With a six-game losing streak in hand as they rolled into Music City, the San Jose Sharks’ frustration over the season spiraling out of control was palpable. The Nashville Predators have been fighting every game to nab a Wild Card spot to get into the playoffs, which meant they would be no easy opponent.
Even without the losing streak, playing through the end of the regular season firmly out of playoff contention is still frustrating, especially given that all of the pieces for a successful postseason run are all there. The Sharks have two competent goaltenders in Kaapo Kahkonen, who was in net for this game, and James Reimer. They have a core group of forwards and defensemen who believe, long-term, in the organization, and have shown their star-power time and time again. And they have a reliable pool of depth talent to easily swap in and out of the line-up at a whim.
The only thing missing is confidence and consistency.
Consistency and confidence go both ways — self-belief, consistent energy and game presence for the players, as well as consistency in the line-up and systems and belief in a player’s abilities for the coaching staff and management. This delicate but integral balance was at the heart of the Sharks’ overtime loss to the Predators.
Radim Simek and Ryan Merkley were swapped out for Jeffrey Viel and Nicolas Meloche on the blue line, and, like every time the pair make it into the line-up, they had an instant impact. The Predators play at least three steps ahead of their opponents at all times, which means that any little mistake could be catastrophic. In addition to their seemingly omniscient presence, the Predators play hard and physical.
The good news? With Viel in the line-up and the bubbling irritation at the score chart, the Sharks were more than capable of rising to the occasion when it came to the punishing hits that dominated all three periods.
In the opening three minutes of the first period, Viel exchanged blows with Mark Borowiecki, each earning a five-minute major (It may come as no surprise to you that the Predators lead the NHL in penalty minutes and fighting majors).
Later on, after extended zone time from the Predators and brief flirtations with offense for the Sharks, Tomas Hertl tangled with Borowiecki, after a missed hit on Noah Gregor. With a delayed call for interference and the off-setting roughing penalties, it sent the Sharks to a power play, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
It was a physical, but scoreless first period that Nashville ran with abandon. San Jose, who were playing shockingly good defense in face of the near-continuous onslaught, were saved by none other than Kaapo Kahkonen.
Spoiler alert: Kahkonen was the undeniable hero of the game.
Here’s the thing that makes Kahkonen look like Reimer 2.0: he bounces back quickly, and he always learns from his mistakes. Mechanics might not be his strong suit yet, but pure athleticism, size and mentality are. Last game, he was thwarted by his short-side. This game? Kahkonen had his short-side covered.
Throughout the game he was steady and calm, using efficient, economic movements that left him tight in his crease, but still mobile. He played excellently. The Sharks’ goaltending development system is needlessly complicated and inconsistent, which can prove difficult to navigate. So far Kahkonen seems to be adjusting well, if under his own power.
Towards the end of the period, the Sharks were struck with a few bad penalties. Brent Burns was called for a trip, leading to chances that were stymied only by Kahkonen’s genius, and then, in the final 18 seconds, Meier, who was cross-checked by Dante Fabbro, tangled with him in retaliation. Meier was given a double minor, Fabbro just the two minutes, and as a result, the Sharks began the second period on the penalty kill.
The top line of Meier, Hertl, and Alexander Barabanov, plus Logan Couture, looked the best out of the Sharks’ forwards. In the second, after the penalty had expired, Nick Bonino was responsible for a good amount of the team’s quality chances, demonstrating that the veterans almost certainly buy into next season’s chances.
The game opened up around the halfway mark, although the Sharks were clearly struggling to get second or third chances in front of Juuse Saros. Meloche tangled with Nick Cousins, and the middle frame wound down with the Predators hitting every post imaginable and the Sharks attempting to backcheck without enough forwards actually coming back into their own zone on defensive plays.
With six and a half minutes left on the clock, it looked like the tie at zero was about to be broken by Filip Forsberg, but a successful offside challenge for kept the score equalized.
Jonathan Dahlen, who again began this game on the fourth line with Viel and Scott Reedy, had brief flashes of great plays, but clearly struggled with consistency throughout the second. I’ve spoken before on how inconsistency in how the coaches value players and delegate opportunities can wreak havoc on the long-term potential for certain players, and the struggle to cultivate self-confidence on the ice when it feels like the coaches don’t believe in you. Dahlen is a pending restricted free agent, and there’s been no word from the Sharks on where that negotiation will take them.
Rudolfs Balcers, another player similar to Dahlen, made some smart defensive plays at the end of his shifts, even when he was tired and gunning for the bench, which is always a good sign.
The second period ended with the Sharks escaping by the skin of their teeth thanks to Kahkonen, who was determined to get his first win with the team. The story would end up more lopsided, but the shots at the end of the second were 26-13, Nashville leading.
The third period was a whirlwind of Predators’ chances. The Sharks were on a backcheck for what felt like an eternity, and where the top line looked cohesive and confident in the first, they were somewhat absent in the first ten minutes of the third.
Jaycob Megna, who is not only a figure of the defensive depth that’s been able to (rightfully) secure himself a spot up top, showed his confidence and consistency in knowing the role he has to play, and satisfying it, day in and day out. He made smart defensive stick plays in passing and shooting lanes, and he made several offensive plays from the blue line that led to scoring chances throughout the game.
Where the first two periods were penalty-filled, the third was suspiciously empty of calls, and the Predators were using the lack of breaks to run the game down. The Sharks were relying heavily on offensive zone faceoffs (which they kept losing) to bring the puck in, rather than being able to break it out and connect on plays.
It was miraculous at best (cough, Kahkonen, cough) that the Sharks were able to pull the game to overtime what with the Predators running the show. Even in overtime, it looked like San Jose finally had a chance to earn more than one point and come away with a win.
Kahkonen’s 40 saves in regulation weren’t enough, even after the first few minutes of overtime populated by exciting, end-to-end chances. Mattias Ekholm dropped the puck along the boards for Ryan Johansen, and the give-and-go they had dropped it right in front of the net for Ekholm to put it in.
The Sharks lost 1-0 in overtime, but like most things, the tide will eventually turn in their favor. Already, the team’s ability to make it to overtime and keep pace and push consistently throughout the game, even while being so clearly behind is an indication that this team believes in their ability to win, which is the first step toward actually winning.