Quick Bites: Sharks can’t overcome Avalanche

Timo Meier scored a career-high 31 goals, but it wasn’t enough to keep pace.

As the regular season winds down, the San Jose Sharks are in the next-season-experimental phase with their line-up, testing line combinations and depth. Kaapo Kahkonen was given the start in net, Rudolfs Balcers began the night on the fourth line (a message he very much received), and all of the call-ups — Noah Gregor, Sasha Chmelevski, Ryan Merkley, John Leonard, and Scott Reedy — were all given the go-ahead. Matt Nieto also returned from injury.

The Colorado Avalanche controlled the opening of the game, which is perhaps unsurprising given their likelihood of winning the President’s Trophy this year. Even with the Avalanche’s early jump, the Sharks seemed surprisingly well-rested for the second half of a back-to-back and easily kept pace. Was the first period the most scintillating of game plays? Well, no. But San Jose kept the puck moving and worked end-to-end alongside one of the best teams in the NHL.

The first period remained scoreless, and most of that was due to some incredible defense by Jaycob Megna and Nicolas Meloche, as well as Kahkonen, who was sharp and steady, particularly on his glove side.

For as barren as the first was, the second period started off with a bang. Barely two minutes into the period, Alex Newhook went high slot on Kahkonen and opened scoring. The play began with a turnover and a miscue between Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Meloche. With J.T. Compher screening Kahkonen, he had no chance on the save.

The Sharks attempted a challenge for a high-stick, but it was unsuccessful which led to a bench minor and a very unfortunate penalty kill for the Sharks. Kahkonen was looking like the second coming of James Reimer, facing shot after shot, which bodes well for the future. The Jacob Middleton trade might have done away with a fan favorite, but in retrospect, it may well be the best of the team’s trade deadline moves (some of which I have very mixed feelings about). It’s obvious the Sharks have had an on eye him for good reason; he’s calm, he’s confident and he doesn’t have so overt of a weak side, the way Adin Hill and Zachary Sawchenko do.

Alexander Barabanov — who is a pending unrestricted free agent, with stalled contract talks — has been especially remarkable as of late. Barabanov has been a difference-maker most nights this season, but his individual effort in battling for pucks along the boards, making good entry plays and leveling strong and quick shots on net made him particularly useful against Colorado.

Meloche was another skater who looked good against Colorado, and when John Leonard couldn’t capitalize on Josh Manson’s broken stick and errant puck, Meloche thwarted a rush attempt by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Valeri Nichushkin (which is no small feat).

At around the halfway mark in the second, Timo Meier evened the score at one, with a play that began with Tomas Hertl. Hertl had possession, but when tripped up, slid the puck to Meier, who had parked himself on the side of the net. A quick shot notched Meier’s career-high of 31 goals (and counting) this season.

From then, the rest of the period was much like the first, with energetic, 200-foot play, and the added bonus of more turnovers, and a struggling power play, highlighted by Ryan Merkley struggling to successfully bring out pucks and clear effectively.

The third period started much the way of the second, with the Avalanche capitalizing upon a turnover by Erik Karlsson. From there, veteran center Darren Helm sprung a 2-on-1 and took advantage of the Sharks’ inability to control the puck to make it 2-1.

Hertl, whose line had been clicking the entire game, made the exact kind of play that the coaching staff have been dying to see more of from their top-line players. Off of a faceoff win, Hertl was able to draw the puck back and get it to Brent Burns, who had gone toward the net. Burns was able to then direct the puck five-hole, on a bang-bang play that was fast and effective, and tied the score at two.

The game was very much in reach, and the Sharks just needed something to break in their favor. Instead, a badly timed penalty and a kill that quailed in the face of a dominant Avalanche power play killed the momentum. The kill left seams open, which had been a problem all game, and after a rebound that sent Kahkonen down, Rantanen was able to find the puck again and lift it over him, to take the 3-2 lead.

Not too long after, Cale Makar and Andre Burakovsky were back in front of the net and secured another rebound, doubling their lead, 4-2.

The Sharks were clearly frustrated — after all, the game was completely within reach and had crumbled due to small defensive mistakes and net-front coverage. The goals against had little to do with Kahkonen, but more from failed clears and puck mismanagement. Makar and Barabanov got scrambly, with Hertl in the mix, and all three were given roughing penalties in the final few minutes. Thankfully, the Avalanche’s late power play didn’t net any more goals, but it took the wind out of the Sharks’ sails, who despite a few tiny mistakes had kept the pace really well.

An overall lack of depth scoring and mismanagement proved to be San Jose’s downfall, even with Kahkonen playing just as excellently as promised. The Avalanche won, 4-2, and the Sharks slipped under the .500 mark.