Right from the puck drop, the San Jose Sharks did not come prepared in the first period of yesterday’s early afternoon bout against the Pittsburgh Penguins. They were sloppy and uncoordinated against an elite Penguins team, and it cost them in the long run.
The first period was a bloodbath. One minute into the game, Brent Burns pinched deep into the offensive zone, which allowed forward Evan Rodrigues to lead the rush into the Sharks’ zone with only Radim Simek left back to defend, and just like that, the Penguins were off to an early 1-0 lead.
Shortly after, poor defensive coverage by Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Nicholas Meloche led to Penguins forward Bryan Rust sending a nice pass to Jake Guentzel, who sniped it in on poor James Reimer.
Just one minute after that, Danton Heinen dangled around the Sharks’ zone, which drew both Jake Middleton and Erik Karlsson over to him, and allowed Heinen to pass it over to Rodrigues, who was left unmarked alone in front of the net to put the Penguins up 3-0 only four minutes into the game.
Another two minutes after that, Vlasic and Meloche, for some reason, backed off of Rust, leaving him alone in the slot to make it 4-0 for the Penguins.
Alexander Barabanov finally broke the slump for the Sharks when he batted a point shot from Timo Meier out of the air and tucked it in on Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith. It ultimately didn’t matter, as the Penguins scored two more goals to finish the period 6-1.
This marked the first time that a team recorded six goals in the first period since the Winnipeg Jets took down the Anaheim Ducks 9-3 in the 2018-19 campaign, and the first time that it happened in a Sharks game since San Jose beat the Edmonton Oilers during the 2012-13 season, by a score of 6-3.
Reimer finished the period allowing six goals on 17 shots, for a .647 save percentage. It wasn’t his fault that the score had gotten out of hand, but it was evident that the Sharks needed a change. To begin the second period, Zachary Sawchenko was given the nod to make his first appearance at the NHL level.
After that, the Sharks completely turned around the hockey game, scoring four unanswered goals to bring the game within just one goal. Brent Burns, Matthew Nieto, Erik Karlsson and Logan Couture (in his 800th career game) all contributed to the comeback attempt as San Jose tried to claw back from a major deficit.
Sawchenko played his heart out and saved 20 of the 21 shots that came his way. The newly 24-year-old rookie was a major reason that San Jose even had a chance to get back into the game. He was nothing short of amazing, and it makes me wonder if he may contend for a back-up spot in the future at some point this season, as I wouldn’t consider that spot “locked up” by Adin Hill at the moment.
Despite Sawchenko’s effort, a late penalty on Matt Nieto for hooking Dominik Simon allowed Rodrigues to bury his third goal of the game, earning a hat trick while also putting the Penguins up 7-5. Shortly after, Rust buried an empty-net goal to give the Penguins an 8-5 lead and marked the first time they had two hat tricks in the same game since Dec. 11, 2008.
It’s unfortunate that the Sharks fell short of what would have been an amazing comeback, but the reason they were down that badly in the first place is clear as day: the lackluster defensive core needs to be better. Almost, if not, all of the goals scored in the first period could be blamed on the defense, and it’s been a reoccurring problem all year long.
The team has been noted as a “defense-first” team, but in reality, it’s more so that they’ve struggled to score while being bailed out by goaltending that makes them look like a shut-down team. Defensive lapses from Simek, Vlasic and others have been apparent this season, but Sunday was a different level of bad, and it ended the Sharks’ chances of winning five minutes into the game.
All-in-all, there were some good things about this game. As mentioned, it’s great to see Sawchenko play the way he did. It was also nice to see the heart and resilience of the Sharks. Many teams could have given up after allowing six goals in the first period, but they kept pushing and made it a close, exciting game. It was also good to see Timo Meier be an integral part of the offense after being benched last game. I can’t fault him, or really any of the offensive corps, for what happened.
With this loss, the Sharks fall to 17-15-1 and gave the Penguins their first win over San Jose since the 2017-18 season. The team will now travel to Detroit ato take on the Red Wings (don't worry, this one won’t be at 10 a.m.).