For the most of the current coaches and players on the San Jose Sharks, this season will go down as perhaps their second worst on-ice memory. It will not compete with the series loss to the Los Angeles Kings last year, but this season will not be easily forgotten.
Is there a signature moment, a single play that could define the season? To me, there is. To qualify, the moment would need to come at an important time in a pivotal game versus a direct competitor for a playoff spot. It would need to involve controversial figures highlighting the reason they were controversial. In short, a turning point with the right cast of characters.
I’ll start with the two runner-up moments. One came in the Stadium Series game in February versus the Kings. It came on the game winning goal scored by Marion Gaborik following a defensive misplay by Brent Burns. The other top contender did not fit a number of the criteria, though it captured the frustration perhaps better than any other moment this season. It was the Sharks failure to score on nearly 4 minute power play in overtime against Pittsburgh in late March. That failure led to a shoot out, which the Sharks lost in two rounds.
The signature moment needs the proper set-up. The game was against the Vancouver Canucks on March 7. The Sharks had finished a horrid February stretch that included going winless in 8 appearances at the Shark Tank. In March, the Sharks had managed a win at home over Montreal and followed it up the next night with a win in Vancouver. Signs of hope. The Sharks had 4 days off between games to get ready for the second straight match-up with the Canucks. Win that game in regulation and the Sharks would pull within 2 points of the Vancouver, after trailing the Canucks by 7 points on the morning of March 2. The Canucks were shaky, having recently lost Ryan Miller to injury. They had lost 3 of the last 4 games, giving up 19 goals in them, 20 if you count the shootout-losing goal to struggling Arizona.
The Signature Moment
The Sharks bumped out to a 2-0 lead and had control of the game late in the first period. With under a minute to go in the period, the signature moment arrived. It involved Brent Burns on defense, perhaps the most controversial player move of the season due to questions about his defensive game. It involved Radim Vrbata, the sort of free agent player one might have expected San Jose to acquire in a more normal offseason. It involved Antti Niemi, the Sharks goalie having the year that was not quite good enough.
The play itself highlights the liability of Burns on defense. Burns has Vrbata at the initial entry, then leaves him to try and make a play on Nick Bonino. Bonino was already well-defended by a well-positioned Scott Hannan. When Burns left Vrbata for Bonino, Vrbata headed to the net. Bonino, now with two Sharks on him, quickly returns the puck to Vrbata, leaving Scott Hannan to make a desperate switch to fend off Vrbata. Hannan, at a severe disadvantage, manages to force Vrbata to a tough angle and Niemi makes the stop. Hannan cuts to the opposite side of the net to prevent any chance at the crafty Vrbata going around the far side for a wraparound chance or a feed in front. Hannan is relying on Burns and Niemi to fend of any additional chances. Except Burns is no where close to the crease area. He coasts back, allowing Vrbata a second whack at the puck, which results in the goal.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this play is Scott Hannan’s reaction. He can be seen glaring at Burns from the other side of the net, seemingly asking, “what happened to you?”
With less than a minute to go in the period, the momentum gets sucked away from the Sharks and life returns to the Vancouver bench.
The Canucks would take the game, 3-2, in regulation. Burns was on the ice during the second Canuck goal and was in the penalty box for the game-winning third goal. Vancouver would move 6 points ahead of the Sharks and never look back.
A game in the Sharks’ control, in their house, moments away from heading to the locker room up 2 goals. Then comes a critical play made by a controversial player at a pivotal moment against a key rival. Momentum gets taken away and ultimately, defeat gets snatched from the jaws of victory. To me, it captures the Sharks season. Which is why this is the signature moment.