Quick Bites: Sharks close, but can’t close out Lightning

Frustrating officiating leads to overtime loss.

The San Jose Sharks’ last tilt against the Tampa Bay Lightning was … well, a disaster. After a grueling road trip through the NHL’s toughest teams, San Jose was looking ahead to the extended break with the hope of picking up at least one point to finish off an exhausting four-game road trip.

Defender Mario Ferraro was back in the line-up after having taken a puck to the face two games ago (ouch), this time bearing some emergency dentistry work and a fishbowl (a clear cage). Jake Middleton was also back in the line-up after missing twelve games due to a concussion. To make room for Ferraro and Middleton, Ryan Merkley and Radim Simek were healthy scratches.

Jasper Weatherby was out for Lane Pederson, Jonah Gadjovich was in for Jeffrey Viel, and James Reimer was in net for his fifth start, with Adin Hill still out due to injury.

The first half of the first period was fast and frenetic, but the Sharks kept pace and were competing for every puck. Good sticks and battling hard along the boards, showed the team was active early, which was important considering they were stuck in the defensive zone more often than not. Nicolas Meloche was called for crosschecking early in the period, but the Lightning’s middling power play was no match for the Sharks’ penalty kill.

There were only three successful zone entries by the halfway point, and the Sharks were held to three shots to the Lightning’s eight. The Sharks eventually earned their own chance at a power play, which gave them an invaluable opportunity to score first. Getting little zone time at 5-on-5 meant utilizing the man-advantage was essential. It came down to compete level; how much energy could the Sharks exert during high-pressure scenarios — how effective can the team be when needing to perform?

The Sharks tried their best to get anything going, and the second power play unit, featuring Jonathan Dahlen, gave the Sharks some momentum to carry them through the rest of the period with their hard, quick shots.

The majority of the Sharks’ seven shots on goal came on the power play, and they didn’t see the other end of the ice as the Lightning hemmed them into the defensive zone for the final five minutes of the first period.

The second period began gloriously with a 0-0 score; the longer the Lightning didn’t score, the greater the Sharks’ chances were in keeping it to a low-scoring game and therefore, within reach of winning. Unfortunately, two minutes in, Anthony Cirelli scooped the puck into a yawning cage on a rush chance and an over-committed Reimer.

After a few rush chances going both ways, San Jose was pushing for more zone time, and as the neutral zone cleared, the game opened up, with both teams trading high-quality offensive chances. The fourth line in particular was energized and aggressive, leading physical play and springing their own rushes on the forecheck.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic sent a bomb of a shot rocketing just wide of the net. With Rudolfs Balcers smartly placed to screen Andrei Vasilevskiy, he was able to tap it in from the crease, equalizing the score and extending Balcers’ point streak to three games.

It breathed life into the Sharks, and where they had struggled to compete the entire road trip, they finally found the other gear that top teams like the Florida Panthers and Lightning have. If the point of the road trip was to prove that the Sharks can hang with the big dogs, then the second period was their introduction.

The pair traded breakaway chances (Logan Couture on one end, Mathieu Joseph on the other), and halfway through the second, it looked like anyone’s game, which was a pleasant surprise.

Gadjovich drew an interference call (adding weight to my theory that the fourth line were the unsung heroes last night), giving an opportunity to pull ahead. The Sharks couldn’t buy much on the skater-advantage, and when Balcers flipped a puck over the glass for a delay of game call, the Lightning had their own opportunity. With 11 seconds left on the Bolts’ power play, Couture was called for hooking, and it added another two minutes to the advantage for the Lightning, which they took full advantage of. Just after the brief 5-on-3 expired, Lightning struck, and Tampa Bay had regained the lead.

On the next shift, Timo Meier was taken down by Ryan McDonagh and went crashing into the net. A tussle ensued and, confusingly, Meier was given a double minor for roughing and goaltender interference. Cirelli was assessed a roughing minor, and in the final minute, the Sharks were back on the penalty kill.

The third period began with the Sharks in the final thirty seconds of the Lightning’s power play. After two big sprawling saves from Reimer, the Sharks were given their own power play opportunity.

It was a thin high slot chance, but Couture found the space to tip-in a shot from Brent Burns regardless, tying the game with 18 minutes left in regulation. With his 75th power play goal, Couture tied Owen Nolan for fourth in all-time franchise power play goals.

A high-penalty taking team like the Lightning means scoring on the power play is imperative, and it finally paid off, although Tampa didn’t need to worry about any power play goals by the other team; they’re excellent on the comeback, and it’s not unusual to see the Lightning press immediately after goal against.

It’s an aspect of their ‘compete level’ that the Sharks have never been able to replicate — until last night, when they were shooting high and often, pushing for more zone time, buoyed by Couture’s power play goal.

As the third wore down, did San Jose need to be more aggressive in clearing the defensive zone? Sure. But was the team active defensively? Absolutely. The Sharks were looking tired throughout the last ten minutes, giving up too much space in the neutral zone for the opposition to set up. Reimer was keeping the score tied, but if playoff contention is the goal, the Sharks can’t depend on the goaltender to bail them out every single game.

Despite the late unraveling in their own zone, Reimer pulled the game to overtime. Both teams boasted a 6-2 record in the extra frame. Early possession leaned towards the Sharks, but a slide into the net by Ondrej Palat led to a brief stoppage that nearly amounted to a penalty.

What did result in a penalty was Ryan McDonagh tripping Timo Meier. You would assume the penalty would stop there, but then Meier was called for embellishment … which makes very little sense if you go sprawling into the boards because someone tripped you.

The off-setting penalty led to Victor Hedman scooping up the puck for the game-winning goal, closing the game 3-2. It was a disappointing loss in what could easily have been the Sharks’ game if it weren’t for a few questionable officiating calls.

The Sharks played fast and physical, totaling 43 hits to the Lightning’s 37, and adding 11 blocked shots. Physicality has its limits of course — you can’t hit if you have the puck, and the Lightning outshot the Sharks, 32 to 21.

The road trip ends .500, which isn’t a terrible record to end on before the break — the Sharks’ next game will be on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, against the Edmonton Oilers — but it’s a loss that stings.