The San Jose Sharks were riding high on their comeback win over Pacific Division leaders, the Calgary Flames when they faced off against the Minnesota Wild. The Wild have been excellent this season, and while the Sharks have defied expectations in some games, night-to-night there isn’t always a consistent product on the ice.
The Sharks donned their Stealth jerseys — which may have been a sign that this would be a loss — but that wasn’t the only notable thing about the game. Brent Burns skated in his 624th consecutive game, which ties Patrick Marleau for the longest games-played streak in franchise history. I don’t think I could do anything for 624 games, much less put my body through the wringer, day in and day out, the way that playing professional hockey does.
Aside from Burns’ accomplishment, there were two other storylines with the Sharks roster. Alexei Melnichuk, who was briefly called up to sit as a back-up for Adin Hill while James Reimer recovered from his non-COVID illness, was reassigned to the San Jose Barracuda. Reimer isn’t quite game-ready, but the fact that Melnichuk was sent back down is a good sign.
Kevin Labanc was back in the line-up as well, after having sat out for a game as a motivation/wake-up call. Labanc and head coach Bob Boughner have had conversations about what San Jose would like to see from him, and it begins and ends with consistency. Labanc has talent, but it’s a matter of committing to plays, trusting himself and his line mates, and exuding the energy, no matter if he’s on the second line or the fourth line. I’d like to see Labanc stick around in San Jose, but it’s getting close to time to wonder if a change of scenery will do him good.
If Labanc was playing for a roster spot, the first period wasn’t his best work — though to be fair, Minnesota was two steps ahead at every turn. The Wild were fast, finishing checks, and taking advantage of every minor mistake made on the blue line.
First periods have been difficult for the Sharks lately, and the team has been coming out flat-footed, with their heads down. The third line — Matt Nieto, Nick Bonino and Andrew Cogliano — looked the best in the first 10 minutes, but it was clear that the Sharks weren’t clicking, and the missed passes the became turnovers were adding up.
Here’s the thing about the Wild; even aside from generational talent Kirill Kaprizov, they’re fast, and play the game at a rate the Sharks can’t keep up with. In return, San Jose struggled to slow the game down to a manageable pace. Part of the reason they tend to fall behind early is from struggling to maintain control of the puck and pace of play.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Sharks were down one goal in the first period. It was a deflected shot that rolled high on Hill, and he made some huge saves later on in the period to make up for it, but it’s hard to put the goal at his feet alone, even if being down early is a familiar tune. The lack of defensive coverage and general miscommunication in front of Hill was more to blame than Kevin Fiala, who shot the puck.
Just adding to the confusion with the goal, Noah Gregor was caught high on his left wrist, and while he did his best to stay in the play, he skated off the ice as soon as he could. He returned to the game, but the injury didn’t help.
Toward the end of the period, the Sharks were doing a better job of puck management, and staging zone breakouts (which proves my theory that the final five minutes in every period are the Sharks’ best), but the brief offensive pushes relied heavily on dump-ins rather than coordinated plays.
The second period started with defender Alex Goligoski taking a hit high to the face on an errant shot from Brent Burns. He skated off with the help of a towel and an athletic trainer, but it was a scary moment that thankfully turned out okay.
The Sharks were faster to start the second and were paid back in rush chances. I don’t know if it was the jerseys or if they’re feeling off-kilter, but passes that normally would have been tape-to-tape were flying wide. San Jose kept pace with Minnesota, but the energy and support weren’t there. The Sharks played a strange mix of ‘too tight,’ pinching in and frustrated, but also too loose, putting up sloppy defensive coverage and neutral zone play.
Some (namely Jonathan Dahlen and Noah Gregor) tried desperately to do something, but the team couldn’t come together to make it happen. The Wild were too good at keeping the Sharks on a constant backcheck.
The problem with spending an entire period locked in the defensive zone is that it leads to frustrated penalties. Jacob Middleton was called for a trip, which led to a quick power play goal for the Wild, and left Hill slamming his stick against the post.
This wasn’t a high-energy game overall, but after each goal, the Sharks couldn’t quite bounce back. Toward the end of the period, Middleton took another minor penalty, this time a holding call, and it sent the Wild to another power play.
Whether it was the hockey gods getting payback after San Jose’s two power play goals against Calgary, or an inconsistent and individualistic Sharks penalty kill, but the Wild went up 3-0 on yet another power play goal.
The posts were Hill’s best friend to end the period, and Dahlen and Gregor were the best players on the ice, but the Sharks started the third facing a not entirely insurmountable, but still steep three-goal deficit.
The third period started off with, what else, but another Middleton penalty, this time for hooking. Thankfully the Wild weren’t able to go three-for-three, but it was a near thing.
Dahlen, who’d consistently been one of the better skaters throughout the night broke the shutout with a nice tip-in off a shot from Erik Karlsson. It was a nifty play off the faceoff, and exactly what the Sharks needed to find some energy late in the game.
Eventually, the Sharks had their own chance on the power play in the third, but the Wild’s penalty kill suffocated the Sharks too easily. Even when San Jose had significant chances, there wasn’t the support in front of the net.
It felt like the Sharks were one step off from each other all game. Some of the Sharks' momentum finally paid off when Tomas Hertl was able to flick the puck in. Dahlen picked up an assist to earn a 2-point game.
Suddenly, the game was within reach. San Jose was within one, and those late goals had given them a reason to stay in the game. But pulling the goaltender twice resulted in an easy empty-net goal, one after another, and it’s no wonder — there’s no way the Sharks were going to win in a foot race.
Both of the Sharks’ last two opponents have been at the top of their division and play a similar style of fast and furious, offensively-minded hockey. So what was different about last night?
Setting aside the obvious link between losing and the Stealth jerseys, it’s clear the difference was speed. The Wild is full of speedy skaters and the Sharks don’t have that same speed, or the depth to fill in when needed.
The Sharks’ fastest player by far is Gregor, and there’s a thought some of the younger Barracuda players have wheels too, but the Sharks’ lack of speed has been a problem — one that should still haunt the team from the 2016 Stanley Cup Final — and it was what killed them early in this game, too.