Let's get the excuses out of the way first. The Sharks are in the midst of a seven-game road trip that sees them weave around the continental United States in inexplicable fashion. They were playing their third game in four nights this evening at the BB&T Center in South Florida and, for whatever it's worth, they made a last-minute goaltending change in sending out Antti Niemi when presumed starter Alex Stalock couldn't go.
Still, a 4-1 loss to a legitimately improved but still rather mediocre and injury-riddled Florida Panthers team isn't particularly excusable especially when they were doubled up on the shot clock over the opening twenty minutes and made mental mistakes that ended up in the back of their net. Brent Burns failed to gain inside positioning on Jussi Jokinen in an attempt to recover a loose puck in the corner, leading to a goal by Jimmy Hayes that opened the scoring for Florida. Patrick Marleau committed the same error against Scottie Upshall minutes later who promptly found Aleksander Barkov at the side of the net for another tally.
Even after the Panthers effectively put the game out of reach with a Derek MacKenzie goal in the second, the pushback from the Sharks just never seemed to materialize. They had only 12 shots on goal entering the third period, perhaps two of which constituted grade-A scoring chances, and ended the night with only 22 in that category. Niemi didn't bail the Sharks out (although I'm not sure what he could have done on any of the goals except Barkov's, where he misread the play) but it's hard to blame him for a sputtering offense. It's even hard to blame the forwards for that. The coaching staff has done a terrible job of constructing sensible line combinations so far this season and while they took a step in the right direction putting Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton and Tommy Wingels together in the third period they still have a long way to go in that area. As does everyone else in every other area following an effort like this one.
- Literally five days ago Todd McLellan was telling the media the team sent Chris Tierney down to the AHL because they didn't want a 20-year-old watching games from the press box. And yet 21-year-old Barclay Goodrow, coming off a great game in Chicago, was a healthy scratch in favor of John Scott tonight.
- The top nine the coaching staff was using in the third period with Hertl, Thornton and Wingels on the top line, Sheppard, Couture and Pavelski on the second and Nieto, Marleau and Kennedy on the third is probably not worth discussing because they'll almost certainly come up with entirely new combinations for the next game but it's getting closer to ideal. They just need to swap Couture and Kennedy. Instead we'll probably see the lines that started this game or something worse.
- Between Hertl, Thornton and Pavelski there just isn't a forward with enough speed to be a consistent puck-retrieving F1. Nieto was great in that role for a few games and I'm not sure why McLellan changed that. The aversion to icing Pavelski as the third-line center is baffling. It's worked every single time they've tried it in the past.
- Lots of knowledgeable hockey people seemed skeptical about Aaron Ekblad's long-term upside relative to most first overall picks but he looked incredible in this game for an 18-year-old rookie. Even without Brian Campbell as his partner, Ekblad was really dependable defensively and a consistent threat from the point, including on MacKenzie's goal. Definitely one of the main reasons the Panthers look like an improved team.
- According to McLellan there was "a reason" Stalock didn't play after most assumed he would be starting based on the morning skate. Hopefully it's nothing serious.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Aaron Ekblad
2nd Star: Aleksander Barkov
3rd Star: Derek MacKenzie