Not many people circled the game between the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks on March 26 as a big game. For the Blackhawks, it was another game in a lost season. Key players, including captain Jonathan Toews and top goalie Corey Crawford, were missing. For the Sharks, however, it was perhaps as crucial a game as they’ve had all season.
It was obvious at the time; the schedule that followed the Blackhawks game turned very tough, very quickly. The Sharks, on a seven-game winning streak entering the game, didn’t seem particularly vulnerable. But they were. The Sharks trailed in the game 2-1 before tying it up in late in the second period and eventually winning in overtime. Those two points were critical, because points in upcoming games proved scarce.
The Beginning of the Blues
The next night, the tough part of the schedule began. It started with the Sharks in St. Louis against the Blues. In the game prior to their meeting with the Sharks, the Blues ended the Columbus Blue Jackets 10-game winning streak. San Jose came into St. Louis with an eight-game win streak, while the Blues were on a five-game winning streak of their own.
It was a tough task in a back-to-back game for San Jose. A third game in four nights as well. Not surprisingly, the Sharks ran out of gas towards the latter part of the game, but goalie Aaron Dell was terrific and the game went into overtime. In the extra session, exhausted Sharks skaters looked like spectators and despite Dell’s continued excellent play, it was only a matter of time before someone got the puck past him for the game-winner. Vladimir Tarasenko did the honors for St. Louis, making the final score 3-2.
Battling the Division Leaders
The challenge facing the Sharks after the Blues game was two more road games against the two best teams in the Western Conference. First the Nashville Predators, then the Vegas Golden Knights. These are opponents good enough to beat you, even if you have your ‘A’ game. Nashville did just that. The game was among the best in the NHL this season. The Sharks played a terrific game, but Nashville did as well. Preds goalie Juuse Saros was phenomenal, stopping San Jose on multiple breakaways, a penalty shot, and several other high-quality chances.
Three times the Preds scored, and three times the Sharks evened up the score. But they couldn’t get the equalizer to the Preds’ fourth tally and, an empty-net goal with 17 seconds left made the final score 5-3.
Two nights later, the Sharks went to Vegas and put up their ‘B’ game, and quite simply, it wasn’t good enough. Once again, the Sharks never led but were close all game long. William Karlsson’s shorthanded goal (and goal-of-the-year candidate) midway through the third period broke the 2-2 tie and gave Vegas a 3-2 win.
The Rest of the Sharks’ Regular Season
The schedule isn’t easy for their final three games. The Dallas Stars are reeling and it’ll be important to take advantage of this game and lock down a playoff spot. The two teams the Sharks play to close out the season, the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche, are battling for a playoff spot. The Sharks can expect their best efforts despite important recent injuries suffered by both teams.
Entering the game against Chicago, the Sharks had won seven straight games. Even if the team was winning, there were danger signs ahead. Only two of the wins came against teams headed to the playoffs. The win over Chicago, the eighth in a row, was pivotal. Because of the win over Chicago and the overtime point salvaged in St. Louis, the Sharks are in good shape to capture a playoff spot. The question is, what will they do with it?
The Sharks’ Playoff Keys
If one watched the game against Nashville, it’d be easy to conclude the Sharks are fully capable of winning a Stanley Cup. The Sharks team that played two nights later against Vegas? Not so much. Probably a first-round exit. The team that played against St. Louis before running out of gas was capable of making a solid playoff run. The team that struggled to get past Chicago the night before would also struggle to get out of the opening round.
One player stands out as critical, and that’s goalie Martin Jones. I wasn’t surprised by head coach Peter DeBoer’s heavy use of Jones, but I’m not enamored of the strategy. Jones has started 15 of the last 17 games, even though Dell has been solid all season and Jones is a better goalie when he isn’t overworked. In the 15 games, Jones has allowed three regulation goals six times – but three times in the last three games. The warning sign is there.
One unit stands out as critical, and that’s the power play. Joe Thornton wasn’t having a great season overall before his knee injury in January, but he was money on a revamped power play. San Jose has scored just seven power-play goals in the last 25 games. In the last 25 games Thornton played prior to his injury, the power play sizzled, scoring 25 times. The Sharks have survived with limited scoring from the power play in large part due to a superb penalty kill. In the same 25-game stretch with the slumping power play, the Sharks have yielded only seven goals on the penalty kill – and only two of the goals cost the team points in the standings (strangely enough, lowly Vancouver scored three power-play goals in a game the Sharks won).
Jekyll and Hyde?
The eight-game winning streak followed by a three-game losing streak isn’t as Jekyll-and-Hyde as it might appear. The quality of the competition coupled with specific schedule challenges factor into both streaks. Over the 11 games, the Sharks are 2-2-1 against teams headed to the playoffs and 6-0-0 against those who aren’t. In the five games against teams headed to the playoffs, four were one-goal games or went to overtime (excluding empty-net goals). This is not a team that gets rattled on the road or is overpowering at home.
DeBoer’s challenge is to prepare the team for the grinding environment of the playoffs. What the Sharks need is to play many games at the level they played against Nashville and not so many games at the level played against teams like Chicago and Vegas. They can play with anyone, at least for a while. If they can deliver a consistent game at a high level, they’ll keep playing for a lot longer.
The Sharks signed Dylan Gambrell, their second-round pick in 2016. Gambrell is fresh off his tenure with the University of Denver Pioneers. Denver won the NCAA title last season and made it to the regional final this season before bowing out. Gambrell was given an auspicious number. He’ll wear 14, the same number worn by Patrick Marleau (early in his career), Jonathan Cheechoo, and Ray Whitney.
With the Sharks out of town, Cirque du Soleil came to San Jose with their ice show. Playing to the home crowd, Crystal, the eponymous star of the show, donned a number 18 Sharks jersey. Of course, she looked nothing like Mike Ricci, the most famous Sharks player to wear the jersey. Or Mike Brown, the most recent.