After a four-day break following their disappointing loss to the Kings at Levi's Stadium, the Sharks returned to action tonight refreshed and renewed to begin a grueling playoff push that will determine whether their 10-year streak of consecutive postseason appearances will continue. And at least for the first half of this game, they looked every bit the more motivated and energized team, dominating Detroit to the tune of a 14-4 first period shot differential and getting goals from Matt Irwin and Patrick Marleau to take a 2-1 lead over the Red Wings.
Then, as is far too often the case with this team, the wheels fell off the Sharks while the Winged Wheel took flight. From the 11:17 mark of the second period through Luke Glendening's spin-around backhand game winner with 1:15 remaining in the third, the Sharks mustered one solitary shot on goal and it was a shorthanded clearing attempt by Logan Couture from 129 feet out that happened to hit Jimmy Howard. In fairness, they spent six of those minutes on the penalty kill but that still isn't nearly good enough, not with how dire the playoff race is. Antti Niemi valiantly kept the Sharks in the game with a 32-save effort that included a stop on Pavel Datsyuk from point-blank range on a four-minute third period penalty kill, robbery on Tomas Tatar to end the second and a denial of six scoring chances by Darren Helm.
But there's only so much a goaltender can do and when a team struggles to advance the puck out of their zone to the extent that the Sharks did in the second half of this one, the result is unavoidable. Once again a chief culprit in the Sharks' defensive struggles was, unsurprisingly, Brent Burns. Having learned nothing from getting burned by Marian Gaborik under stadium lights on Saturday, Burns was once again too aggressive on a bouncing puck tonight, allowing Pavel Datsyuk behind him and being forced to hook the Red Wings star, setting up Teemu Pulkkinen's power play goal that tied things up for Detroit in the middle frame.
Burns then blindly threw the puck up the boards in the third, which Niklas Kronwall promptly kept in at the left point, leading to Datsyuk's goal that knotted things up at two apiece. For his final act, Burns turned the puck over to Justin Abdelkader on a controlled breakout with plenty of space while the teams were skating 4-on-4 late in the game. While the Sharks would eventually recover the puck, they couldn't advance it and it inevitably ended up in their own net courtesy Glendening.
Between this game, Saturday's loss in which he was partly responsible for both Kings goals and every other boneheaded defensive miscue he's made this season, the Burns-on-defense experiment deserves to be on the short list of reasons why this season is effectively over. It's not Burns' fault though. He's an incredible offensive talent, as he's shown even on the blueline all year long. If only there were a position in which he could be unleashed offensively while not being tasked with defensive responsibilities that he clearly can't handle. Eh, who cares, at least management has their prized Norris-caliber defenseman.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Pavel Datsyuk
2nd Star: Antti Niemi
3rd Star: Teemu Pulkkinen