It was hard to know exactly what to expect in the Sharks' first game after a trade deadline in which their general manager made clear the team's priorities were more in line with selling off assets and building for the future than trying to make the playoffs this season. Granted, the writing had been on the wall for a while and only intensified throughout San Jose's dismal February run. But things seemed to come to a head in the 24 hours preceding tonight's contest against the Montreal Canadiens, first with Sharks teammates opting for an off-site meeting rather than Sunday's scheduled practice and then with the trades of James Sheppard, Andrew Desjardins and Tyler Kennedy.
The Sharks responded to the flurry of trade activity and the dwindling playoff odds that precipitated it with one of their more complete efforts of the season, outshooting the top-ranked team in the East 37-20 en route to a 4-0 victory. And front and center of the action was the lone player the Sharks brought in prior to today's deadline, forward Ben Smith from the Chicago Blackhawks. Centering Tomas Hertl and Tommy Wingels on the team's third line, Smith scored the game-opening goal and added an assist on a Matt Irwin marker in addition to going seven for ten in the faceoff circle and compiling a 57% Corsi, two shots on goal and four hits. He was named the team's second star but probably deserved to be its first, fitting in perfectly with his linemates despite barely making it to the game in time for puck drop.
To a large extent, even the lopsided final score flatters the Habs somewhat as the Sharks had three breakaways and several other high-quality chances they couldn't convert thanks to the play of Vezina shoe-in Carey Price. At the other end of the ice, rebounding from an awful performance in Nashville two weeks ago was Alex Stalock who stopped all 20 shots he faced for the shutout, resting Antti Niemi for a start in an enormous game tomorrow night in Vancouver. If the Sharks can come close to matching tonight's effort in British Columbia, they'll have a chance to slightly edge their way back into serious contention for a playoff spot. But even if that doesn't happen and tonight's game ends up meaning nothing in the long run, it was a welcome development to be able to enjoy watching Sharks hockey for a change.
- Impossible to overstate the importance of McLellan reuniting Vlasic and Braun in this game, the first they've started as a pairing in exactly two months. Not only are they terrific together (they both finished with Corsi percentages well north of 60 despite 33% offensive-zone start rates), but those two being deployed against an opponent's top line gets Brent Burns away from the toughest matchups where his constant defensive screw-ups are less costly. He's still going to turn the puck over in the neutral zone but at least the consequence won't be Marian Gaborik streaking down the wing and scoring a game-winner.
- Honestly it's just nice to have six mobile defensemen capable of moving the puck up ice and dictating play from the point in the offensive zone. Mirco Mueller played great tonight, particularly in adeptly defending Habs zone entries, but it would be nice to see the Sharks recall Matt Tennyson and allow Brenden Dillon to move back to his strong side where he'd been playing effective hockey of late.
- Speaking of recalls, bringing up Eriah Hayes or Daniil Tarasov to take John Scott's spot would really solidify this post-deadline forward lineup as the Sharks' fourth line was the only one not to make much of a positive impact for the team in this game. Tierney and Goodrow deserve better than being weighed down by an anchor, even if it was hilarious when someone on the Sharks bench yelled "I think he actually just shit himself" in reference to Andrei Markov who had a stare-down with Scott late in the third.
- Generally not a fan of Melker Karlsson on the top line but he was excellent hunting down pucks in the offensive zone and keeping the cycle alive in this game.
- There were some mixed messages on the TV broadcast but goals are definitely reviewable and subject to be overturned if they were directed in with a high stick and that's what was going on with the extended review following Joe Pavelski's power play goal.
- This was filthy by Tomas Hertl, and against one of the league's best defensemen no less:
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Ben Smith
2nd Star: Alex Stalock
3rd Star: Justin Braun