The San Jose Sharks managed to accomplish a couple of good things despite a bad day in Pittsburgh facing the Penguins. San Jose relinquished six goals in the first period before losing 8-5, which is no way to start the New Year or a four-game road trip. But their terrible start was followed by a spirited rally and a nice NHL debut performance by goalie Zachary Sawchenko, who replaced James Reimer in the opening period.
Sharks Show Some Spunk
Embarrassed, harassed, and trailing 6-1 after a period, the Sharks deserve credit for shaking off the first 20 minutes and pulling within a goal in the third period to make the Penguins bench a little uncomfortable. Of course, a team isn’t going to take off their skates and head back to the hotel, but it’s hard to stay motivated when you get buried so quickly.
Alexander Barabanov scored for San Jose in the first period and Brent Burns in the second, but they seemed more like meaningless statistics than a genuine comeback attempt at the time. The true rally began in the opening seconds of the final stanza with aggressive play and a little bit of puck luck.
Jake Middleton sent a pass to Matt Nieto, who fired a shot that initially missed the cage, but the puck ricocheted off the boards behind the net, flipped into the crease, and hit Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith before becoming one of the oddest goals the Sharks have scored in a long time. That moment changed the complexity of the game, and San Jose suddenly had the momentum.
The Sharks pushed the rest of the way, outplaying the Penguins, who seemed stunned, to make it a close game. Middleton scored, then Logan Couture made it 6-5 with about four minutes left as PPG Paints Arena fell quiet. The Penguins settled things down when Edwin Rodrigues finished off his hat trick and added an empty-netter to make it look like it wasn’t as close as it became.
While several Sharks padded their stats on this night – Timo Meier played great with three assists – the team’s overall defensive effort in the final 40 minutes has to be acknowledged. Sure, the Penguins may have coasted after building a big lead, but the Sharks were sharper. Middleton was strong in all three zones and had a two-point game.
Sawchenko’s Promising Debut
He showed up to the arena as an observer, but Sawchenko came into a blowout and had the kind of debut that would get any coach’s attention. Reimer was mercifully pulled after the first period. Part of the reason for waiting until the break to make the move was likely because Adin Hill was in COVID-19 protocol and has been reassigned to the AHL for conditioning. So, Sawchenko was sent out to see what he could do, and he did plenty.
“Obviously, it wasn’t how you draw it up,” Sawchenko said about his relief appearance. “But at the end of the day, you’re kind of tapped on your shoulder…We’re professionals here. We have a job to do. I understood the situation we were in. I was trying to give the team a spark. Luckily enough, we made a comeback and just fell a little short there.”
He stopped 20 of 21 shots, including some impressive saves. Midway through the second period, he robbed the Penguins’ Drew O’Connor with a glove save when O’Connor tried to put the puck past the post. Rodrigues finally beat him, but it was a fine outing.
Sawchenko’s stats weren’t great this season for the San Jose Barracuda of the American Hockey League, going 3-6-0 with a 4.36 goals-against average and .859 save percentage. But his play in Pittsburgh will earn him another shot soon.
San Jose’s Nightmare First Period
There are bad starts, and then there’s the total embarrassment of what happened in the first period against the Penguins. You could argue that it’s best to throw this one out: it’s not indicative of the Sharks’ talent, they had to make a 3,000-mile trip, and everybody has a stinker once in a while.
There is one reason for real concern, however. This is the second time in three games that San Jose’s defense has completely fallen apart. At least this time, it was against a quality opponent, but they allowed seven goals against the inept Arizona Coyotes at home on Dec. 28, and they have given up 22 goals in the past four games.
As they did against Arizona, the Sharks were caught standing still in their own zone. Reimer had a poor outing and little help, a bad combination for any goalie. It’s hard to single out any player because no one was impressive in the first 20 minutes. The Penguins were happy to take advantage of this, especially Rodrigues and Bryan Rust, who had five points.
Sharks Have Been Worse
Believe it or not, this was not the worst period the Sharks have had in Pittsburgh. As an expansion team, they skated into Pittsburgh on Dec. 17, 1991, and allowed eight second-period goals in a 10-2 drubbing. It’s the most goals Pittsburgh has scored in a period in team history. On that day, San Jose had Jarmo Myllys in net, George Kingston was the head coach, and team captain was Doug Wilson, now general manager of the Sharks.
They have a very different team in 2022, one that is capable of putting a bad day in Steel City in the past. But the Sharks need to find the formula to shore up their defense.
Scott Linesburgh has been a sports writer for 35 years, and has spent more than 15 years as a pro hockey beat writer. He has covered some of the biggest sporting events, including the Super Bowl and Indianapolis 500. A native of Long Island, N.Y. who grew up as an Islander fan, Scott cover the San Jose Sharks for THW, and is always looking for the stories beyond the box scores.