Quick Bites: Sharks fall flat to fiery offense

Coming off the shock of general manager Doug Wilson stepping down, the Sharks couldn’t fight their way back from a 4-2 loss.

The San Jose Sharks entered last night’s game a little worse for wear and coming off the huge shock of general manager Doug Wilson stepping down from his role with the club. For as much of a shock as it was for fans, it was a surprise for the coaching staff — head coach Bob Boughner wasn’t informed until 9:30 a.m. that same morning.

Regardless, for the first game in the post-Wilson era, the Sharks looked … well, average. John Leonard and Jonah Gadjovich were injured last game and remained out due to injury, which meant that Jonathan Dahlen finally drew back into the line-up, populating the fourth line alongside Scott Reedy and Jeffrey Viel. Ryan Merkley was out on the blueline with Nicolas Meloche drawing back in. James Reimer was in net (although Kaapo Kahkonen would unfortunately make an appearance).

The first period didn’t open with an auspicious start. Barely two minutes in, Sasha Chmelevski, who started on the second line with Logan Couture and Noah Gregor, took a slashing penalty, which led to the Calgary Flames getting in early on the forecheck. Despite a shorthanded break from Couture, hindsight is 20/20, and that early power play put Calgary in control for the rest of the game and prevented San Jose from effectively settling in early enough before the Flames turned on the pressure.

In the first five minutes, Reimer had to make seven big, sprawling saves. It’s hard not to make this game a story about goaltending, but, as most Sharks games have shaken out recently, the goaltenders are the heroes of failed own-zone defense. You can blame it on the internal shock of an organization suddenly without Doug Wilson at the helm, or a tired team ready for the off-season and struggling to connect, and I think you’d be right to put the blame in both categories. But the lack of goal support proved to be fatal for Reimer, who’d been battling an undisclosed lower-body injury, and for Kahkonen, who may have already (unfairly) fallen out of favor with his last performance.

The first goal of the game came from Matthew Tkachuk, on a turnover at the blue line by Timo Meier. Tkachuk, coming off a change, had all the open space in the world as the Sharks were caught in transition. He went glove side on Reimer, and that was that.

Calgary stayed on the strong forecheck, but the Sharks’ best line of the first period was undeniably the fourth. Dahlen in particular has been fighting night after night, and while I’ve always been a big fan of his game and on-ice perspective, the coaching staff don’t always appear to feel the same way, taking him out of the line-up. He’s seemed to take it to heart because he was on fire for the entirety of the first. The fourth line was an energizer, playing fast and physical, and responsible for several key defensive plays.

In the final five minutes, Nick Bonino was in the right place at the right time to bank a smart pass from Jaycob Megna off of his skate and into the goal. The play began with Bonino passing the puck to Matt Nieto, who gave it to Megna, who shot it off the point, and from Bonino’s well-placed (not kicked), angled skate, it went in, equalizing the score at one.

After a boarding call that went the Sharks’ way, Dahlen showed even more of his promise with a strong presence on the power play. His two shots on net were some of the best in the back half of the period and he worked well with Mario Ferraro on several heads-up plays.

The period closed out with a flurry of Flames chances and with thirty seconds left on the clock, Trevor Lewis sneaked a puck off Reimer and in, ending the first 2-1, Calgary.

The second period began much the same way the first ended, with the Flames on their feet and pushing. Where the fourth line stood out in the first, Alexander Barabanov was exemplary in the second, driving offensive plays, battling on the boards and even getting physical with Tkachuk. As the team’s final pending unrestricted free agent, he’s playing for a contract, and without Wilson at the helm, when or what that contract will be gets a little hazy. Barabanov has arguably been the MVP this year, and clicking with Meier and Tomas Hertl (two players who aren’t going anywhere) has given him consistent linemates to ensure long-term production. He’s a safe bet for strong performances, and every day he remains unsigned, the more I panic.

Overall, the Sharks were doing a better job of bringing the puck into the offensive zone and staging plays, most notably low in the zone and along the boards, but Calgary had the undeniable edge, and Reimer was working overtime to keep the game in reach.

It was a night for terrible penalties from the Sharks. Gregor was called for a delay of game for a puck over the glass at a little after the halfway mark in the period. While the Sharks escaped all of their ill-timed penalties relatively unscathed, it broke their momentum and gave extra credence to the Flames’ forecheck.

Hemmed into their own zone, and despite Marc Edouard-Vlasic and Meier connecting for what could have been a huge chance, it was the Flames who came out on top, after a slick drop pass from Tkachuk to Elias Lindholm sent Lindholm streaking up the middle and shooting high, to make the score 3-1.

The puck did swing the other way, though. Barabanov did an excellent job of gaining space for himself and his linemates every time he made his way into the offensive zone, and Logan Couture ringed a shot off the post. The Sharks still struggled to maintain defensive coverage — Lindholm was left open for far too many high-quality shots that Reimer was forced to save.

The third period continued much in the same strain as the first two, with the Sharks fighting to keep pace with the fast and physical Flames. The rest of the top line — Meier and Hertl — finally caught up to Barabanov, and that line made it clear they were leaders of the Sharks, who weren’t necessarily able to cycle all four lines.

Within the first five minutes, Barabanov was cross-checked by Lewis, sending the team to what could have been a game-changing power play, had they been able to capitalize upon it. Technically the goal didn’t come during the power play, but just after it expired, Meier made a centering pass to Couture that deflected off of netminder Dan Vladar and in, from where Couture was creating traffic in front of the net. It cut the Flames’ lead down to one goal and revitalized the Sharks for a brief moment, before an injury to Reimer quashed it.

Reimer, who had been knocked down three times already, was sprawled on the ice. Once athletic trainer Ray Tufts came out to check on him, it was clear Kahkonen would be going in to close out the game.

Another puck over the glass penalty came from Bonino, the team cracking under the Flames’ onslaught. It’s not often that puck over the glass penalties happen twice in a game from the same team, and while they can often be a mistake, sometimes they come from frantically trying to divert pressure.

Kahkonen was excellent in relief, but an empty-net goal from Lindholm in the final thirty seconds cemented the 4-2 loss.

While Wilson’s era is legendary, the Sharks were struggling with confidence and failed playoff contention over the past few seasons. With a roster somewhat in flux, a host of young talent and Barabanov’s contract still in the air, maybe a change up top is exactly what the Sharks need to make good on their promise of playoffs next season.