Sharks overcome the Stars 6-3, continue to set the pace in the Pacific Division
After what amounted to a disaster last night in Chicago, many weren't sure to expect from the San Jose Sharks coming into tonight's tilt with Dallas. The Stars have played the Sharks extremely well this season, had just begun to get healthy with the return of Brad Richards and Nicklas Grossman, and with the Pacific Division race tightening up like the collective colons of fans across the NHL (imagery-- it's poignant) in preparation for the final stretch run, there was a lot of nervous chatter heading into the game.
San Jose didn't do a lot to ease those feelings early on.
In a first period that can only be described as tepid and unmemorable, both teams traded relatively meek scoring chances throughout the first twenty minutes of play. The Sharks managed to get a little something going as the period wore along, but the neutral zone was a wasteland of bodies and sticks for the majority of the time-- both the Sharks and Stars were locking up their coverage, cutting down angles, and keeping the opposition from generating any speed before entering the offensive zone. It was a tight affair, and heading into the second, you kept waiting for that spark to set the tinderbox ablaze.
Early in the second period, Jamie Langenbrunner did just that.
Following a boarding non-call on Niclas Wallin (who did not return to the game and is likely questionable for Thursday), the Stars took advantage of the tired Sharks team and capitalized first. Jamie Benn took the puck from Justin Braun along the sideboards, and as Mike Ribeiro picked it up and swung around the net, Benn crashed the net and ran a nice little pick on the dazed Niclas Wallin to open up some space in front of the net. Ribeiro would go on to cash in on the play and give Dallas a 1-0 lead.
Things only picked up from there, as Douglas Murray leveled a clean open-ice hit on Loui Eriksson as he attempted to exit the zone. Eriksson would be sent to the Stars dressing room and wouldn't return-- in response, the ever infuriating (and remarkably effective) Steve Ott went after Murray following the ensuing faceoff. To drop the gloves with Murray is a bold task for even the most battle-hardened of men, and Ott received a couple of hard shots to the dome to go along with a two-minute instigator penalty.
It was a break the Sharks needed. Unfortunately, it was one they wouldn't take advantage of, as Jamie Benn (who was by far the best player on the ice tonight) weaved through the San Jose defense like a hot knife running through butter, delivered a deke that sent Antti Niemi sliding desperately to his right out of the crease, avoided an attempted check by Devin Setoguchi below the end line, and eventually found Toby Petersen in front of the open net for the score.
At this point in the game the ghosts of the early season began to make their way out from the cobwebbed attic onto the ice. With a three game losing streak in hand, and another tough outing against a Division rival underway, the shackles placed upon those absent spirits during the last month and a half were beginning to crack-- it was a performance that seemed eerily similar to the team of October through mid-January, one that struggled with any and all types of adversity and never seemed to figure out how to apply those lessons and grow.
Those fears were put to the rest almost immediately afterwards however, as Joe Thornton redirected a shot from Dan Boyle past Kari Lehtonen to pull the Sharks within one. San Jose would continue to push the play in the ensuing minutes, picking up a 5 on 3 power play with roughly eight minutes left to play in the period. Credit Todd McLellan for taking a timeout here-- too often NHL coaches will sit on their timeouts all game long, and with a 5v3 upcoming in a critical moment in the game, it was the right call to make. After some nice puck movement along the perimeter San Jose worked the puck down low, and Dany Heatley pounced on a rebound to even the score at two.
The Sharks wouldn't trail from that point on.
The third period began with a lightning storm of Sharks goals that put San Jose in the driver's seat with a 4-2 lead. The first came after Joe Pavelski, who had four assists on the night, got in deep on the forecheck and generated a turnover. With Ryane Clowe crashing the net Pavelski made the pass count, finding Clowe between the circles for the score. Torrey Mitchell would go on to extend the Sharks lead to two after another nice defensive play that led to a goal-- after making a strong play along the boards in the defensive end of the ice Mitchell flashed the speed that made him a fan favorite in his rookie year, jetting up the ice to receive a centering pass from Joe Pavelski which found the twine.
Holding that lead wouldn't be easy however, as Jamie Benn once again came back to haunt the Sharks. Benn would pot a power play goal midway through the final frame, sending Dallas on a four minute run where they had San Jose back on their heels. San Jose would survive until an extremely ill-advised penalty by Dany Heatley put the team on the kill with four minutes left to play. As Ott cleared the puck up the ice a backchecking Heatley raised his elbow up high, striking the Dallas pugilist in the face. Whether or not Ott tried to sell the call (and he likely did) isn't a factor during this situation-- the puck was out of the zone, the play was moving the other way, and Heatley's contact did not take Ott's body out of the rush.
Two minutes later, with Heatley rushing out of the box, Logan Couture would clear the puck over the glass and put San Jose on the kill once again. And yet, with the Stars pressing and the penalty kill struggling over the past two weeks, the Sharks managed to find a way to stem the tide. To go into Dallas and survive four minutes of penalty kill time with a one goal lead is an achievement in of itself, let alone after a back to back game with Chicago.
Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley would go on to add empty net goals, putting the final score at 6-3 in favor of San Jose.
Tonight's win was far from a sixty minute effort, the mistakes throughout the game glaring. And yet San Jose was able to come up with two points in regulation, a commendable result against a team that has had their number all year long. It's no mystery that performance's like tonight's could cause trouble during the postseason-- specifically in the realm of defensive breakdowns and ill-timed penalties-- but the fact remains that the Sharks managed to once again find a way to win despite getting out of the gate slower than a Budweiser Clydesdale who had a little too much fun the night before after celebrating his first commercial for the company.
It wasn't pretty. It wasn't dominant. It wasn't nearly as big of a win that the final score might indicate.
What it is was two points against a Division rival snapping at the heels of the current Pacific Division leaders on a night where a blowout loss at the hands of the Hawks needed to be put behind them.
And San Jose got themselves just that.