The only problem with the solid defensive hockey that the San Jose Sharks were playing? Halfway through a scoreless tie, the Minnesota Wild was probably playing it better.
28 minutes in, Sharks color commentator Jamie Baker observed, “Both teams are really working hard. This is a heavy, hard game.
“What’s going to break it? Is it going to be the Sharks’ fourth line? There hasn’t been any power plays. Somebody drawing a penalty?
“Gotta stay with it though. The mental fortitude is so important in a game like this.”
A shift later, San Jose’s fourth line, composed of Lukas Radil, Barclay Goodrow and Melker Karlsson, would make a prophet of Baker.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) advanced the puck to Goodrow (23). Vlasic changed, while Goodrow, from the red line and with a deft touch, dumped it into the corner.
Goodrow’s puck placement here was all-important: Too hard, and it goes behind the net, where Devan Dubnyk has a chance to play it. Instead, Radil (52) was able to enter the zone in full stride as the puck was making its way to the corner.
The hard-charging Radil caught defender Jared Spurgeon (46) flat-footed, and in doing so, was able to establish body position to get to the puck first. Radil gave it to Karlsson (68), but Charlie Coyle (3) batted it up the wall.
Despite good little plays by Goodrow and Radil, the Wild had appeared to snuff out another Sharks attack.
That is, until Radim Simek (51) flew off the bench for Vlasic, outhustling Luke Kunin (19) to the loose puck. Simek pinched it back down to Karlsson, who touched it to Radil. Karlsson then rolled to the net, ready to accept the give-and-go.
“I saw Melker going to the net,” said Radil.
Logan Couture (39), who had just replaced Goodrow, slid into a soft spot behind Ryan Suter (20). The perennial Norris candidate was caught puck-watching, as Radil’s no-look backhand pass missed Karlsson, but landed in the seven-time 20-goal scorer’s wheelhouse.
“It was a really tight game,” noted Radil. “It was about who scored the first goals.”
Indeed. Couture exploited a minor Minnesota mistake to open scoring. On the very next shift, Joe Pavelski would take advantage of a major Wild mistake, assisted by Tomas Hertl (48), and once again, Simek.
On Pavelski's goal, Simek made some great quiet plays: On #MNWild dump-in, quickness to beat Parise to loose puck. Then, after Hertl-Niederreiter puck battle, lures ZP & NN to him before short backhand pass to Hertl. This helps give TH time & space to find wide-open JP #SJSharks pic.twitter.com/xhmbrzLsxs— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) December 19, 2018
All of a sudden, Minnesota was trailing by two goals in what was a defensive deadlock. And while it was San Jose’s stars who finished, it was the squad’s lesser lights who started it all.
“That fourth line has given us a lot of big minutes,” Couture acknowledged. “This is what good teams do, though. When you have four lines that go out and contribute, everyone’s on the same page, the team is going to play well.”
Couture may as well have also been talking about Simek, who has helped solidify the Sharks’ defensive pairings, just as Radil has been a rock on the fourth line.
For a cap-strapped contender constantly in search of inexpensive quality depth, European free agents Radil and Simek have been manna from heaven.
“It’s kept our team competitive,” said Pete DeBoer, of the organization’s prowess for identifying under-the-radar NHL-ready talent. “Without a lot of draft picks, with trying to win the Stanley Cup every year for the last 15 years, that’s not easy to do. It’s been critical to keep depth in the organization.”