Quick Bites: Connor the Comeback Kid

A disappointing 2-1 overtime loss belies another frustration within the line-up.

The regular season is winding down with little for the San Jose Sharks to look forward to other than (hopefully) finishing out the regular season on the right foot. When it comes to preparing for next season, testing new line combinations, dipping into the organizational depth and cataloging who is clicking before off-season movement becomes the norm. When it comes to success on the ice, it looks a lot like mediocrity or, as in the tilt against the Edmonton Oilers, sixty minutes of strong gameplay and a disappointing overtime loss.

Following last game, where Kaapo Kahkonen was pulled in the first period, James Reimer was given the start in net. Jonathan Dahlen was absent from the line-up, along with Nicolas Meloche and Jeffrey Viel. Instead, Rudolfs Balcers and Jonah Gadjovich filled out the fourth line, and Ryan Merkley subbed in on the blueline.

Right out of the gate, San Jose set a strong pace, and while there were a few hiccups early, such as Merkley struggling to effectively clear the puck in the face of Edmonton’s forecheck, overall the team kept to their winning identity of shooting high, fast and in transition.

With five minutes gone in the first, Matt Nieto was called for a hook on Connor McDavid (who said that he never has penalties called for him?) and the Sharks were sent to the first penalty kill of the game.

Whatever special team struggles the Sharks had been plagued with the last few games evaporated. Jaycob Megna was a standout on the penalty kill with Brent Burns, and from the momentum of a successful kill, the pace began to pick up.

Mario Ferraro, who was in his second game back from injury, was clearly still getting his feet under him. There were a few opportunities where he chose to pass instead of shoot, but the forwards — namely, Timo Meier, Logan Couture and Nick Bonino — were driving the offensive rushes consistently. Meier ended the night with nine shots on goal, Couture with five, and Bonino three, the highest of the forwards.

In the final five minutes of the first, Merkley was hit with a high stick, flexing the Sharks’ first, and only, successful power play of the game. With traffic in front of the net from Couture, Tomas Hertl found a seam on the low left side of Mike Smith to go five-hole. The power play tally was the first goal of the game.

The Oilers pressed within the final minute, but with Reimer cool in net, the Sharks were able to hold on.

The second began with a theatrical save from on Oilers defender Brett Kulak, and immediately the Sharks got the puck out and into the offensive zone. Speed, cohesion and energetic, consistent forechecks kept the offensively-minded Oilers on a constant backcheck for the first half of the period.

John Leonard went down the tunnel due to a blocked shot taken off the inside of his left leg during an Oilers press, and he would not return for the rest of the game.

In the final ten minutes of the second, the Oilers were given an extended opportunity in the offensive zone due to defensive miscues and turnovers up the middle from failed breakouts, and the final five minutes were a frenzy of chances on Reimer.

Brent Burns was called for a hook on McDavid in the final minute, and so the Sharks began the third down a skater, but after successfully killing off the rest of the penalty, Alexander Barabanov, Hertl, Meier and Balcers were all engineering chances, stymied only by Smith.

With eight minutes left on the clock and the Sharks on the power play, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins equalized the score at one, shorthanded, after a give-and-go with Zach Hyman as they drove up the middle in front of Reimer’s crease.

To add salt to the wound, a few minutes later, the Oilers continued to press, and both Jonah Gadjovich and Megna were injured. Gadjovich exited the game, but Megna remained on the bench, still in pain.

The entire game thus far had been in the palm of their hand, just to have the final ten minutes be so firmly in the grasp of the Oilers. The Sharks were frustrated, and overtime was no easier to bear.

It was a nifty play by Mike Smith and McDavid that ended the game. Smith took control of the puck after the Sharks brought it into the offensive zone, springing McDavid with a long pass and he didn’t hesitate to shoot low and on the left side of Reimer.

On the bright side, the Sharks came out of the game with a point (not that crawling up the standings is more than a moral victory), but on the downside, the overtime loss stings when the team out-played the Oilers for nearly the entire game, barring the final ten minutes and thirty seconds of overtime.

Losing 2-1 is only part of the story from this game — and no, I don’t mean starting Matt Nieto in overtime, which I don’t think was a wholly bad idea. McDavid was guaranteed to start overtime, and head coach Bob Boughner tried to balance defensive duties, in this case with a defensive forward in Nieto paired with more offensive-minded defender Brent Burns.

I’ve hinted at it before, but the Sharks like to play favorites. To be clear, every team does this, and it makes sense, as each team has a long-term idea of what their core roster will be (and how much they’ll cost). But with their cycling of goaltenders, the alternating trajectories of Dahlen and Balcers against Noah Gregor and Scott Reedy (perhaps a result of rookie burnout plaguing them at different points this season), it’s never been more obvious than the last month or so that San Jose has a clear vision of the kind of player they’re willing to spend time on right now.

Adin Hill is still out due to injury, and the clear desire to find a solid back-up for Reimer means Kahkonen is under an even greater amount of pressure to live up to standard. Rookie Zachary Sawchenko was given very little opportunity to start in net when he was with the Sharks, to the point of putting him in only when push came to shove and Reimer was obviously being overplayed.

On one hand, the Sharks were in playoff (Wild Card) contention at that time, and Reimer had established himself as the best option. On the other hand, what does that demonstrate to Sawchenko about the confidence the organization has in him, and his longevity in the system? What does that say about the organization’s goaltending development, when a 24-year-old goaltender is struggling to earn a start, and both he and Hill have the same weakness — their glove hand? And, to have pulled Kahkonen so early last game, telegraphing that Reimer will be the preferred choice immediately after one poor start, what might that do to his confidence?

I may be preaching to the choir here, but I don’t think Sawchenko has been given a fair shot, and I worry that Kahkonen may not either, which will spell trouble for the Sharks’ goaltending as they enter the off-season.

Who is and isn’t in the line-up doesn’t fall solely at the feet of Boughner either — for example, beloved goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov is in charge of deciding who starts each night.

When it comes to players like Dahlen and Balcers, young players who have all the skill and innate talent to be the next wave of core players, the self-belief and buy-in from the team are essential in their long-term success. How often have fans joked online that they “wish someone believed in them the way the Sharks believe in Noah Gregor”? Some players, like Gregor or Merkley, have been given repeated chances, while others seem to be pushed to the wayside.

That’s not to say that Gregor or Merkley don’t deserve extended chances. My point is that it’s obvious that the organization is higher on certain players more than others and with some players like Joachim Blichfield, or Nick Merkley (prior to his being traded) in the AHL who have been given little opportunity to prove their worth this season, or Dahlen and Balcers who are young and talented if low on confidence, it can be frustrating, and not just for the players who may feel like they’re wasting their talent in an organization that appears to not believe in them.