Winning Play: Opportunity lost?

Not that the Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks needed this lesson, but the lottery-bound Florida Panthers were all too happy to demonstrate once again how thin the margin is between winning and losing hockey in their 4-2 victory.

It’s a routine save, not made. A line change, seconds too soon. A typical pass, inches off.

For the Sharks, and considering the caliber of opponent, at this stage of the season, the implications of this loss could be far-reaching — or, pardon me, just a fart in the wind.

Up 2-1 early in the middle frame, Martin Jones allowed a goal to Dryden Hunt that even his head coach couldn’t defend.

“None of us liked, including him, the second goal,” Pete DeBoer acknowledged.

Brent Burns followed with an obvious too many men on the ice infraction:

Burns (88) jumped off the bench, perhaps anticipating a stretch pass to Jonathan Huberdeau (11). Unfortunately, Brenden Dillon (4) had barely crossed center ice.

“We just weren’t really smart, taking penalties that cost us,” Kevin Labanc noted. He wasn’t speaking specifically of the Burns penalty, but instead, of the five power plays that Florida received. That’s the most man-advantage opportunities surrendered by a usually-disciplined San Jose squad in more than a month.

DeBoer added, “We didn’t help ourselves, took too many penalties. That’s usually the result of reaching because your legs aren’t moving enough.”

Killing the Burns penalty, the Sharks' penalty kill got off to a promising start, with Tomas Hertl (48) leading a potential odd-man rush alongside Logan Couture (39). But on entry, Hertl sailed a pass behind Couture.

The Panthers pounced, and sniper Mike Hoffman (68) enjoyed a runway with which to step into his shot.

Down 3-2, the Marcus Sorensen, Joe Thornton and Kevin Labanc line pushed back, but even their energy was undone by a lack of execution:

On the counterattack, Thornton (19) tossed it at an unsuspecting Labanc (62), who clearly was not ready for the pass — Labanc wasn’t even looking for the puck. Both would probably blame themselves for this missed connection.

This turnover would eventually lead to Labanc, on the same shift, apparently passing it into Sorensen’s (20) skates. Another San Jose turnover, another Florida counterattack. Labanc was beat to the net for the dagger by Frank Vatrano (72).

Couture admitted, “We were sloppy all night, everything.”

This isn’t to assess too much blame on the aforementioned Sharks. Bad games, bad plays happen. 100 times out of 100, you’d trust Burns to make the correct line change, Thornton or Hertl or Labanc to make a critical pass. Even Jones will make that save well more than 90 percent of the time.

“I thought it hit us tonight, five games in eight nights, back and forth across to Minnesota and Winnipeg and back,” said DeBoer.

But neck and neck with the Calgary Flames for the Pacific Division and Western Conference crowns, this loss, this lack of execution has to rankle a little, especially considering Calgary’s soft remaining schedule.

Granted, San Jose’s schedule isn’t exactly daunting either. But Nashville, followed by Vegas still loom on this homestand.

This is a loss that the Sharks will rue if they can’t hold onto the Pacific. And if they can’t, San Jose will draw the very dangerous Golden Knights in the first round.

These little plays can be the margins between a Stanley Cup or a first-round elimination.

Or not. DeBoer projected a fair, much-ado-about-nothing air: “You’re not going to win every game. We’re 6-1 [in our last seven], we’ve just come out of some tough buildings. It was two weeks ago we were seven points back. We’re in a pretty good spot. We worked awful hard to get there.”