Quick Bites: Back home and back in the loss column

Who needed a two-game win streak, anyway?

With just two more home games on the schedule, the San Jose Sharks’ season is coming to a close. Night after night, it seems like the Sharks are a different team altogether. Sometimes they’re a cohesive, goal-scoring machine that can lock down the neutral zone like they own the ice. Sometimes (such as in this game) they look like a team waiting for the regular season to fizzle out.

James Reimer was in the net, with Jeffrey Viel in for Jasper Weatherby and Jonathan Dahlen back up on the top line. Beyond that, there weren’t many chances to the roster after their last win, and for the first five minutes, it looked like a repeat performance, this time against the St. Louis Blues.

Noah Gregor, who has found great chemistry alongside Rudolfs Balcers and Thomas Bordeleau (and his boundless, 20-year-old kid energy) sped up the middle to go five-hole on Jordan Binnington, with barely four minutes gone in the first. The opening goal began with a nifty flip play from Balcers.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but those first five minutes were as good as the team looked for the majority of the game. Gregor’s goal hit the Blues’ alarm clock because just two minutes later, Dakota Johnson tied the score at one when the Sharks lost coverage in front of their own net. Johnson was able to get a backhand feed through the slot and put it right under Reimer’s arm.

From then on, St. Louis took control and San Jose scrambled to keep up. They had a hard time corralling the puck in their own zone and communicating with each other. Missed passes, defensive holes — you name it, we saw it, beginning in the first and continuing throughout the game. Reimer was the early saving grace, although a hat needs to be tipped to Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who stepped into plays and connected well with Timo Meier, making smart moves at the blue line.

With eight minutes left in the first, Vlasic was called for a penalty (the first of many, many power plays for the Blues), but if there’s a bright spot, it was the Sharks' penalty kill. It was attentive, decisive, and explosive. Not only did each unit pinch to the sides and eliminate as many high-scoring chances as possible, but they also generated a few shorthanded opportunities of their own.

It was a good thing the penalty kill was so strong, because at the end of the first, with less than a minute and a half, Meier was called for holding, which meant that the Sharks would have to begin the second on the penalty kill, after having spent most of the first on a constant backcheck.

Just thirty seconds in, Robert Thomas scored the only power play goal that the Sharks allowed. It began as a wrap-around attempt that turned into a top-corner goal.

I’ll be honest, it didn’t feel likely that the Sharks would be able to make up the one-goal deficit. Prior to their first win in 10 games, the team has lost mostly by one goal. The good news is that it shows the Sharks are capable of maintaining a close game, even when outshot and outplayed, mostly due to the efforts of their goaltending and a select few skaters.

The bad news is that it often makes for frustrating losses in games that feel winnable, or at the very least close. The difference between a good team and a great team is being able to overcome those deficits and find the extra gear that allows for successful comebacks.

And it wasn’t for lack of trying on the Sharks’ part. Balcers, Nieto and Couture all had breaks and chances in the second. The Blues were able to move the puck faster than the Sharks back check could follow it, working cohesively and coherent, even if the score didn’t necessarily reflect how total their control on the ice was.

The Sharks were given their own power play opportunity with 8:30 left in the period, however, puck mismanagement and Ryan Merkley being a little too fancy with the puck led to losing battles behind their own net and shorthanded chances for the Blues.

The team’s woes came to a head with under five minutes remaining when the top line was caught out on the ice, as icing after icing prevented them from making line changes.  Dahlen had nearly two minutes of ice time in a shift.

Eventually, the Sharks were able to make a change, although it came at the price of Tomas Hertl lifting the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty. Whether the penalty was due to fatigue or on purpose, it wasn’t a terrible idea, because it led to Couture and Gregor putting up several shorthanded chances.

The third period was very much the same, with the Blues controlling the pace of play so much so that it didn’t feel like they were only down one goal. After totaling only five shots on net in the second period, combined with the fact that the Blues were not playing super physically (a rarity for St. Louis), it was clear that the Sharks needed to find some sort of energy if they wanted to take this game to overtime.

Though it felt like the Sharks were struggling with communication and chemistry, there were several players who stood out. Nick Bonino found himself with several chances at around the halfway mark, galvanizing the rest of his line. And, when the Sharks found themselves playing at 4-on-4, due to Viel and Vladimir Tarasenko each being handed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, for a brief moment it looked like the team could get it done.

But the shirts soon hung Reimer out to dry. Shift changes became too long the defensive coverage started to lag. A string of power plays for the Blues shockingly led to more shorthanded chances, but even after several good shifts for Bordeleau, Gregor and Nieto, Buchnevich’s empty netter in the final seconds put the game away, affirming what we all knew —  a two-game winning streak was too good to be true.