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Winning Play: Schmaltz, Keller track down Sharks

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BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 13: Nick Schmaltz #8 of the Arizona Coyotes during the game against the Buffalo Sabres at the KeyBank Center on December 13, 2018 in Buffalo, New York. Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

“You can never backcheck hard enough,” Nick Schmaltz asserted. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

That’s the truth, whether you’re Stanley Cup hopefuls like the San Jose Sharks or on the bubble like the Arizona Coyotes.

The Sharks, boasting all the talent in the world, need more of that attitude to become true contenders. It’s the difference between one point in their 4-3 shootout loss last night or two points. It’s the difference between losing in the second round or advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.

For his part, Schmaltz put his words in action with this response to Tim Heed’s game-opening goal.

Along the half-wall, Evander Kane (9) chipped the puck up to Joonas Donskoi (27). Donskoi gained a step on Clayton Keller (9).

“I was cheating on the wrong side,” admitted Keller, who was looking for the steal.

Critically, the 20-year-old didn’t give up on the play. Keller dug in to prevent Donskoi from enjoying an easy zone exit.

This effort, in effect, turned clear San Jose possession into a 50-50. Schmaltz identified this opportunity and closed on Donskoi, who held the puck for too long.

“I was able to lift his stick,” said Keller. “Schmaltzy makes a good read there. He did a good job of getting a stick on it, too.”

That’s not just one, that’s two Coyotes hard on the backcheck.

As for the Sharks, Donskoi obviously could have made a better play. Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) probably needed to recognize Donskoi’s plight sooner and not get caught so far up ice. Kane could’ve come back harder on the ensuing Coyotes’ 2-on-1.

“It’s been a long month,” noted Pete DeBoer. “We’ve been pushing hard here through the finish line to get to Christmas and take a break with a tough schedule.”

DeBoer’s not wrong. Three games in four days can certainly be a grind. And to their credit, San Jose played a sound defensive middle frame and a dominating third period. You can argue that they deserved to win both Thursday against Winnipeg and last night.

But the Sharks, as they should be, need to be held to a championship standard.

On one hand, perhaps they’re getting there. They’ve played consistently good hockey in December, even in the losses to Dallas, Winnipeg and last night.

On the other hand, there’s still a feeling that San Jose has yet to play their best hockey. There are details — like the illustrated play — that need work. There are stars — Vlasic and Martin Jones come to mind — who need consistency.

It’s a long season, goes the cliche, but it’s also pretty much half gone.