Quick Bites: Tired Sharks rally late in loss to Hurricanes

Exhausted Sharks and Hurricanes lead to a 2-1 road trip loss.

After a grueling sixty minutes, plus overtime, the day before against the Florida Panthers, the San Jose Sharks entered the second half of the back-to-back tired.

Defender Mario Ferraro was out after being hit in the face with a puck last game (and visiting the dentist) and Jake Middleton wasn’t ready to return just yet, leaving Ryan Merkley to draw in, paired with Radim Simek. Lane Pederson slotted in for Jasper Weatherby, and Jeffrey Viel was in for Jonah Gadjovich.

James Reimer, who saved 45 out of 50 shots in the last game, was back in net, facing his former team as well, having played for the Hurricanes last season. Adin Hill wasn’t ready to return either, so Zach Sawchenko continued to sit on the bench as the back-up.

It was a markedly slower game, and the first five minutes saw the Sharks bringing the puck into the offensive zone and winning battles along the boards. As even as the pace of play seemed in the opening five or so minutes, the Hurricanes’ flexible defense meant that they were hard to predict. Vincent Trocheck blew right through the neutral zone after Ryan Merkley tried to pinch, but ultimately left the middle open for him to get a shot on Reimer. Trocheck opened the scoring early, putting the ‘Canes up 1-0 with over 16 minutes left in the period.

Trocheck wasn’t done with the Sharks’ defense; Simek was slammed into the boards from behind, and went down clutching his shoulder. He didn’t go down the tunnel, but he looked in pain, and as thin as the defense is, even if he needed to take a breather, it was clear that he would be needed.

Around the halfway mark, Andrei Svechnikov and Jeffrey Viel tussled, sending the two of them falling into the Sharks’ open bench door. The two were chirping in the box, and Viel was given a double minor for roughing, and Svechnikov just two. The tussle was prompted by the Trocheck hit, but it put the Sharks on the penalty kill.

The Hurricanes are deadly on the power play, particularly off the opening faceoff. The team has a wealth of set plays to get pucks deep in the zone and capitalize upon quick shots off zone entries, so despite the strong penalty kill, San Jose had to work hard to effectively clear the puck. Nicolas Meloche was especially noticeable on the penalty kill, cleaning up on the back end.

Svechnikov was then called for interference on Logan Couture, giving the Sharks an opportunity on the power play, which had a 100 percent success rate last game (2/2, thanks to Jonathan Dahlen), and has produced five goals in the last five games. Unfortunately, the Sharks weren’t able to overcome Carolina’s penalty kill.

By playing too far back to really generate many high-quality chances, rather than initiate quick zone entries or releases, the Sharks were relying on rush chances to the net, which wasn’t producing much of anything. They looked tired; and where there are tired Sharks, there are fewer goals and more turnovers.

The second period started with the Sharks down one and their lines cold. Matt Nieto, Alexander Barabanov, Dahlen, Meloche and Brent Burns were noticeable on the ice — something that could not be said for the rest of the team.

For as inelegant as the Sharks’ neutral zone play was in the second, the same was said for the ‘Canes, who were also on the second half of a back-to-back. Both teams were tired, which meant that the puck was constantly being turned over. By the six-minute mark, the Sharks had yet to get a shot on goal, and the ‘Canes weren’t doing much better.

Barabanov blocked a shot off his hand and while he stayed on the ice, he was reluctant to hold his stick and kept his hand curled into his chest until Reimer froze the puck and he could head off the ice. His hand was taped up and splinted on the bench, and he did return to the game. Barabanov has consistently been one of San Jose’s best players. He’s patient with the puck, able to get his legs moving enough to create time and space on the ice. It’s an essential skill to have for any true play-maker, and if the Sharks end up losing Barabanov, it’ll be a big loss when going up against top-line teams.

For the first time in the game, the Sharks were able to hem Carolina’s top line in their own zone, leading to an extended offensive push. It didn’t last long; whatever energy the team had, they left in Florida.

In the final few minutes, Simek took the kind of penalty that’s excused by coaches only because his trip on Nino Niederreiter prevented a prime scoring opportunity. Burns then drew a penalty from Trocheck, sending the game to 4-on-4 for over a minute and 45 seconds of power play that didn’t amount to anything.

The last two minutes saw Burns take a rare defender faceoff, sloppy play from both teams, and a few high-quality shots from the ‘Canes. It was obvious that head coach Bob Boughner was forced to shorten the bench to both preserve energy and get something going.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic tangled with Niederreiter, and the second wore down, with the score still stuck at 1-0. Reimer faced 11 shots, Frederik Andersen only four, and the Sharks just needed just one goal to breathe life back into their offense.

The third began with the Sharks on the backcheck. As solid as their defensive game had been to this point (allowing only one high-slot shot in the second period), their lack of energy made every second in the offensive zone essential.

Rudolfs Balcers secured the tying goal on a rebound and an open net when Andersen was drawn into the right side and out of the blue paint. It was a huge goal for Balcers, and it proved that the Sharks were still in the game, even if their legs weren’t.

The Hurricanes are excellent with a bounce-back, however, and pushed back against the tying goal, with all the momentum that had been missing the entire game. Defender Jaycob Megna was instantly noticeable early in the third, blocking shots in front of the net, and being effective with his stick.

San Jose worked hard in the final five minutes to hold onto the tie and protect every press from Carolina. In the final three minutes, the relentless pressure paid off. Aho won the faceoff, self-passed off the boards, then passed to Svechnikov, who was able to clean up a rebound and regain the lead, 2-1 for Carolina.

The Sharks had worked through a grueling game and while they needed a goal, the lack of set plays off the faceoff made it difficult to copy the Hurricanes’ success. Reimer made his way to the bench for the extra attacker to attempt another tying goal.

Off a stretch pass to Timo Meier, a huge opportunity led to defender Brett Pesce getting crunched into the boards on a diving save from Andersen. The final few seconds were a scrambling mess, but it was too little, too late. the Hurricanes scraped by for a 2-1 win.

If there’s anything to look forward to, it’s that the Sharks’ defensive control and puck management was leagues better than it had been in Florida, despite how tired the team was. The concern is that with skaters getting banged up (Ferraro, Barabanov) and/or seemingly playing through a nagging injury (Megna), and the lack of energy from playing the NHL’s top teams through this Southern road trip, the Sharks will have a harder time overcoming the Tampa Bay Lightning in the next game.