To a large extent, it's unfair to continue judging the Sharks through the lens of what happened last April. But given that they were literally 3-0 at one point this season before crashing back down to earth and have made something of a habit out of third period collapses, the comparisons are inevitable. There are far more pressing concerns than reliving the team's playoff loss to the Kings through their most recent defeat, a 5-4 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets that was sealed with a final minute Mark Letestu deflection, though. Frankly the most pressing is the fact that the Sharks, even when they rattled off three straight wins to begin the year but particularly of late, have not been very good this season.
Eight games is still a small sample size in the grand scheme of an 82-game slog but consider that San Jose has averaged three goals against per game despite a league-average .914 save percentage thus far. That's something you'd expect from the Toronto Maple Leafs, not a club that has been among the strongest puck possession teams in the league over the past decade. But underwhelming defensive-zone coverage combined with simply not having the puck enough and giving up far too many looks as a result has made the Sharks look awfully Leaf-like so far this season, a resemblance further aided by a roster stocked with goons and lacking a competent blueline.
Defense, or a lack thereof, was the story again tonight as the Sharks gave up five goals including a Ryan Johansen backhand shot allowed due to a neutral zone misread and subsequently poor gap control by Justin Braun, a second Johansen tally courtesy a brutal attempt at exiting the defensive zone by Tye McGinn and, the pièce de résistance, Letestu's winner that came thanks to Todd McLellan inexplicably putting Adam Burish and Andrew Desjardins on the ice with thirty seconds left in a tie game. Unsurprisingly, Burish and Desjardins were drawn into the corner by the allure of the puck with Desjardins leaving David Savard acres of room at the point while Burish abandoned Letestu in front of the net.
What's particularly painful about this loss is that the Sharks displayed flashes of brilliance throughout, particularly in the first twenty minutes. Early on it looked like things would be different than the uninspiring tail end of the team's road trip after the Sharks stormed out of the gate to a 2-0 lead and 16-5 edge on the shot clock over the course of a first period that included Burish's first goal since the Carter administration. But that stretch ultimately proved to be an aberration. Unless the Sharks can dictate play to that extent more often as the season marches forward, and so far there's no reason to believe they can, things could easily spiral out of control here.
- Seriously, can anyone explain the decision to put Burish, Desjardins and James Sheppard on the ice to defend a tie score in the final minute of regulation? Thornton's line was at the end of a long shift and needed a change but they could rather easily have been replaced by Marleau, Couture and Wingels rather than the 2nd, 4th and 5th worst forwards on the team. That seemed like a move Saturday's opponent, a team openly tanking for Connor McDavid, would pull to avoid getting a single point.
- If there's a positive to take from this game it's that the Sharks' power play (or at least the top unit) looked downright deadly, moving the puck around flawlessly, regularly confounding the Jackets' penalty kill by changing the point of attack and generating 18 shot attempts in a hair over 9 minutes of power play time. Unfortunately, they only scored once and gave up a shorthanded goal for their effort.
- Couture was burned on that shortie, caught on the outside while attempting to defend a breaking Letestu. What's good to see is that he didn't make the same mistake twice, later successfully impeding Artem Anisimov on yet another shorthanded rush alongside Letestu.
- Ryan Johansen is really, really good at hockey. Tonight he scored twice, nearly had a hat trick only to see the third goal waved off, had five shots on goal, went 4-for-6 on controlled zone entries and posted a 54% even-strength possession rate while mainly drawing Logan Couture. I will be pissed if he's the next great Blue Jacket to be traded to the Kings for scraps.
- Credit where it's due: Burish's goal was fantastic, as was the set breakout the Sharks ran that created it. For the record, Burish and John Scott now both have more goals than Nathan MacKinnon this season.
3rd Star: Joe Pavelski