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Quick Bites: Too little, too late to mount a comeback

If the San Jose Sharks’ most recent overtime loss to the Florida Panthers was a test of how well they can perform against a top-rated team having an off-night, then their tilt against the Colorado Avalanche was a testament to their ability to play against a team that was hot from the moment the puck hit the ice.

The Avalanche looked a little different in the absence of recently traded forward Tyson Jost, who was replaced by Nico Sturm, and the addition of defender Josh Manson, who was also acquired in a separate trade for a prospect and draft pick.

Zach Sawchenko was given the start in net, with James Reimer sitting as a back-up and Adin Hill on injured reserve. Other changes were that John Leonard and Noah Gregor were healthy scratches in exchange for Jonah Gadjovich and Jeffrey Viel, while Jonathan Dahlen started on the top line (although, unfortunately, he would not remain there for the entirety of the game).

Despite his sliding spot in the line-up, Dahlen was one of the Sharks’ better players within the first ten minutes. He, along with defender Nicolas Meloche, started strong. Dahlen’s chips were clean and useful, and Meloche added strong passes and good physicality.

That being said, it wasn’t hard to see that San Jose struggled with cohesion. Missed passes, disjointed lines — it could have been the second half of the back-to-back or just one of those days. Whatever the reason, the Avalanche didn’t feel the same. From the start, Colorado, who is a noticeably rough and tumble team, took control. The Sharks were having difficulties breaking the puck out of their own zone, or even into the neutral zone.

Within the first seven minutes, Logan Couture almost put the Sharks on the board, after he shoveled the puck into the net on a scrambling, sprawling play that saw Timo Meier run headfirst into Avalanche goaltender Pavel Francouz. The goal was called back for the play being offside, and that deflated the team. Hockey games are known for how unpredictability (it’s one of the reasons why betting on hockey is so difficult) and that’s due to momentum shifts just like this. Couture lead one of the first real breakouts and shot attempts, and had that goal stood, we could have been looking at a very different game.

It might be why the Sharks struggled to get anything going on the power play in the first period. The power play opportunities led to several short-handed chances, although the top unit of Tomas Hertl, Meier and Couture worked hard to connect.

In the second half of the first, Viel was called for a hook, which sent the Avalanche to a very successful power play. Nazem Kadri tipped the puck right into the net from the slot, proving that against top teams, there’s little room to make any mistakes, and that includes needless penalties. If you give the Avalanche an inch, they’ll take a mile, and the Sharks (who continue to say they’re pushing for the playoffs) aren’t in a position to outscore whatever defensive zone defensive woes they have.

The first goal sparked my favorite kind of Erik Karlsson: the spiteful kind. From this moment, Karlsson engineered offensive pushes, threw incredible passes (that no one could finish on, through no fault of his own) and steadied the backcheck through the remainder of the game.

A short fight between Jacob Middleton and Kurtis MacDermid broke out after MacDermid sent Nick Bonino sprawling in the middle of the ice. Matt Nieto was also still in the dressing room at this point, following an earlier hit by MacDermid that landed funny. Nieto would return to the game at the end of the first period.

The tide briefly turned in San Jose’s favor in the final six minutes, with the team finally getting extended zone time. They weren’t swarming, the way the Avs had done the whole game, but they were maintaining puck possession, keeping it in the offensive zone and not hesitating to put shots on net.

But just like the ocean, momentum can’t be controlled, and it swung the other way when just a minute later, Darren Helm snagged a turnover from Karlsson to walk in for an easy goal, right up and over Sawchenko’s glove.

In the last ten seconds of the opening period, Marc-Edouard Vlasic pushed J.T. Compher into the boards, and Compher had no choice but to fight — unless he wanted Vlasic to take his head off. Both were given two minutes for the altercation, and the second period started with the Sharks down by two goals and some time at 4-on-4.

The second period was like groundhog day from puck drop. Just 34 seconds in, Cale Makar made it 3-0 on a rebound over the glove of Sawchenko.

There were a flurry of Sharks chances — Rudolfs Balcers was unable to tap in a pass from Karlsson, but it was clear that the Avalanche were in control. Helm took a puck in the face (he was okay), and then MacKinnon was called for a hook on Couture, which gave the Sharks a valuable opportunity to actually get something on the board.

They did not.

The rest of the period followed in very much the same fashion as the first, with end-to-end play favoring Colorado. The last five minutes saw the Avalanche pressuring, and Valeri Nichushkin snagged a goal off another rebound to make it 4-0. It’s hard to criticize Sawchenko, given how young he is and how new he is to the NHL, but if there’s one thing to take away from his game, it’s that he gives up too many uncontrolled rebounds — something the team’s defenders could also help to corral.

In a pleasantly surprising turn of events, San Jose didn’t give up, and on a buzzing power play a few minutes later, the fourth line broke through. Viel, on a tip from Vlasic, broke the shutout in the last 40 seconds.

I know a lot has been said about Bob Boughner changing up the lines, and taking out Gregor and Leonard, but I think it was a smart idea for exactly this reason. Out of all of his revolving door of fourth-liners — Gadjovich, Leonard, Gregor and Viel — there’s no question that Viel and Gadjovich are the most spirited of the bunch. They’re physical, they’ll fight and they never play like they’ve counted themselves out of a game, even if they’re down a few goals. Unlike Leonard and Gregor, Viel and Gadjovich know what their role on the ice is. They’re confident in their game because they’re not trying to find their identities like Gregor or Leonard. Against a team like the Avalanche, who play fast and dirty, Gadjovich and Viel are exactly the kind of skillset Boughner hoped would make an impact.

The third period started with some fire. The Sharks had a little bit of jump, but the first half of the third was the most open the game had been so far, with Sawchenko and Francouz working equally hard at both ends. Things stayed quiet though, until the last six minutes of the game, when the Sharks woke up and realized they could maybe try to tie it up. Vlasic was once again an engineer, with a strong defensive play that opened up a slot for Balcers to go five-hole on a 2-on-1. It cut the lead in half, to 4-2.

Sawchenko was pulled repeatedly, and then in the final minute and 26 seconds, Karlsson broke through with a goal, after Couture was able to keep the puck in and generate good traffic in front. Hertl, Brent Burns and Karlsson couldn’t connect, despite the mad scramble, and while it looked San Jose could actually do the damn thing and tie it, the empty net came back to bite the Sharks. MacKinnon put it away in the final fourteen seconds, making it 5-3.

Yes, it was a loss, but the almost-comeback means that the Sharks haven’t lost their spark or confidence, even if individual players seem to be fighting through the rest of the season. With the upcoming trade deadline on Monday, every player is under a microscope, and who knows what the roster will look like in the next few days.

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