Quick Bites: Injuries, poor offense, tough Blues sink Sharks

You wait until now to play Micheal Haley 12 minutes?

It was almost a foregone conclusion that the San Jose Sharks would allow an early-game goal in last night’s Game 6. Giving their opponent a lead just minutes into the game became a San Jose rite of passage this postseason beginning with the Vegas series in round one. After a poor offensive zone pass from Joakim Ryan, the St. Louis Blues quickly brought the puck the other way on an odd-man rush. Brent Burns initially stopped the two-on-one pass, but his teammates could not corral the ensuing rebound. Sammy Blais was suddenly the recipient of a dot-to-dot feed and didn’t have to do much more.

The goal was reminiscent of so many the Sharks have allowed during this playoff run: the team scrambling after tough forechecks with little room to open the game. That the red light shone brightly so quickly into the game was poetic, its foreshadowing repeated over and over in April and May.

Despite the two-goal lead — the Blues doubled their advantage with a power play goal from Vladimir Tarasenko — after one period and despite their underwhelming eye test, the Sharks walked down the tunnel after 20 with an advantage in both shots and expected goals. San Jose outshot the Blues 16-13 at 5-on-5 after a late-period surge and generated 61.7 percent of all expected goals.

For San Jose, an unfamiliar face led the team in shot differential. Dylan Gambrell, finally with play-driving teammates, helped the Sharks to a 10-1 shot advantage at 5-on-5. He, along with Evander Kane and Joonas Donskoi also produced the most dangerous chances for San Jose during the opening frame.

It was as if Gambrell understood the predictive power of his on-ice shot advantage over his opponent. During the middle period, he took a stretch pass from Donskoi all the way to the house for his first career goal and the Sharks’ first goal since 6:48 of the third period in Game 4.

After the Blues regained their two-goal lead on a power play, Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer shuffled his forward lines and the Gambrell magic was gone. The newly christened playoff scorer finished the second period with just a three-shot advantage while on the ice, helping the Sharks take only three additional shots after his impressive 10-attempt outing during the game’s first 20 minutes.

Even more notable was San Jose’s top line’s place among the team’s shot differential leaders. Logan Couture, Timo Meier and Gustav Nyquist were outshot and out-chanced by the Blues during the game’s first 40 minutes, effectively ceding any potential Sharks advantage to the Colton Parayko pair and Tarasenko forward line. That matchup, and the Sharks’ position on the losing end of it, has been a big story of this series. After Meier’s two-goal Game 1 and Couture’s two-goal Game 2, the pair — which had been the Sharks’ best duo all postseason — failed to exert their will on the series.

In a game where one may have expected said first line to receive an untoward volume of minutes, and under a coach who has become infamous this season for benching certain players at the first sign of trouble, it was rather surprising to find Micheal Haley, Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan with fairly normal amounts of ice time. Perhaps even more surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, depending on one’s vantage point, the team put together a ferocious third period on the back of more evenly distributed ice time.

The ice time allotment was a bizarre ending to what had been a bizarre postseason for San Jose. After boasting one of the league’s most potent 5-on-5 offenses during the regular season, the team crept into the playoffs with the bite of a baby shark, doo doo doo doo. Their sudden inability to generate dangerous chances regularly was never more apparent than it was against St. Louis. During the regular season, the Sharks averaged 62 shots per hour, 32 shots on goal per hour, and 2.64 expected goals per hour. Against the Blues, San Jose managed just 54 shots per hour, 23 shots on goal per hour, and 1.95 expected goals per hour (all figures score- and venue-adjusted per Natural Stat Trick).

Important injuries and the slow wear of a long season certainly played their part. But this offensive unraveling began around the All Star break, and the team never sewed its attack back up again. A team that boasted nine players who scored 15 or more goals during the regular season and four, 30-goal scorers suddenly found itself desperate to score just one goal.

In the end, the Sharks’ demise was illustrated by the way they ended the series against the Blues: with two goals in three games and the underlying statistics to support that poor output. They cleared 30 shots on goal at all situations in just two of the series’ six games after averaging nearly 33 all season. The stingy Blues defense erased what was left of a stumbling Sharks offense, and there was little San Jose could muster to change their fate.

As the series wore on, it seemed the Blues adjusted and the Sharks kept throwing passes up the boards like spaghetti against the wall, hoping something would stick. The blame for stubbornness lays at the feet of the coaching staff, who waited until the season’s most important game to give their fourth line ice time and to sit their best offensive forwards even when goals were difficult to come by.

The Sharks were unable to take a different tack as the series wore on. That fact, combined with the Blues’ excellent defense and goalie, were enough to leave San Jose dead in the water.