The San Jose Sharks headed into the 6 tired, but confident. Back-to-back games with a gassed team is never easy, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have two top lines filled with elite, speedy goal-scorers, will always put up a fight, especially at home in Scotiabank Arena. The Sharks extended their season win record to 4-0-0, and the hot starts are just getting hotter.
Going into last night’s game against the Leafs, the Sharks’ top players over three games were Logan Couture (4 points), Timo Meier (5 points) and Erik Karlsson (5 points), with Kevin Labanc, Brent Burns and William Eklund at 3 points, and just behind them, Jonathan Dahlen and Tomas Hertl at 2 points each.
The good news is that the Sharks’ top performers kept performing, and a few more players picked up a few points, too.
From puck drop, it was clear this wouldn’t be an easy game. The Sharks still looked tired and the Leafs had been rested since Monday. It was a fast start for Toronto, but San Jose’s zone breakouts led by Burns and Couture continued to generate offensive chances.
Jasper Weatherby, who was sitting at 2 points going into last night’s game, was also putting in work on the fourth line in the first period, which continued throughout the game. But Toronto played physical defensive coverage, which set the tone for what became a physically exhausting game for the Sharks.
Kevin Labanc had a good, and bad, first period. On one hand, he’s made huge strides in his two-way game over the off-season and training camp, and head coach Bob Boughner is really liking what he’s seeing with his shot attempts. He’s making more of an effort to skate through plays instead of stopping with the puck and not committing. It’s why he’s been an important part of the special teams’ success so far, and has had a big impact on the ice for the third line. That being said, there were a few moments in the first and third period where he slowed down and dropped plays, either from the aforementioned exhaustion or falling back into bad habits.
Labanc wasn’t the only one playing on his heels at times; the Sharks were struggling to set up plays and time entries. The first period ended with two penalties (9:61, Couture tripping on Morgan Rielly, and 13:50, Nick Ritchie interference on Mario Ferraro), and no goals.
Whatever goals weren’t scored in the first were all scored in the second. Seriously, I felt like I was getting whiplash. Two and a half minutes into the period, Couture opened scoring with an assist from Marc-Edouard Vlasic (who had an incredible game) after a series of big saves from Adin Hill (that was another theme for the night). Not long after, Jason Spezza evened the score, with assists from Pierre Engvall and Wayne Simmonds about a minute later.
Spezza and Simmonds were dangerous for the Leafs, and while superstars Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews were shut down, either by themselves or the Sharks’ defense, while the Leafs’ veterans kept sustaining pressure on the Sharks in their own zone.
But the Sharks thrive on spite, apparently, and on the next play, Meier sunk a goal to take the lead back.
The Sharks had finally gotten their legs under them in the second. Their shift changes were crisper, they were getting more zone time and leaders like Burns and Vlasic were excelling on the forecheck and keeping the puck in the zone. It was also clear at this point that while the top line for the Sharks (Dahlen, Couture and Meier) and all three defensive lines were clicking, the Sharks’ second line (Eklund, Hertl and Rudolfs Balcers) wasn’t in top form, which might mean we see the first line shuffling of the season in Boston, to give some guys a rest and see what else works.
Halfway through the game, Ondrej Kase scored to equalize it at 2, but not to be outdone by anyone, Erik Karlsson made an elite play (heads up, the whole way, even while shooting) off a pass from Jake Middleton to take the lead, again, just a minute and a half later.
To start the third, it’s Vancouver’s biggest regret, Jonathan Dahlen, who scores 25 seconds into the period (with assists from Couture and Meier) to give the Sharks a two-goal lead. Dahlen has been a significant aspect to the top line, with his net front presence, work in the corners and heads up plays to capitalize upon faceoffs and line changes.
Despite Dahlen’s prowess under pressure, Meier’s physicality and Couture’s steady backcheck in the third, all of the Sharks’ small issues throughout the game reared their head, and goaltender Adin Hill was the one who kept them in it. The Sharks had struggled with clearing the puck, but especially in the third, when the Leafs hemmed them into their own zone. Hill came up with some huge saves to bail out the tired Sharks defense.
With 6:21 remaining, Maple Leafs captain John Tavares scored to put them within one, but with 40 seconds left on the clock, Couture scored an empty-netter off a pass from Andrew Cogliano, and the Sharks left Toronto with a 5-3 win.
The game featured San Jose’s tenth successful penalty kill in a row, making them the only team in league history to not give up a power play goal within the first four games of a season. Overall, the Sharks led in hits (23 to 10) and blocked shots (18 to 11), which shows just how physical the game had been, and that Toronto kept them on their heels. Burns himself had five shot blocks.
For Sunday’s game against the Boston Bruins, the Sharks will need to be rested (the team flew into Boston after the game in Toronto, will likely have no practice Saturday, and will hit the ice on Sunday), and they’ll have to improve their faceoffs (the Sharks won 48 percent of their face offs last night, led by Nick Bonino, who won 12) and clearing attempts.
But for the Sharks’ top performers, this was another game showcasing their talent. Erik Karlsson extended his point streak to six points in four games, while Couture and Meier both put up another multi-point night. Then Dahlen, of course, adds to his, totaling three points in four games.