San Jose leading the league in blown third period leads
As Yannis Philippakis, lead singer of the excellent British alternative-indie band Foals, sings on the track Spanish Sahara, "Forget the horror here, leave it all down here, it's future rust and then it's future dust. I'm the fury in your head, I'm the fury in your bed, I'm the ghost in the back of your head."
It's become the anthem of San Jose's season thus far. Those ghosts have come out of the woodwork, specifically in the third period, leaving the Sharks bleeding away standings points like they were hemophiliacs with a passion for self-induced pain.
They did it again last night against Toronto. Yes, that Toronto, a team that is hardly the embodiment of offensive supremacy, led by non other than ex-coach Ron Wilson who picked up his 600th career win in his old barn following the festivities.
With San Jose now in the midst of a five-game losing streak, that's nearly criminal.
It makes the fifth game this season where San Jose has lost after leading going into the third period, a total that puts them at the top of the NHL in that category. And it's not as if San Jose is getting hammered up and down the ice-- despite all of their mercurial play, slow starts, and inconsistent offensive production from their top line, the Sharks have managed to head into the final period with a lead more than any other team in the league outside of Philadelphia and Vancouver. They've had their opportunities to put teams away. They've done an extraordinarily poor job of doing so.
From a winning percentage standpoint, San Jose sits at .762%, 27th in the NHL. St. Louis, Edmonton, and the New York Islanders have worse winning percentages, but have gone into the third period with a lead in far less games than the Sharks. No matter which way you decide to slice up the numbers, the returns are clearly lacking. The results? Gut-wrenching.
And it's made all the difference in the Western Conference this season.
With three regulation losses (TOR, MIN, NSH) and two overtime losses (DAL, COL), the Sharks have left eight standings points on the table. If San Jose cuts that number in half they're tied for fifth in the Conference at 51 points-- a perfect record puts them at 55 points, in sole possession of fourth and granted a large amount of breathing room to weather the shooting slump that has taken hold of the entire roster.
That's the difference keeping the Sharks from being a playoff team right now. And it's a large part of the reason why coaches and fans alike have highlighted this porous offensive stretch, where the team is generating shots from good areas of the ice, as a question of context. If the Sharks lock down these games they can withstand a few excellent goaltending performances. But these blown leads have set in motion a situation where, opposition goaltending be damned, they don't have that reserve tank of points to help guide them through a rough patch.
Each loss puts them further away from earning home-ice advantage in the first round. To say nothing of the fact that, more than halfway through the season, the Sharks have yet to establish themselves as a team consistently in the top eight of the Western Conference.
The curious thing about the entirety of it all is just how the goals against have played out. San Jose hasn't gotten into penalty trouble in these games-- the most they've had to lace up their skates for the penalty kill in the third period is once, with Niclas Wallin's double minor at the end of the second period against Minnesota being the only situation where San Jose has been forced to skate more than two minutes shorthanded in the third.
And the results have been fine in that regard. Clarke MacAurthur's power play goal last night was the first time they've given up a marker shorthanded in these blown leads, meaning the damage has come entirely from even strength. That's the opposite of what one would expect with a winning percentage so low. Penalty trouble is usually the catalyst for late game meltdowns, and the Sharks have done well in limiting those opportunities for opposing teams.
They're disciplined late in the game, albeit asleep at the wheel.
The list of defensemen who have been caught on the ice for these breakdowns contain San Jose's most notable names. Out of the eleven goals scored against at even strength, Marc-Edouard Vlasic (6), Dan Boyle (5), and Jason Demers (5) are the ones who have been victimized the most. A large part of that is due to ice time, as Todd McLellan will obviously turn to his most trusted rearguards when protecting a lead, but the fact that Vlasic and Boyle have been on duty for a vast amount of these blown leads isn't an inspiring statistic from your top-tier players.
The forwards contain more of a spread-- Devin Setoguchi leads the cast with six goals against, Ryane Clowe clocks in with five, Marleau and Couture four. Joe Thornton's increased defensive awareness puts him at two goals against, a good sign from a player that sees so much ice time.
Hello Mr. Brightside. Knew you'd show up sooner or later.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of these blown leads isn't the fact that they've been long and drawn out affairs that see teams chip away with a goal here and there. The breakdowns have come like a torpedo from the murky depths fifteen miles out, unseen and unrecognized until the hull gets clipped and it's mayday mayday abandon ship.
Last night against the Leafs it was two goals in three and a half minutes. After the Sharks tied the game Toronto ripped it away for good two shifts later. Minnesota's outburst to tie the game and take the lead saw three goals get potted in 5:21, with the game winner and insurance marker coming in at just over a minute from one another. Nashville took 44 seconds to turn a one-goal deficit into a one goal lead, doing so in the last four minutes of the game. Dallas did it in a similar fashion, breaking hearts and a two goal lead in 29 seconds with under three minutes left on the clock before winning in overtime.
Asleep at the wheel? Hell, we're talking microsleep here. Fraction of a second, rip your heart out, lose your breath and never find it again type stuff.
The three most recent losses to Toronto, Minnesota, and Nashville are the ones that hurt the most because they have resulted in zero standings points for the Sharks. In Colorado and Dallas they were able to hold on and push the game into overtime, picking up a courtesy loser point which, despite the fact San Jose gave up two-goal leads in both games, lessens the toll on both mind and record. With each point extremely valuable in the Western Conference this season, the result of seeing nothing for your efforts has to sting. You'd be hard pressed to pinpoint the exact psychological effect that sort of turn of events can have on a locker room, but there is no doubt it is there.
It's hard to forget the horror with the ghosts in the back of your head.
A benchmark of great teams is the ability to clamp down at the end of games and finish what you worked forty minutes to achieve. San Jose has not done that this season. The small length of time between goals against during these breakdowns just shows you how important each shift is at the NHL level-- things can snowball quickly, and an ability to stem the bleeding is paramount lest you end up on the outside looking in.
Which is where the Sharks stand today.
Protecting these third period leads can start with the the coaching staff, or the lettered players, or the locker room leaders, or the second line stalwarts, or the role players who have had enough. But it has to start somewhere.
Because right now, if you squint hard enough and position your head at just the right angle, you'll see the sky beginning its slow and deliberate descent towards the surface of the Earth.