Quick Bites: Near-perfect game downs Devils

Back-to-back wins to begin the road trip and a near-perfect game from the Sharks will help to build confidence.

Facing the New Jersey Devils with a recuperated (and recently re-signed) Jack Hughes, San Jose Sharks head coach Bob Boughner shook up his forward lines.

Andrew Cogliano left the road trip early after Sunday’s shutout victory over the Chicago Blackhawks to attend to family matters (I wish him all the best, with whatever that may be). Lane Pederson was activated off injured reserve on Monday, leaving Boughner options to get creative with line combinations.

The top-six was largely unchanged, but a new-look third line saw Nick Bonino centering Matt Nieto and Noah Gregor, while the fourth line paired Lane Pederson with Jonah Gadjovich and Kevin Labanc.

Pederson doesn’t typically play center, but Boughner expressed that he had liked him in that position in the past, and wanted to test him out on the fourth line. Gadjovich filled in for Jasper Weatherby, who was a health scratch, while Gregor, who is fighting for a roster spot now that both Jonathan Dahlen and Pederson are healthy, remained for another game.

If you’re worried about Weatherby, don’t be. Boughner has been impressed with the rookie’s work ethic and play so far, but many young players hit a plateau while adjusting to the NHL’s season. Boughner wanted to give him a chance to see the game from above.

The blue line was the same thing, different day (still no Santeri Hatakka, but since he traveled with the team, I have to assume he’ll make it in at least one road game) and James Reimer was back in net, the team’s unequivocal starter.

The first period was everything the Sharks did right last game, but better. Timo Meier took the first shot on goal within the first 45 seconds, which set the tone early. The Sharks made good defensive plays in their own zone, with great rebound control (thank god) and strong point shots. For as sluggish as they looked at times in Chicago, this was a re-energized, rested team in New Jersey. Must have been all the sightseeing they did at Times Square the night before.

It was a fantastic start for Nick Bonino, Erik Karlsson and Noah Gregor in particular. Gregor opened scoring with his first goal of the year on a beautiful tip-in. Bonino won the draw and sent the puck toward the net, and while Devils netminder MacKenzie Blackwood was partially screened, Gregor extended his stick and tipped it in.

After a brief push by the Devils, the rest of the period was relatively sedate with the exception of some big saves on either end, and a hooking penalty called on Brent Burns, followed by an excellent Sharks penalty kill.

The Devils were getting too many shots on goal from the high point in the first, but the Sharks’ concerns were alleviated in the second. It was the best period of the season so far.

Jake Middleton scored his second goal of the year in the first five minutes, but Devils head coach Lindy Ruff challenged, believing that Tomas Hertl was offside. Hertl was, in fact, onside (by like, a lot), and the Devils were administered a bench minor, which sent the Sharks to their second power play of the game.

Whatever power play woes the team has been having seemed to disappear. San Jose built momentum on that first power play, and finished it off when the Devils took another minor penalty midway through the period. The Sharks have found their ‘shoot quick’ mentality and it’s been working for them like a dream. On the top unit, Logan Couture and Dahlen put in the work along the boards and found Meier wide open in front of Blackwood. It was the Sharks’ third power play goal of the season.

Hardly two minutes later, Erik Karlsson gave the Sharks a 4-0 lead, off a cross-ice feed from Alexander Barabanov. Just look at this heads up play, where Barabanov waits for Karlsson after a slick pass from Rudolfs Balcers that splits the Devils’ defense:

Ah, the stuff of Sharks’ dreams and Devils’ nightmares.

But here’s the thing: were the Sharks really that good in the second, or were the Devils just painfully disorganized and out of position?

A little bit of both. Defensive breakdowns and Jimmy Vesey being out of position led to both Meier and Karlsson’s goals. The Devils were on their heels the entire period and had little to no response to the Sharks’ dominance.

But to the Sharks’ credit, they were playing really well. Every opportunity the Devils made for themselves was swiftly broken up by San Jose, whether it be a rush chance, breakaway or zone entry. Jacob Middleton and Tomas Hertl were fantastic in the second, but all four lines were rolling.

The third period started in favor of the Sharks, which allowed me to notice a fun little skill that Dahlen has. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but Dahlen is strangely good at chipping pucks out of the offensive zone in such a way that it avoids an icing call but still clears the zone.

That was the highlight for the Sharks, because while they played a responsible, consistent game to that point, the team got a little too complacent with their four-goal lead.

Midway through the period, the Devils began to push, and Tomas Tatar eventually broke Reimer’s shutout bid. The Sharks tried to follow it up with an amazing play from Barabanov (who’d been excellent the whole game) and Hertl, but the Devils weren’t to be pushed away.

Winger Jesper Bratt — who is in the midst of a career year, if things hold — went high-glove on Reimer with an unexpected shot from the high point, and just like that, with seven minutes left in the game, the Devils cut the lead in half, 4-2.

Blackwood was sent to the bench for an extra skater and Meier reclaimed the three-goal lead. Miscommunication between the Devils created the opportunity for an impossible shot from the corner that resulted in an empty-net goal.

Whatever comeback the Devils were attempting, Meier’s goal took the wind out of their sails, and the Sharks closed out the game with another stellar performance from James Reimer, a 5-2 win and back-to-back wins to start a five-game road trip.