Three weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the Sharks upcoming schedule featuring a dozen daunting games. I noted seven games were against their closest division rivals. Of the other five games, two were against division leaders Montreal and Chicago. Two others were against the league’s hottest teams at the time; Minnesota, winners of six in a row, and Philadelphia, winners of 10 in a row.
Of the 12 games, 11 came against teams sitting in a playoff position.
The Sharks topped the NHL Pacific standings prior to the start of the daunting dozen. In order to smooth out the rankings due to differences in games played, I’ll look at the difference between wins and regulation losses from where teams started and where they finished.
The Sharks entered their daunting dozen with seven more wins than regulation losses, followed closely by Anaheim with six. Edmonton and Los Angeles were tied with three mores wins than regulation losses; Calgary was close behind with two.
In the dozen games, the Sharks compiled a record of 7-4-1. For the season, they improved to 10 more wins than regulation losses (from seven). Both Anaheim and Edmonton kept pace with the Sharks. Anaheim was up to nine (from six). Edmonton up to six (from three). Calgary improved to four (from two), losing a bit of ground. The Kings, though, didn’t move, they remained stuck with just three more wins than losses.
The daunting dozen gave the Sharks an opportunity to separate themselves from the pack. This didn’t happen, as Anaheim and Edmonton also stayed strong. San Jose won all three games against their two closest rivals, including an overtime win against each. The Sharks’ success in these head-to-head matches kept both teams from getting closer to the Sharks.
If there was an opportunity missed, it came against the Kings. The Sharks lost twice, once in overtime. The chance to bury the Kings far down the standings might be a missed opportunity. However, the Sharks were without injured defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic for both games, and the Sharks are simply not as good without Vlasic.
Vlasic’s injury came very late against Philadelphia (a puck to the face resulting in some fractures), causing him to miss the next four games. In those games, San Jose was 1-2-1. In the other eight games with Vlasic, San Jose was 6-2-0, once again demonstrating how enormously valuable the shutdown defenseman is to the Sharks.
The Daunting Dozen Recap
In the first game, on the road against Montreal, the Sharks moved out to a 4-0 lead, chasing goalie Carey Price for the first time in nearly 100 starts. A furious Montreal comeback in the final period fell short, and the Sharks won 4-2. Importantly, youngsters Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc made significant contributions.
The next game was in Chicago. After scoring the opening goal, the Sharks gave up the next four in a 4-1 loss. It was a good effort by San Jose’s skaters, but a rare off-night for Sharks goalie Martin Jones. A sizzling performance from Chicago goalie Scott Darling led to the final score.
Back in San Jose on Tuesday, Dec. 20, the Sharks had a dream day. Not only did they beat division rival Calgary in regulation, two other teams in the close division race also lost; Los Angeles in overtime and Anaheim in regulation. The Sharks garnered two points, while their three rivals combined for just a single point. Three games into the daunting dozen and San Jose was looking good.
San Jose next bested division rivals Edmonton and Anaheim, both in overtime. San Jose played a strong game at home against Edmonton before Christmas and a poor road game against Anaheim after Christmas. Still, the results were identical. A tie game at the end of 60 minutes, followed by San Jose cautiously handling the puck in overtime until the opponent erred, allowing San Jose to win.
To finish out the year, the Sharks played back-to-back games. First they shut out Philadelphia at the Shark Tank behind Aaron Dell. Dell upped his save percentage to .936, begging the question: why he isn’t being used more? Alas, this was the game defenseman Vlasic took a puck to the face in the final half-minute of play. Vlasic left the game immediately and was placed on injured reserve. Halfway through the daunting dozen, the Sharks held a 5-1-0 record.
For New Year’s Eve, San Jose traveled to Los Angeles to meet the archrival Kings. The Sharks lost 3-2 in regulation. To start the New Year, the Kings made the trip to the Shark Tank, and won 2-1, in overtime. Third pair defenseman David Schlemko did not play latter in the game. Though there was no sense of a serious injury, Schlemko has been out since then. His absence further thinned the Sharks’ defensive group. Down two blueliners, Mirco Mueller made his season debut for the Sharks.
The ninth game of the daunting dozen was the most entertaining. San Jose and Minnesota played a tight game. The Wild trailed 2-0 when they earned a power play with under two minutes left in the second period. Just 12 clock minutes later, the Wild led 5-4. Martin Jones didn’t have a good game, but defensive lapses also cost the Sharks. They lost for the third straight game (not coincidentally, the third straight game with Vlasic on the shelf). With three games left in the daunting dozen, the Sharks’ record had slipped to 5-3-1.
If there was an easy game in the daunting dozen, it was most likely to be against a banged up and struggling Detroit team. San Jose took full advantage, putting up their highest scoring effort of the season in a 6-3 romp.
The final two games of the daunting dozen were in Alberta, first against the Oilers, the next night against Calgary. After missing the prior three games, the Sharks placed Schlemko on injured reserve before their trip north.
In Edmonton, the Sharks reached the midpoint of the season. The suddenly high-scoring team beat the Oilers 5-3, behind a hat trick from fourth line forward (at least for this game) Mikkel Boedker. Vlasic’s return to the lineup helped as well. Often lined up against MVP candidate Connor McDavid, Vlasic kept the league’s top scorer pointless. Vlasic also added a pair of assists and had seven blocked shots. However, during the game, the Sharks lost defenseman Dylan DeMelo to injury, providing another challenge to their defensive depth.
Against Calgary, Dell stepped into goal for just the second time in a month. A bizarre line-up card error resulted in San Jose playing most of the game with just five defensemen. Missing were Paul Martin, Schlemko and Mueller. However, Tim Heed made his NHL debut. Unfamiliar pairings led to two Calgary goals in a 3-2 Sharks regulation loss. It was another solid outing for Dell, who will be needed as the frequency of back-to-back games ramps up.
A Very Good Dozen
The Sharks began the daunting dozen with Tomas Hertl on the shelf. During this stretch, Schlemko missed five games, Vlasic missed four, Martin one and DeMelo one. Twice, the Sharks played a large portion of the game with just five defensemen. Even so, the Sharks finished the daunting dozen 7-4-1. Given the high quality of the competition and the number of division games, treading water would have been a respectable result. The team did better than that. The success is a strong positive for San Jose. The only concern? Injuries to the defensive group, especially with Schlemko on IR and DeMelo likely to join him there.
In the next dozen games, the Sharks only play four against teams in a playoff spot. Only one game, versus Chicago, is against a team with a better record. Three of the twelve are against Arizona or Colorado, the teams with the worst records in the league. The Sharks can pick up a bunch of points before beginning the stretch drive for the playoffs.
In the daunting dozen, Brent Burns further solidified what is rapidly becoming a lock on the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. And while the Hart Trophy as league MVP is rarely given to defensemen (once in the last 40-plus years), it is getting harder for the rest of the league to ignore his candidacy. Burns delivered 16 points, 12 at even strength, and a plus-9 rating in the dozen games.
One of the great things about hockey is the opportunity to be illogical. Carey Price of Montreal is considered the best goalie in the world. Martin Jones beat Price twice earlier in the year. In the recent games against the Kings, Peter Budaj out-dueled Jones twice. Does this mean Peter Budaj is now the world’s best goalie?