The Florida Panthers came into the last night’s game atop the Atlantic Division, and it was clear the San Jose Sharks were going up against a formidable opponent. The Panthers lead the NHL in what feels like everything. At 5-on-5, off the rush, an odd-man rush, goal-scoring — their attack is lethal, and the team had won eight home games in a row, with an overall 23-3-0 home record.
There are a surprising number of connections between these two teams. Head coach Bob Boughner held his first NHL head coaching job with the Panthers from July 2017 to April 2019, then returning to the Sharks organization, where he’d previously been an assistant coach. James Reimer, who played 123 games with the Panthers between 2016 and 2019, was in net, and Joe Thornton, a true Sharks legend, was across the ice, taking the opening faceoff.
The Sharks (and I) struggled to keep up with the speed of the game’s opening. Forward Ryan Lomberg jumped off the faceoff to start what would be a sprint of a first period. Within the first 51 seconds, Brent Burns and Lomberg took off-setting penalties, sending the game to 4-on-4, leaving the Sharks scrambling on the backcheck, doing everything in their power to stay afloat of the Panthers’ relentless speed.
When confronted with the pressure of the Panthers’ rolling forwards, the Sharks leaned on poor habits: hesitating with pucks, being out of position and crumbling under the rush, unable to keep track of pucks. The Sharks are struggling to shed those bad habits, especially against top teams, who can force even the best players to make a mistake.
San Jose was frantic, and it was clear that it wasn’t going to be a pretty game.
Matt Nieto and Radim Simek skated the puck back the other way on a rush chance, and while that opportunity didn’t pan out, eventually something would. Around the six-minute mark, Tomas Hertl opened scoring after sealing off the boards, initiating a little give-and-go with Rudolfs Balcers and driving right through the blue paint.
With the wide-open ice, the Sharks were relying on the few zone breakouts they could initiate amongst the constant attack and constricting transition game, but zone time was all in favor of the Panthers. San Jose maintained their lead due only to James Reimer and blocked shots — a dangerous practice to rely on, as the team found out last night.
Mario Ferraro took a puck to the face off a close shot by Owen Tippett early in the first period, and he did not return to the game, leaving Boughner with just five defenders to spread around. Ryan Merkley, who has been the extra defender in the last few contests, will likely slot in for Ferraro against the Carolina Hurricanes. This will also depend on the status of Jake Middleton, who has been out with a concussion, but joined the team on the road trip and may be ready to play against Carolina.
Despite the Sharks being at the mercy of the Panthers, saved mostly by Reimer being excellent and leaning on physicality to vent their frustration, the Sharks scored on the power play, after Anthony Duclair was called for goaltender interference.
The play started with Nick Bonino leveling a big hit along the boards behind the Panthers’ net, which sent the puck spinning toward Noah Gregor, who sent it tape-to-tape to Jonathan Dahlen, who put it in the back of the net.
Both Gregor and Dahlen jumping in to make a play like this is huge. After being held pointless to a confidence-wavering degree, scoring last game has made a big impact. It’s easy for younger players to struggle against top teams and lean heavily on their veterans to construct plays; after all, experience speaks, especially when a player is thrown by a team’s speed.
The fact that Gregor and Dahlen were able to keep cool, remain heads up and in control of their own play is a mark of maturity on the ice — and it led to a goal, which is exactly what you want to see from young players.
I don’t know how to express to you all just how fast the Panthers are. Speed is a hallmark of their personality and with offensively minded defensemen who shoot fast and hard, the Panthers can rely on all sides of their roster to push on the forecheck. With any amount of space, they will take every advantage to force turnovers and an exhausting backcheck.
In the final minute, Gustav Forsling cut the lead in half, heading into the intermission 2-1.
The second period started much the way of the first, but this time San Jose seemed to have the edge at 5-on-5. Matt Nieto quickly earned his fourth goal of the year and restored the two-goal lead.
Matt Nieto extends the Sharks' lead pic.twitter.com/A8LBH4aPk9— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) January 30, 2022
The Sharks have so few fast players on their line-up, but the ones they do have — namely Gregor and Nieto — use it whenever possible to capitalize on open space. It was exactly what the Sharks needed.
With three minutes gone, Jaycob Megna (who was born in South Florida and had friends and family in attendance), was called for a trip. The Sharks escaped the Panthers’ power play unscathed, but the momentum had shifted.
As the second period wound down, the score was held to 3-1 by Reimer, and Reimer only. He was anticipating shots before they happened, tracking plays and pucks so effectively that even when drawn out of position, he was able to recover quickly to stop ensuing opportunities. Reimer made 18 saves in the second, and the Sharks entered the third period tired, confident and two goals ahead.
Sam Reinhart was hit in the throat with a puck during the opening shift of the third, though he thankfully returned later in the period without a serious injury.
Fast and furious, and having loss few games at home so far, the Panthers made it impossible for the Sharks to sit back on their lead, no matter how much they seemed to want to. Alexander Barkov broke through to put the game within one goal, and it opened a scoring race.
The excitement led to a penalty, sending the Sharks (and Dahlen) to their second successful power play of the game. Off a textbook entry, Dahlen maintained his patience and held onto the puck until a perfect screen by Jasper Weatherby allowed for space to place a snipe of a shot.
Jonathan Dahlen hit the top shelf with this one!! pic.twitter.com/yMEDwdtxmy— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) January 30, 2022
Then, a series of big saves and the Sharks’ inability to clear the zone led to a goal from Carter Verhaeghe off a rebound. It nearly tied the score, but not for long, after a successful challenge found the play was offside.
The Panthers kept pushing, fueled by the recalled goal, and a misplay behind the net from Megna (who was otherwise fantastic) resulted in Marchment putting the puck in the back of the net. At about the halfway point, Jonathan Huberdeau tied the game.
The latter half of the period was all exhaustion, as San Jose struggled to win puck battles and possession, especially along the boards. The team was gassed and unable to spend much time in the offensive zone, and overtime was the best they could hope for.
Of seven overtime periods, the Sharks have lost just one, so when the game went to the extra frame, the confidence was there. The Panthers’ overtime record was 5-2.
Unfortunately, it was obvious how tired the Sharks were, and it wasn’t difficult for Florida to hem San Jose into their own zone. Huberdeau faked a shot, and Reinhart put it home.
The Sharks took a point, somewhat proved that they could hang with the big dogs (even if it would be exhausting, and a healthy roster could see different result). While it’s still a loss, the rookies stepping up and renewed confidence in Dahlen and Gregor will be huge as the team continues to lean on their young talent (ahem, young legs) in the back-to-back game against the Hurricanes.