If you were to make a shortlist of the most exciting teams to watch in the NHL, chances are the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks would be on it. And while the Sharks hadn't been playing particularly enjoyable hockey of late, with just one goal in three games coming into tonight thanks in part to Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl's continued absence, they put on a show as they seemingly always do when facing a team against whom they have a lot to prove.
Despite an uneventful start, this game built like a crescendo into a back-and-forth third period and wildly entertaining overtime before being punctuated by Joe Thornton channeling Pavel Datsyuk for the shootout winner. It was the Sharks' second shootout win in three meetings against the Hawks this season and while they obviously can't bank on skills competition success should they meet Chicago in the Western Conference Final this spring, it's encouraging that even an injury-hobbled San Jose squad has now twice played the Blackhawks evenly.
But this game didn't begin quite so tightly-contested, in part because the odds were stacked against the Sharks from the start with Jason Demers a surprise scratch due to a lower-body injury and Tyler Kennedy out for a second straight game despite participating in the morning skate. With Scott Hannan and Brad Stuart paired and Mike Brown skating on what opened the game as the team's third line, things looked bleak for a while there and the Sharks perhaps predictably didn't generate a lick of offensive-zone possession until six minutes in.
But a disciplined showing in their own end thwarted Chicago's attempts at getting anything going offensively of their own right and kept the Sharks in the game until the team steadily improved their even-strength play starting in the second and into the third. It was special teams, though, that accounted for both goals scored in regulation in this game; one single power play, in fact. With Brad Stuart in the box for hooking Patrick Kane, a bouncing stretch pass from Scott Hannan found a streaking Joe Pavelski who...oh, I can't do justice to the beauty of this goal. Just watch this GIF of it, courtesy Ruthless Sports Guy:
The patience Pavelski displays here, to wrestle free of Duncan Keith's grasp with the Norris Trophy winner draped all over him, is remarkable. Pavelski has scored 29 goals this season but none have been prettier than this one. Unfortunately for the Sharks, it was a short-lived lead as Brandon Saad scored a little over a minute later, prior to the expiry of Stuart's penalty. Stuart had a chance at redemption later in the period on a net-mouth feed from James Sheppard but was stonewalled by Corey Crawford's left pad. Both teams traded grade-A chances for the remainder of the final frame and throughout a free-wheeling overtime before a 3-for-3 showing by the Sharks in the shootout clinched the extra point.
- Demers' injury, which wasn't revealed until after the game, meant the return of everyone's favorite pairing: The Hannan and Stuart Experience. They were every bit as dreadful as you'd expect as the Blackhawks outshot the Sharks 12-5 with those two on the ice together at even-strength despite Todd McLellan giving them their share of offensive zone starts and keeping them away from Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa at all costs.
- Fortunately, the other two pairings were terrific enough to compensate. Toews, Hossa and Patrick Sharp comprise arguably the best forward line in the NHL but finished with the three worst shot differentials on the Hawks and were largely non-factors in this game. That's thanks in large part to a signature performance by the reunited Marc-Edouard Vlasic/Justin Braun pairing who drew that assignment all night long.
- Like clockwork, Mike Brown ends up doing something stupid partway through every game he has the privilege to play in and gets benched for the remainder. Tonight it was a needless tripping penalty on Michal Handzus. Think about that for a second. Brown had to trip Michal freakin' Handzus, the guy who skates like he has a refrigerator hidden in his sweater, because he lost body positioning and couldn't be assed to skate an extra couple strides. Brown played fifty more seconds in this game after exiting the penalty box.
- The only way to describe James Sheppard's performance in this game is that he came in like a wrecking ball. There was one first period shift in particular in which he launched (in borderline illegal fashion) into Patrick Kane then slammed Kris Versteeg into the back of his own net. He also decked Michal Rozsival later in the game and, beyond his physical play, was a force to be reckoned with at both ends of the ice. He created problems for the Blackhawks defense by driving wide before cutting to the net in the offensive zone on numerous occasions and made at least one memorable play in his own end, stripping the puck from Patrick Kane at the half-wall. He'll never have any offensive value but Sheppard does everything else so well that I can't see an argument for ever keeping him out of the lineup.
- Early returns on the newly constructed Marleau/Pavelski/Wingels line aren't great. McLellan clearly wanted to use them in an offensive role, providing them with the bulk of the team's offensive zone starts and frequently deploying them against the Hawks' fourth line, but they were largely ineffective at generating anything.
- Brent Burns' scoring slump continues but he's been his typical beastly self in the past three games with insane shot totals to show for it; with seven tonight, Burns has 20 over his last three contests. At some point, those are going to start going in again for him.
- Speaking of shaking out of slumps, Niemi did so in a big way tonight with perhaps his best game since that shootout win over the Capitals in Washington two and a half weeks ago. Despite a committed defensive effort by most of the skaters in front of him, chances bled through (which is going to happen when you're playing the Blackhawks) but Niemi was there to stop all but one of them.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Antti Niemi
2nd Star: Corey Crawford
3rd Star: Joe Pavelski