Quick Bites: Physical focus fails in frustrating loss

A Noah Gregor fight? In this economy?

The San Jose Sharks are still searching for a win after a series of close games and a frustrating losing streak. With the end of the regular season fast approaching and only second from the bottom of the Pacific Division, things can only look up for the organization. Or, they will, but maybe after this game.

Last night marked the first time that goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen had ever faced the Vancouver Canucks in his NHL career. Radim Simek was back in the line-up, and for good reason; the identity of this tilt was physicality, and Simek, if all else fails, can knock someone into next year with a big hit. The Sharks were rolling with seven defensemen and eleven forwards, which meant that the returning Simek was the designated floater.

The first minute or so was perhaps an indication of what was to come. Alexander Barabanov (who played another excellent game, and double-shifted on the fourth line due to the missing forward) was stung up high in the ear on an errant shot, and had to sit for a few changes to get his hearing back. He was fine, but the early rushes soon turned the other way into some huge saves for Kahkonen.

A late high hit from Kyle Burroughs on Ryan Merkley opened the floodgates, and I don’t just mean for the scoring. After Merkley was hit and was actively being helped off the ice, the play went the other way on a 2-on-1, with Jason Dickinson reading Kahkonen’s over-commitment to a suspected pass. In the opening few minutes, Merkley was down the tunnel, Vancouver was up by one and the Sharks were seeing red.

Get ready for a million penalties.

Almost immediately, Rudolfs Balcers was called for a trip, but the penalty kill coalesced into a short-handed chance for Matt Nieto and Logan Couture, who were two players who stood out the entire game.

Individually, there wasn’t one skater who had a ‘bad’ game, but as a unit, San Jose played sloppy, overly physical (in an effort to match Vancouver) and fast. The speed, combined with the sloppy passes and constant turnovers meant that any small mistake was capitalized upon by the Canucks with ease and the Sharks were taking too many penalties on small offenses.

William Lockwood leveled a big hit on Timo Meier and Noah Gregor fought Lockwood for his honor, but was very quickly was wrestled down to the ice. The Canucks were physical on the zone entry, which made it difficult for the Sharks to make plays along the boards in the neutral zone. Every time a skater tried to break the puck out along the side, they were crunched into the glass, and if they tried to go up the middle, a tricky seam pass that was picked off or a turnover at the blue line was nearly unavoidable.

The struggles to enter the offensive zone frankly have more to do with the Canucks’ defensive mindset and less to do with the Sharks’ own inabilities.

Meier and Vasily Podkolzin exchanged words, and the Podkolzin cross-checked Meier, sending the Sharks to a power play that turned the puck over almost immediately. Meier, who lost an edge on the play, was redeemed by Brent Burns drawing a slashing call from J.T. Miller.

The resulting 5-on-3 power play did technically come to fruition. In the final seconds of the skater-advantage, Tomas Hertl scored on a smart snapshot. The play began with Erik Karlsson, who gained control of the puck and brought it to the top of the triangle. Meier set up the shot, the puck went to Hertl and then in on Thatcher Demko, equalizing the score at one.

The second half of the first period was exciting, fast hockey, brought to you by ill-timed turnovers. The Canucks were noticeably stronger on the transition and were able to jump on miscues and turn them into plays. One example of such was when Mario Ferraro received an unexpected pass from Meier in the neutral zone. His fumble and the miscommunication resulted in a near chance for Elias Pettersson, and a huge save by Kahkonen.

The pair were trading penalties, (seven penalties and 11 penalty minutes total for each team in just the first period), and while it may seem like the Canucks were controlling the period, the Sharks weren’t necessarily playing poorly. Individual players, like Simek, Dahlen, Gregor and Karlsson were all playing really well. Couture was orchestrating shorthanded chances like it was easy and Nieto was exemplary in slowing down the pace of play around him and making smart defensive plays.

The reason there were so many end-to-end rush chances and big hits were both teams making sloppy stick plays in the neutral zone. It makes for good hockey for the fans, but a frustrating game for the coaches and players, who then struggle to build momentum and a consistent forecheck.

The second period was (surprise, surprise) much of the same. The Sharks had an early turnover, but then an early rush, engineered by Ferraro. Despite the line-shuffling, Dahlen, Scott Reedy and Gregor were consistently on a line together and were making strong, smart plays.

In the first five minutes, a misplay caused the Canucks to break the tie, and I never want to blame a goal on a goaltender — there are so many moving parts — but it wasn’t a great attempt by Kahkonen. A turnover at the blue line while Jaycob Megna played back meant that there was plenty of open space for Connor Garland to swoop in. Clearly thinking he’d pass, Kahkonen opened up the short side, which Garland took advantage of.

A series of dumb penalties kept the Sharks on the defensive, first with Dahlen (tripping) and later on, Gregor (holding). Discipline was a team-wide issue.

The Sharks were able to tie it up at two in the final minute and a half, thanks to Nick Bonino batting a puck out of the air from Burns.

In the final minute, Couture was given an interference call, and the Sharks went on the power play. Fifteen seconds later, Meier was called for a hook on Miller, which meant that the Sharks and Canucks began the third period at 4-on-4.

A chip pass by Alex Chaisson in the first five minutes of the third fooled Kahkonen, again on his short side, which meant that two of the Canucks’ three goals came from the same mistake. The Sharks were getting chances, but the Canucks knew they could hold onto the lead. With an empty net and a delayed penalty in the final few seconds of the period, it almost looked like the Sharks could do it, and at the very least get a point out of overtime.

Luke Schenn hit the empty net right as time expired, and the Sharks lost, 4-2.

It’s another bitter loss in the face of a close game and the Sharks are showing where they lack star power. The best teams — the playoff-ready teams — are the ones that can come from behind and find that extra gear in high-pressure situations. The Sharks aren’t in a position where they can do that, and they haven’t been able to do it all year.