The Vancouver Canucks’ visit to the home of the San Jose Sharks prolonged two stretches of tragic futility last night. The Sharks’ 4-0 win extended the Canucks’ current losing streak to eight games, and set our blue boys’ record against their Northern brethren at 10-0-1 over their last 11 meetings. It may not have been the most conventional win, as the 5-on-5 stats would tell you, as the Sharks did the preponderance of their damage on the power play.
While San Jose’s 5-on-5 play was nothing to sing songs about, perhaps due in part to head coach Peter DeBoer’s perplexing line up decisions: scratching Antti Suomela in favor of first time NHL player Lukas Radil, and Joakim Ryan for Tim Heed, their power play was deadly. Accounting for three of the Sharks’ four goals on the night, the man advantage unit was consistently effective at creating east-west movement, completing crisp, quick passes and capitalizing on the lateral movement they were forcing out of returning goaltender Anders Nilsson.
Surely, key to Vancouver’s recent run of bad luck has been a spate of high profile injuries. Deadly sniper Brock Boeser missed his 13th game, top pairing defenseman Alexander Edler missed his 15th, Sven Baertschi missed his 15th as well, Brandon Sutter has been out for twelve contests and Jay Beagle for 20. While some of those absences hit harder than others, all of them put a strain on a depth chart that is not terribly deep to begin with.
Vancouver’s early parade to the penalty box did the returning Nilsson no favors, as the goaltender, who was seen in a splint as recently as yesterday morning, stopped 20 of 24 shots for a .833 save percentage in the loss. Still, Nilsson played well early in the game, keeping San Jose off the board through one power play until Antoine Roussel took his second minor penalty of the night (and third and fourth of 18 penalty minutes) after an unfortunate bounce off of his stick sent the puck over the glass at 10:48. Six seconds later, Logan Couture fired a shot through a screening Christopher Tanev past Nilsson to open the scoring.
The goal was Couture’s 18th against the Canucks in 36 games, his second most against any team. Roussel apparently told Derrick Pouliot about the nice sparkling water we keep in our visitors’ penalty boxes, because the latter was sent for four minutes after drawing blood from Radil’s face with a high stick. For most of the double minor, the Sharks dominated the offensive zone with good passing and strong chances, but Nilsson stood tall. Last night, however, 19:50 was Timo Time.
Timo Meier scored his first goal in seven games, and his 13th on the season, the old fashioned Meier way: inside the crease. Meier stepped inside, taking advantage of an overextended Nilsson to take advantage of a Joe Thornton shot pass and bank it into the net for San Jose’s second power play goal of the night. Thornton’s 1034th career assists moved him into sole possession of 11th place on the NHL all time assists list, no longer having to share that honor with that pesky Mario Lemieux. The Sharks headed into intermission losing the 5-on-5 shot attempt battle 9-12, but dominating the shot clock 12-8 and the score sheet 2-0 thanks to a two for four showing on the power play.
The second frame taught the Sharks that, while the officials do occasionally giveth, they sure do still taketh away. The period saw three Vancouver power plays to the Sharks’ zero, and Aaron Dell, the team’s starting goaltender in every way but name, and most important penalty killer, came up large, stopping no small share of dangerous chances from, let me check my notes here — Brendan Leipsic? The Sharks kept the Canucks off the board for the full 20, though, and finally started to get some sustained offensive zone pressure during the last minute or so.
By the forty minute mark, Vancouver still held the 5-on-5 shot attempt edge at 28-22, but the two squads were tied in shots on goal at 17. At this point, on 5-on-5, score effects were starting to be a major factor, and the Sharks’ two for four power play contrasts starkly with their three for three penalty kill. Also at this point, things were starting to get nasty. A big, clean Michael Del Zotto hit on Melker Karlsson started a fracas between Roussel and Brenden Dillon that ended in a roughing minor to Evander Kane, and an uncalled Elias Pettersson high stick on Logan Couture early in the third didn’t help.
The fact that we’re just now mentioning Pettersson is a testament to the effectiveness of the Couture line and the Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Justin Braun pairing’s ability to limit his ability. Of Pettersson’s 12:49 minutes of even strength ice time, nearly 11 of them were shared with Vlasic and Braun, and eight of them were shared with Couture. DeBoer’s strategy to hard match those groups against the opponents’ top line has borne out good results on this home stand, including tonight, but he’ll have to adapt that strategy on the road tomorrow.
The third period started with some familiar trends: Dell made yet another highlight reel save on Leipsic, and the Canucks were caught with another delay of game penalty, this time off the stick of Sam Gagner. Less than a minute into that power play, the Sharks converted their third of the night, courtesy of one Erik J. Karlsson.
A very smooth and nifty Thornton pass fooled Tim Schaller, and a Joe Pavelski screen set up poor Nilsson to be victimized by Karlsson’s screaming wrist shot on this play. It was Karlsson’s second goal in three games, and Thornton’s 750th assist as a Shark, as San Jose started to pile up milestones along with power play goals.
It only took six more minutes for the Sharks to tally yet again, this time with a different Karlsson getting the credit. San Jose scored their first five on five goal of the night at 9:35 of the third period on a Melker Karlsson redirect of a very familiar Erik Karlsson snap shot.
This goal has a lot in common with both San Jose’s first goal of the night, and their third. The Sharks won the face off and immediately moved the puck back to the outside defenseman, in this case, Dillon. Dillon moved the puck laterally and Karlsson snapped it toward the net, taking advantage of the chaos in the slot created by Melker. In this case, Melker tipped the puck past Nilsson, likely justifying DeBoer’s decision to keep him in the line up, for better or for worse. The assist was Karlsson’s eighth point in his last five games, as the bounces and percentages are starting to regress towards the superstar’s exceptional play. Last night, in particular, Karlsson’s zone exits were nothing short of sublime.
Additionally, Karlsson recorded his 33rd three-point game. That count is tops among all defensemen since he entered the league in 2009. Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman holds second place on that list with 20. He is very good, is what I’m driving at.
As the game wound to a close, tempers came to a head, and Roussel and Vlasic were dinged for matching two minute roughing minors, with an extra ten added to Roussel’s for flavor. Testimony from involved parties and accompanying video seem to show Roussel biting Vlasic’s hand, but who are we to judge, everybody likes pickles.
It’s hard not to look back on the Sharks’ season-long homestand with a sense of optimism. Sure, the Sharks have some things to clean up: their team defense is not as consistent as it could be, Martin Jones is still struggling, the bottom six is a rotating cast, the coaching staff’s impatience with Ryan and Suomela is perplexing. But the Sharks ended a six-game stretch 4-1-1, with only one of those games really unacceptable (Toronto, if you’re curious). When a team with that many problems still pulls nine points out of a possible 12, it puts a smile on the face of the most hardened cynic (me).
If anything, this should give the coaching staff more confidence to roll out Dell in more opportunities against tougher teams. Dell has now posted two consecutive shut outs, and holds a 12-1-1 record against Pacific division foes. If there’s anything to be concerned about after this game, it’s that the Sharks could do a better job of pressing at even strength with a lead, especially when Dell is playing lights out like he has been of late.
Still, no time to dwell on such a thing on a night like this. The Sharks head southward tonight to meet the floundering Vegas Golden Knights, who will likely present a much greater challenge.