For the first time since the start of the regular season, the San Jose Sharks no longer hold sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division. In fact, the top four teams in the division are separated by a mere two points, and the Sharks are tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the lead.
The Pacific may just be the most competitive division in the NHL, and that certainly held true on Saturday night when the Phoenix Coyotes grinded out a 3-2 shootout victory in San Jose that put Phoenix within a point of the Sharks.
The Epitome of a Home Loss
The Sharks don’t lose many home games (this was their first loss at the SAP Center this season), but when they do, this game was the epitome of how events usually transpire.
It was a game that the Coyotes had no business winning; the Sharks outshot them 50-30 and controlled the tempo for much of the game. But they were stymied by Mike Smith, who stopped 48 shots and earned first star honors.
The Coyotes spent much of the game in their own zone and never sustained much pressure in the Sharks’ end of the ice (they were 0-for-4 on the power play). But they capitalized on what few chances they did have, scoring the first goal of the game just 36 seconds in off of a turnover. Their second goal was the result of a great individual effort by Mikkel Boedker, nearly skating coast-to-coast before firing it low past Antti Niemi. In fact, both goals were shots that should have been stopped by the Sharks’ netminder.
Meanwhile, the Sharks were given plenty of opportunities — six power plays, including a four-minute man advantage near the end of the first period — but did not look crisp and seemed overly passive. Despite applying constant pressure, the Sharks managed just one scoring chance in the entire length of that four-minute power play.
It is a challenge for any opponent to beat the Sharks at home, but the Coyotes had the essential parts to pull it off on Saturday night: a hot goaltender, and the ability to capitalize on their few scoring chances.
Boyle Harsh On Himself
Despite scoring a power play goal in the second period, Dan Boyle was not too pleased with his performance in his first game back since being knocked unconscious on a dirty hit by Maxim Lapierre last month.
“I just felt half a second behind in my skating at times,” he told Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area. “I wasn’t skating as well as I liked, and some of my decision making was about half a second slow.”
Despite that, the Sharks have to be pleased that their top defensemen is back on the ice. Boyle’s value to the franchise became very apparent on Saturday night, as the fans gave him a rousing ovation every time he was shown on the Jumbotron, and erupted even louder than usual when he gave the Sharks the lead in the second period:
Hertl Power Waning?
The media and fans have probably put way too high expectations on Tomas Hertl after his four-goal performance against the Rangers in the third game of the season, because Hertl hasn’t done much since then.
He has just two goals in 11 games since that breakout performance, including a six-game goal-less drought. Keep in mind that he is only 19 years old, but the phrase “one-game wonder” has been thrown around to describe him in recent weeks.
On Saturday night, Hertl had two glorious opportunities to perhaps win the game for the Sharks. With the Sharks up 2-1 midway through the second period, he was denied on a breakaway by Smith after a terrific lead pass from Joe Thornton. Just seconds later, Boedker netted the game-tying goal on the counter-attack. Hertl also had a shootout attempt with a chance to give the Sharks the lead, but his wrist shot missed wide of the net.
The Sharks may have gotten off to a scorching start to the season, but now they’re in the midst of a dogfight in the Pacific division. Five teams — the Sharks, Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and Vancouver Canucks — all have legitimate chances of winning the division. With the new playoff format, the top three teams in each division make the postseason, with two wild card spots per conference.
So unless two teams from the division claim the wild card spots, at least one playoff-worthy team will not be in the chase for the Stanley Cup.
Indeed, it will be a dogfight.