Expecting the San Jose Sharks to sweep their season series against the Vancouver Canucks didn't seem like a big ask. Even though the team flew into Vancouver having lost eight of their last nine games, you had to imagine that one of the most stacked lineups in the NHL would have no problem putting away a Canucks squad that’ll miss the postseason for the fourth straight season and has nothing to play for but pride.
And yet, here we are.
The Sharks’ fatal error was underestimating their opponents, a fact that rang all too clear just a minute and a half into the game, when Bo Horvat and Brent Burns were chasing a loose puck into the San Jose end. Knowing that Horvat’s going to beat him to the puck, Burns made a poor choice to let up the pressure on Horvat and attemptted to stick check him along the end boards instead.
Unfortunately, Horvat’s two best qualities are his vision and ability of turning a nothing play into a great offensive opportunity. Sure enough, Horvat made a quick glance back at the net, spotted a trailing Tanner Pearson and took advantage of the extra room Burns left him by whipping a quick backhand pass into the slot. Pearson buried the feed past the blocker of Martin Jones and to everyone’s shock, the Canucks took the early lead.
Despite falling behind so quickly, it seemed like the Sharks had already learned their lesson. Right after the Pearson marker, San Jose took over the pace of play, putting the Canucks’ defense back on their heels with a well-structured cycle.
With the Canucks desperately trying to get the puck out of their zone, Brenden Dillon used Brock Boeser as a high screen and threw a seeing eye shot at the net with Kevin Labanc parked in the slot. Labanc was able to fend off Elias Pettersson for just long enough to smartly deflect the puck towards the opposite corner, fooling Canucks netminder Thatcher Demko for his second goal in as many games.
The Sharks’ first period dominance forced Vancouver into penalty trouble and with Adam Gaudette in the box for hooking, San Jose’s top power play unit showed off the crisp passing of a Stanley Cup contender. Joe Pavelski, who was making his return to the lineup after missing seven games with a lower body injury, and Burns were working the puck behind the net with Tomas Hertl in front of the net.
Burns caught the Canucks’ penalty killing unit scrambling and pounced, snapping Hertl a quick pass from the corner. As the four Vancouver penalty killers converged on him, Hertl made the smart call to redirect the pass toward a now wide open Pavelski by the left side of the net. All Pavelski needed to do was tap the puck into the yawning cage and the Sharks seemed to have the game back on track.
The second period was highlighted by the goaltending performances. Demko received the bulk of the work, stopping eleven Sharks chances as part of a 33-save night. Jones only faced seven in the middle frame, but arguably turned aside the toughest scoring opportunities, including a point blank save on Boeser where he slid across the crease and got his left pad in front of the one-timer.
It seemed like San Jose had Vancouver right where they wanted them, but midway through the third period things began to unravel. After Loui Eriksson cut hard to the net and had his original shot stopped by Jones, the loose puck bounced into the crease. Jones moved to cover it, but Tanner Pearson got his stick underneath his glove and poked the puck in.
Peter DeBoer used his coach’s challenge to protest that Jones had the puck covered, but video replay showed Pearson had beaten Jones to the punch. Even a small mistake like that is concerning when it comes to Jones’ play going into the postseason, where his slow reaction speed could be extra costly.
The miscue caused a massive shift in momentum. Suddenly the Canucks were in complete control, trapping the Sharks in their own end for long stretches of the final ten minutes. Not long after Pearson’s second goal of the night, defenseman Alex Biega threw the puck into a crowd of players screening Jones.
Despite pressure from Hertl, Canucks forward Tim Schaller managed to get his stick on the shot and deflected it over Jones’ shoulder and off the post. In the confusion, Markus Granlund escaped Burns’ coverage for long enough to whack the rebound into the open net. The Canucks were back in the lead and they never relinquished it.
The Sharks got an attempt to tie the game thanks to a late power play opportunity with Bo Horvat in the box for slashing and DeBoer decided to pull Jones for an extra attacker. But with the Canucks down a man, they could take a shot at the empty net without consequences. Sure enough, Troy Stecher rifled a perfect 200-foot shot into the net to seal the win for Vancouver.
The Sharks will have two more kicks at the can before closing the book on the 2018-19 season, the first on Thursday in Edmonton against the Oilers and the last on Saturday when they host the Colorado Avalanche. While both of those games will technically be meaningless from a standings point, for a struggling club like the Sharks, going out on a winning note could mean the difference between a first round exit and a deep playoff run.