neutral zone, followed by Brad Stuart once again demonstrating he has the turning radius of an aircraft carrier, gave Matt Cooke a breakaway which the Wild forward converted.
A puckhandling error by Antti Niemi behind his own net four minutes into the second allowed the Wild to set up shop beneath the goal line and eventually feed defenseman Keith Ballard for a sharp-angle attempt that snuck past the Sharks goaltender and gave Minnesota a two-goal lead. Todd McLellan responded by swapping Matt Nieto and Brent Burns on his top two forward lines, a move that paid off in short order as Nieto screened Kuemper while Thornton fired a one-time pass from Pavelski past him to cut the Sharks deficit to one midway through the period. Less than a minute later, Wingels drove down his off-wing before setting up Marleau for the tying goal.
Apart from lethargic play spanning the duration between Minnesota's goals, this was a thorough effort by a Sharks team that just keeps trucking along despite their bevy of injuries up front. The third line, particularly Tyler Kennedy, came through with another effective performance on the breakout and along the boards in the offensive zone. They might not be chipping in with goals as often as the Sharks would like them to, which mostly relegates San Jose to one-goal victories rather than larger margins, but Kennedy, Andrew Desjardins and Bracken Kearns are setting the table for other lines to start shifts in the offensive zone and they aren't hurting the Sharks defensively. That's crucial, and it's been an important part of this winning streak.
But, of course, the most important part has been the play of the Joes and they were once again there in overtime to seal the deal, with a bit of a role reversal to boot as Pavelski distributed the puck to Thornton prior to both of his goals tonight. Along with Marleau's tally, it was a useful reminder--not that anyone needed one--that the next three years are going to provide a lot more moments like this one.
- I'm guessing his performance tonight won't do much to quell critics of Antti Niemi getting the start over Alex Stalock, who's currently riding a 140 minute-plus shutout streak. Niemi posted a .909 SV% and really should have stopped the Ballard goal, which was furthermore partially created by his turnover behind the net. I thought he did well to recover from that over the rest of the game and didn't allow any second-chance opportunities of note but it also admittedly wasn't his best night.
- The most encouraging sign from this game is that it was likely Matt Irwin and Dan Boyle's best as a pairing since Boyle returned from his concussion. They were breaking out of their zone with far crisper passes than they've had in recent memory and acquitted themselves in front of the net better too. One play in particular on which Irwin denied an attempted cross-crease pass from Zach Parise was superior own-zone coverage than I've seen from him in a while.
- Of course, Irwin and Boyle have had such an awful run over the past month and a half that I'm not inclined to declare their problems over. But it's a start. When the Sharks have three pairings going like they did tonight and early in the season, it quickly becomes impossible for teams to sustain consistent offensive-zone pressure against them.
- Marc-Edouard Vlasic skated 19:55 tonight, which marks the third time in the past four games he's finished last on the Sharks blueline in ice time. I don't know if there's an injury there we don't know about or it's just a byproduct of him playing a different role (Stuart and Braun are seeing the bulk of the shutdown minutes traditionally doled out to Vlasic, although that in itself could be brought on by an injury concern) but it's going to be interesting to monitor from now through the Olympic break.
- Speaking of ice time, Mike Brown played 27 seconds after being on the ice for the Ballard goal, which marks the 14th the Sharks have given up at even-strength with Brown on the ice this season. Why is he in the lineup again?
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Joe Thornton
2nd Star: Joe Pavelski
3rd Star: Matt Irwin