If there's a common thread that's extended from the Sharks' 2013-14 season into this one it's the team's strange and largely inexplicable tendency to play down to some of their lesser opponents while saving their best efforts for games against elite clubs. Already this year the Sharks have followed home losses to Columbus and Buffalo, the worst teams in the league, with a 4-1 shellacking of the division-leading Ducks. After losing by a 4-1 score to an injury-riddled Florida Panthers team on Tuesday, San Jose had one of its most complete efforts of the campaign tonight in a 2-1 win over the East's top team, Tampa Bay.
From their patented suffocating offensive-zone forecheck to a power play that generated 12 shots in 6 minutes to a solid goaltending performance by Antti Niemi, this was the kind of game the Sharks were showing signs of making a more regular occurrence starting with that aforementioned win over Anaheim. It understandably got away from them early on this seven-game road trip but if they can maintain this type of performance against the dregs of the NHL in Columbus, Carolina and Buffalo to close the trip out that should put the Sharks in excellent position to gain ground on the Ducks and Canucks over an extended home stretch. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, transferring their performances against top teams over to games against the league's lesser lights is easier said than done for San Jose.
- Icing a fourth line with skill can make all the difference. When your bottom trio can carry upwards of 60% of the play, as Tye McGinn, Andrew Desjardins and Tyler Kennedy did for the Sharks on this night, rather than have it carried against them it not only creates more scoring chances (one of which was the winning goal as Kennedy cashed in a breakaway right after a power play) but it puts the other three lines in more favorable spots to start their shifts. Really hope we've seen the last of Adam Burish.
- Speaking of starting shifts, the James Sheppard line began none of theirs in the offensive zone at even-strength and still managed to break even in possession. Much as I'd rather see Sheppard at left wing, he deserves credit for improving his neutral zone play in the middle and helping the Sharks advance up ice much more effectively than they did with Sheppard on late last season.
- The reunited Marleau-Couture-Nieto line was easily the Sharks' best though. Apart from his goal on a third period redirect, Steven Stamkos was nowhere to be seen at even-strength in this game largely because Todd McLellan was able to get Marleau and Couture on the ice against him and force one of the most dangerous scorers in the NHL to defend. That duo for the Sharks had ten shot attempts apiece.
- Niemi wasn't tested all that much in the first two periods but he came up huge for the Sharks on a 5-on-3 Bolts power play that lasted over a minute, making three terrific saves on Ryan Callahan. With Stalock out anywhere from two to four weeks, Niemi may not get to rest for nearly a month. Hopefully he's able to hover around this level of play for that long.
- If there was any part of this game that qualified as a letdown by the Sharks it was a brief stretch in the third period following that 5-on-3 kill and culminating in Stamkos' goal. After that they were essentially perfect in clogging up the neutral zone and preventing the Lightning from coming up ice as a unit, often forcing them to resort to red line dump-ins.
- Hot jersey take: Tampa's new alternates are terrible. The last thing the NHL needed was another predominantly black sweater. If you're going to make a cheap knock-off of some other team's jersey don't pick Los Angeles' boring threads. Pick a good sweater like Toronto's, which the Bolts did for their current primary home uniform.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Antti Niemi
2nd Star: Ben Bishop
3rd Star: Patrick Marleau