All eyes were on the ice to see how the first game against former San Jose Sharks winger Evander Kane (and the Edmonton Oilers) would proceed. The Sharks have slid in the standings — as have the Oilers — and both teams are committed to making a push for the playoffs. The Sharks have 36 games left in their schedule to rack up points, which means every game counts.
Jay Woodcroft, who was a Sharks’ assistant coach under Todd McLellan, was recently named the newest head coach of the Oilers in the wake of a losing streak and in an effort to reverse their slide by cleaning house.
It was San Jose’s first game back after an extended NHL All-Star break (13 days away, to be exact) and there were some roster changes ahead of puck drop. Adin Hill wasn’t quite ready to return despite the break, so Zach Sawchenko sat on the bench to back up James Reimer. Jonah Gadjovich was in for Jeffrey Viel, while Jasper Weatherby has yet to be recalled from the San Jose Barracuda, and Nicolas Meloche returned in the wake of Erik Karlsson’s continued absence due to injury.
In other injury news, defender Jaycob Megna underwent surgery on his left foot for a displaced fracture (which he played through throughout their last road trip), and will be out for the next four to six weeks. In his place was Radim Simek, who will likely maintain a roster spot while Megna’s out.
The first two minutes saw Jesse Puljujarvi taking an interference call on Mario Ferraro. Early opportunities on the Oilers come few and far between, and the Sharks were unable to take advantage of the power play, even with Lane Pederson making an appearance on the second power play unit.
Despite the lack of special teams goals, the momentum shifted to the Sharks, and it led to a few high-quality chances for Jonathan Dahlen, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier. The quick, fast shots by the top two lines showed jump and energy, which initially soothed any worry that an extended break may lead to laconic play.
The first five minutes were characterized by Sharks’ pressure, although a deflection off of Simek led to a goal by Evan Bouchard. To that point, that was the Oiler’s first shot in the game, to the Sharks’ six. They were down early on a flukey goal, but the snowball was starting to take effect.
Right off a face-off, Oilers defender Darnell Nurse took a shot from the point that deflected in off Meloche’s stick in front, taking advantage of the lack of faceoff defensive instincts. It was the second goal on three shots against, and the worries about whether or not the Sharks had actually returned from vacation were returning.
San Jose began to scramble as Edmonton started to push in the latter half of the first period.
It’s crucial that the Sharks maintain good habits and stick to their systems as they return from vacation. Taking any amount of time off can be revitalizing physically, but jumping back into an active season can be difficult. With the Sharks keeping a playoff berth (via a Wild Card spot) in mind, how these next few games are played will set the tone for the post-vacation playoff push as the league enters the back half of the season.
The Oilers were ahead on the scoreboard, but the Sharks didn’t seem to panic. They were playing clean and hard, relying on their identity to stay collected even while down two.
The final five minutes saw Meier hit in the face with a high stick from Nurse, which gave the Sharks yet another opportunity on the power play. The Oilers have the lowest-ranked penalty kill in the NHL, but the Sharks’ power play has gone through fits and starts, and the second chance ultimately turned unsuccessful.
The resurgence of a strong power play will also be crucial for the Sharks’ playoff push, so capitalizing upon special teams chances and boosting confidence in the power play will be big going forward.
With 2:11 left on the clock, Reimer had an equipment malfunction (broken skate blade), forcing Sawchenko to take the net for the remainder of the period. Sawchenko had a few nifty moves (coming way out of the net to bank it off the boards and later, catching and releasing a puck for Rudolfs Balcers), showing he was calm and comfortable in relief.
Reimer was back in net for the beginning of the second. The Sharks began the period flat-footed, and in a twist of fate, the Oilers were given a power play (the second-best in the NHL) after Jake Middleton was called for tripping.
When down two goals, starting on the backcheck and then taking a bad penalty isn’t the recipe for success. The Sharks are newly back from vacation and there’s plenty of grace to be given as the team gets their legs back under them, but when Meier was called for holding on Connor McDavid, the Oilers had a 5-on-3 advantage and it was crunch time.
The Sharks showed that they hadn’t left their grit behind on the beach. Somehow emerging unscathed, the energy after the extended power play was still in the hands of the Oilers. Meloche took a deflected puck from Kane up high and went down hard a la Mario Ferraro a few games ago, but he was thankfully okay, immediately getting up under his own power to skate back to the bench.
Warren Foegele was called for a penalty, and the longer San Jose remained off the board, the more important every chance and shot on goal became. The Sharks were struggling with creating high-quality scoring chances. The forecheck was weak, and they weren’t creating many high-slot opportunities, either. Jonathan Dahlen and the rest of the top-six were doing their best, but Dahlen couldn’t carry the top end and no one was getting much of anything.
If there’s one thing the Sharks will need as they enter a late playoff push, it’s consistent scoring from all levels of the roster, top- and bottom-six. Depth scoring has been hit and miss the entire season, and the top players have run hot, but aren’t able to carry a full team. And, without Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns is having to direct more offense from the back-end. Some players, like Ferraro, have been shooting more often as of late, but Ferraro was guilty of over-passing, even when he had a prime slot chance. Other young guys, like Meloche or Gregor, have been tallying shots in games, and they’ll have to continue that trend going forward. And, of course, veteran and depth scoring will be key.
It all comes back to the shoot fast and hard mentality that the Sharks will have to rely on, and that wasn’t present in the second period at all.
Meier, who had been relatively quiet throughout the game aside from an early power play chance was given a four minute penalty: two for a trip and an additional two for a slash in the last five minutes. Needless to say, it was not ideal. Thankfully, Zach Hyman took an interference call on Andrew Cogliano with two minutes left on the penalty kill, which put the Sharks and Oilers on even footing for the remainder of the second penalty. It was a lucky break on what was an avoidable, frustrated move by Meier.
Balcers blocked a shot up high with his lower back, but looked to be okay, if in pain, in the final thirty seconds. After that, time wound down and the Sharks ended the second period with only two shots on the board and down two goals. They had to stomp something out in the third period.
The first few minutes were all Reimer with a series of big saves, but there are only so many times one can thwart Connor McDavid. After Burns tried to cover him, McDavid was able to get it in five-hole on Reimer, bringing the score up to 3-0.
By the halfway mark of the third, play was evening up with a few good looks for the Sharks, but it was clear they were fading fast. Head coach Bob Boughner was shuffling lines, looking for anything to click. The Sharks struggled to communicate with each other and were spending too much time in the defensive zone.
With 10 minutes left in the period, Meier was shaken up by Foegele, who was sent to the box for roughing. If there was ever a time for the Sharks to find that extra gear (the one that’s especially necessary when chasing the playoffs) that power play was it.
That power play was not it.
The game wound down with Stuart Skinner picking up his first shutout of his NHL career, and the Sharks losing their first game back after 13 days away without a mark on the scoresheet.
What’s the main takeaway looking ahead? The Sharks were just a little off the entire night. They weren’t noticeably deviating from their systems, but passes weren’t connecting, the forecheck was less than desirable and everyone seemed to be on the wrong page. San Jose wasn’t able to outscore the defensive woes – or score at all — and they weren’t able to find the energy in key moments.
As a playoff push begins, and as the team comes off their extended vacation, each point and each moment counts, especially when in their home arena.
But the bright side is still shining; the first day back after vacation is always the hardest, and the Sharks are still shaking off the cobwebs (or sand, from their beach vacations). We’ve seen this team be fully capable of playing a winning system to a T, and if they can clean it up on the ice, securing a Wild Card spot is fully within reach. It’s just a matter of getting there.