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Quick Bites: Undisciplined defense breaks down in 6-2 loss

The Sharks have now given up 14 goals on this road trip alone.

Jan 4, 2022; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Red Wings left wing Lucas Raymond (23) skates with the puck defended by. San Jose Sharks defenseman Nicolas Meloche (53) in the second period at Little Caesars Arena. Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Welp. It’s finally happened: Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been healthy scratched, for the first time in his career, presumably due to performance-related concerns. After some disappointing performances by the defense corps in particular and the ongoing COVID absences, Bob Boughner said he would be switching up the defense. It’s not a surprise that Vlasic was scratched, especially in light of the circumstances — the Sharks have given up at least five goals per game since their return from the extended holiday break.

Ahead of last night’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, Adin Hill was recalled from his brief conditioning stint with the San Jose Barracuda, along with Scott Reedy. Alexei Melnichuk was reassigned back to the Barracuda, and captain Logan Couture and Lane Pederson joined Mario Ferraro in COVID Protocol. James Reimer graced the net for the Sharks and across the ice was former rookie of the year, Alex Nedeljkovic.

Just three points out of a Wild Card spot, the San Jose Sharks were hungry for a win … which they did not get.

The first period began with an expected fight, between Jake Middleton and Givanni Smith who earned off-setting five-minute majors for their tilt. I say expected because nothing fires up a team like a fight, and with the Sharks in a tailspin, Middleton trying his best to get his teammates energized wasn’t unexpected.

If Boughner instructed his team to protect their own zone better, the Sharks must have let it go in one ear and out the other. While fewer than in the past few games, errant passes led to costly turnovers in front of Reimer, and that’s without giving Detroit a power play.

After some end-to-end action that was mostly in the Red Wings’ favor but relatively unproductive for both sides, Brent Burns took a hooking call, which put the Wings up an extra player, while Middleton and Smith were still in the box. The power play ended without a goal (the Wings do have the third-worst power play in the league) but rolling with momentum.

At about the halfway point in the period, Reimer was seeing too much action, and Nedeljkovic very little. On the bright side, the James Reimer who seemed to stop everything in its tracks at the beginning of the season looked to be back — despite his teammates in front of him being unable to work their way into the offensive zone, Reimer wouldn’t let anything through.

Or, he didn’t, until a flukey re-direct off Reimer’s own stick when Tyler Bertuzzi lazily threw the puck out in the blue paint.

The second period started on a five-minute power play thanks to a cheap hit by Gianni Smith on Jake Middleton. Middleton was not on the bench to start the period, and Smith was handed a second major and a one-game suspension. Not long after the second began, it was announced that Middleton would not return to the game due to an upper-body injury.

Detroit started the game with a 100-game streak without a short-handed goal. As the lackluster power play wound down, the Sharks were stuck in the defensive zone. A turnover and fumble by Burns sent Pius Suter to a 1-on-1 breakaway and 37 seconds later, Bertuzzi went through Karlsson on a 2-on-1 to net a second short-handed goal. In a matter of seconds, the Sharks were down 3-0, having wasted a five-minute power play, which cost them Middleton.

Not only was the power play ineffective, but the wheels had also completely fallen off of the offense overall.

Jasper Weatherby broke Nedeljkovic’s bid for a shutout after re-directing a puck from Burns, on a play set up after a big hit from Jeffrey Viel. One might assume the Sharks would build off the momentum from Weatherby’s goal, and though Noah Gregor and a few others had chances, the finish and confidence just weren’t there.

After a scrambling, mad-dash of half a period, the Sharks were too slow and sloppy in the defensive zone, leading to another Red Wings goal. Toward the latter half of the period, Nicolas Meloche was fed up with Sam Gagner, and the two tussled, resulting in a two-minute roughing penalty for Meloche. Gagner was also given a roughing penalty, but neither team was able to capitalize upon the 4-on-4 play.

San Jose went on another power play (which just felt like the Sharks were being mocked tbh). Nick Bonino was clipped up high by Adam Erne, who was given a two-minute interference call. Bonino had been one of the best Sharks on the ice to that point in the game, but even he missed a mostly empty net. I’d say it just wasn’t their game, but I’m starting to think it’s not their month.

Viel took a two-minute hooking call with a little more than a minute left in the period, and the second wound down with a 4-1 lead for Detroit, and some carry-over on the skater-advantage.

Two minutes into the third, Alexander Barabanov opened up the front of the Red Wings’ net and a turnover and rebound from Tomas Hertl combined for a goal. It cut the lead in half, 4-2, but the woes weren’t over.

It was a painful period, is all I’m saying.

Adin Hill started the third in net in relief of Reimer, indicating the level of not-good the Sharks were in front of their goaltender. Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin quickly made it 5-2, going short-side, top-corner off a rush, exactly where Hill is weak on his glove side, within the first five minutes. Robby Fabbri then made it 6-2, barely a minute later, on a quick shot and mistake by Burns.

This was a physical, fast-paced game from the start, and a virtual line brawl that emanated from an almost-goal by Weatherby led to gloves flying and Viel and Bertuzzi getting slapped with game misconducts. Viel was also given four minutes for roughing, and Bertuzzi just two.

Hertl drew a hooking call while the Sharks were on the penalty kill, which led to 48 seconds of 4-on-4 in the final six minutes, and a few seconds of power play. It was no dice for San Jose, and the game wound down, they lost 6-2, having now given up 14 goals on this road trip so far.

So what’s the problem lately? Is it a lack of confidence, a lack of speed or a lack of fire-power? Or is it the line-up in flux due to COVID, putting players like Karlsson and Meloche on the same D-pairing?

It’s all of the above; the Sharks aren’t closing down their own zone and providing the coverage and support Reimer needs in front of him, partly due to miscommunication and a lack of chemistry and confidence. It’s that same lack of chemistry and confidence that’s stymying the Sharks’ offense. Players are hesitating when they should be finishing a shot, attacking when they should be defending, and making passes to no one.

So how do you fix it? To be perfectly honest, I think it’s too soon to say. With how COVID is affecting the rosters and playing experience (the team’s day-to-day routines are affected, not to mention the stress and fatigue of the pandemic that’s affecting everyone, players included), I think we have to wait and see how things improve or don’t as the season progresses.

It’s too difficult to say that something so drastic as a trade is what needs to happen, or that a magic combination on a line is going to change things. Again, that same pandemic-miasma of anxiety, fatigue and stress that you and I are feeling, is the same way the Sharks are feeling too. Yes, their on-ice play has been abysmal as of late. But the number one thing that affects on-ice performance is what’s happening off the ice.