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Quick Bites: Late period mishaps lead to shootout loss to Devils

It was a winnable game, which goes to show that a few little mistakes (and having their top players) make all the difference.

Nick Bonino #13 of the San Jose Sharks skates ahead with the puck against the New Jersey Devils in a regular season game at SAP Center on November 6, 2021 in San Jose, California. Photo by Amanda Cain/NHLI

While there have been no updates to the COVID Protocol, there has been a change to the San Jose Sharks roster. William Eklund was sent back to the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), on loan to Djurgardens IF, keeping the team from burning a year of his entry-level contract while he develops his game further.

It was an unsurprising, yet unfortunate move for the Sharks. Eklund has tallied 4 points in nine games, all of them assists, and he was a staple on the Sharks’ top line. While he had great chances, there were a few glaring issues in his game that a year of experience in a controlled-setting like the SHL will fix. Jonathan Dahlen, who’s no stranger to leaving North America to revamp his confidence and skill, even spoke in media availability ahead of morning skate about how Eklund can use his time wisely in the SHL, and how it can be a great opportunity if he can take advantage of it.

Beyond Eklund, the Sharks’ roster is still decimated. When it comes to COVID Protocol, head coach Bob Boughner and all of the players who remain on Protocol will not be traveling with the Sharks to Canada and likely will not join for the rest of the five-game road trip, beginning Tuesday. It will be a big test for the Sharks and their somewhat inexperienced roster of AHL players.

Last night’s shootout loss against the New Jersey Devils was a preview of what they might expect during that road trip.

The most notable thing about New Jersey was the lack of Dougie Hamilton, who had been their best defenseman through the start of the season, and the continued absences of Miles Wood and upstart Luke Hughes. Sure, the Devils were tired after their overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings the night before, but the Sharks still had a tough opponent ahead of them, and one they ultimately couldn’t beat, despite doing (mostly) everything right.

A quick rush by the New Jersey Devils in the first five minutes didn’t deter Nick Bonino, who was on the top line for the Sharks with Logan Couture and Dahlen showed great early chemistry on a quick zone rush that turned the momentum in the Sharks’ favor.

Center Jasper Weatherby has been consistently good and was rewarded for his efforts by moving up to the third-line center position, where he was joined by Nick Merkley, who has also worked his way up the Sharks’ roster, and Andrew Cogliano. The third line set the tone for the Sharks in the first period, which seems to be a pattern. Where Weatherby is, so is the energy.

There was good pressure by Barabanov, who was quiet in the game against the St. Louis Blues, and Lane Pederson, who decided to make us all remember why he is in the Sharks’ line up with a series of shots on goal and solid breakouts. Defender Santeri Hatakka, who sustained an upper-body injury last week, was back in the line up, which was good news for the Sharks. In the first period, he was one of their best players, staging breakouts and driving offense toward the net.

The game against the Blues was frustrating because of San Jose’s defensive miscues and late defensive breakdowns. Had the Sharks gotten more pucks to the net and settled down their ridiculous turnovers, it may have been a different result. It’s clear that they learned from their mistakes, because the tone of the first period was to get sustained shots as much as possible, whether that was on an unsuccessful power play or by capitalizing on takeaways.

Basically, everything the Sharks didn’t do well last game, they improved upon against New Jersey. The line changes were crisp, their interceptions were top-notch and (blessedly) their turnovers were limited.

Rudolfs Balcers opened scoring in the second period, on a cross-ice pass from Brent Burns and Mario Ferraro, who picked up the primary assist.

The younger players were driving the majority of the game, which makes sense. Eklund being sent back to the SHL is a move that makes the most sense for him and where he’s at in his career and development, but it was a wake-up call for the team.

Weatherby and Dahlen have had fantastic starts to their NHL careers, and their absences would be noted if they were out of the line up (Dahlen was certainly missed), and a big part of that is their motivation. They drive offensive plays, physicality and energy because of their compete level — something that the coaching staff will be looking at when it comes to evaluating the AHL call-ups when the COVID Protocol eventually empties.

Nick Merkley proved himself on a line with Weatherby, Jaycob Megna had a few good line rushes and Nicolas Meloche put some shots on goal, but others were more ... underwhelming. Ryan Merkley was largely unnoticeable in the game and had a few lapses in defensive judgement, particularly in the neutral zone. For both Merkleys, Megna, Meloche, John Leonard, Artemi Kniazev and potentially Joel Kellman, if he makes it into the line up, each game they play is another opportunity to fight their way into ta regular roster role.

With under two minutes on the clock, however, the Sharks got complacent. They had been running the game up until that point and took their foot off the gas. A turnover at the blue line by Hatakka while Tomas Hertl was out of position and Ryan Graves left unattended in front of the net proved fatal; there was no chance for goaltender James Reimer on Graves’ snap shot towards a an empty top corner. The Devils tied it to end the second period 1-1.

The third period started off flat-footed and with a frustrating penalty from Rudolfs Balcers, but the momentum turned, again, in their favor. And who was the Shark to snag the go ahead goal? None other Dahlen, who worked the side with Burns while Bonino screened Jonathan Bernier, before sending it top side on a wrist shot.

I mean, come on. That’s a thing of beauty. It was also Dahlen’s fifth goal of the season in 10 games, and Burns’ eighth assist in 11 games.

I can’t extoll the virtues of Dahlen’s goals without giving James Reimer his credit. It’s clear the team plays differently in front of him than Adin Hill, although with the COVID absences the sample size is admittedly small. Regardless, his veteran presence makes a difference; and he was largely the reason why the Sharks held onto their lead in the third period, especially as the defense shrunk in the face of pressure from New Jersey late in the game. Reimer ended the game with 26 saves on 28 shots, a 0.909 save percentage.

Toward the end of the third, Cogliano took an ill-timed tripping penalty. While the Sharks (cough, Reimer) killed it off, the Devils took advantage of the team being on their heels to equalize the score. Ryan Merkley was out of position and turned the puck over right in front of the net, and Janne Kuokkanen sent it over Reimer’s head while he was sprawled on the ice after a series of saves.

Thanks to Kuokkanen (note the sarcasm), the Sharks and Devils went to overtime, tied at 2. Burns had a chance, Balcers did too, and so did Couture (although he caught an edge and fell, just proving that it was *not* his night).

After a goal-less overtime, the game went to a shootout where the Devils won it, off a sharp shot and nifty move from Damon Severson.

It was a tough loss. Dahlen is now tied for leading scorer for NHL rookies, but as Erik Karlsson once said, it doesn’t “mean shit” without the win.

The Sharks still get a point, but just like last game, the reasons as to why they didn’t win it in regulation were clear. Some defensive miscues (Hi, Ryan Merkley), sitting back on their heels late in the periods, and a few bad penalties led to their 2-3 loss. It was a winnable game, and the Sharks were in full control for the majority of it; it goes to show that a few little mistakes (and their top players being in the line up) really do make all the difference.