13 games left in the season. The time for excuses is over. Entering the game vs Nashville, they sat in 10th place in the Western Conference. They have no margin for error, no time to “work on getting better”. They will either sharpen up down the stretch and rise to the occasion or miss the postseason for the first time since 2003. And to miss the playoffs, for a team with these type of expectations, would be considered nothing short of catastrophic.
The Sharks aren’t the only team with aspirations to break into the top eight. Calgary won last night to move ahead of San Jose into 9th place (for the moment). Colorado got another point in a shootout loss (did I mention I despise the shootout?) at New Jersey. The scoreboard watching isn’t going so well, so it’s time to concentrate on what you can control.
Last night they opened up a 3 game homestand against the Nashville Predators, one of the best in the West. Nashville came into the game with 89 points, nipping at Detroit’s heels for 4th in the Conference. The Predators and particularly their keeper, Pekka Rinne have owned the Sharks lately. As you might suspect, they are good on the road. Coming in they were 18-13-2 away from Nashville on the season.
Things didn’t start according to plan. The Sharks penalty kill has ranked near the bottom of the league.– Michael Handzus, who was brought in to help shore up the PK has been so bad, he has been a healthy scratch for 3 straight games. Typically guys making 2.5 mill per don’t ride pine when they’re healthy. He is a current resident of the Todd McLellan dog house.– Back to the game… Ryane Clowe had an awful turnover that led to the Sharks taking a penalty. The Preds victimized a porous Sharks PK with Patric Hornqvist burying a chance with just 6 seconds left on the penalty. Douglass Murray and Patrick Marleau were both guilty of letting Hornqvist roam free in the zone untouched. The Sharks did out shoot Nashville in the 1st period, but legit scoring chances were few and far between.
That trend continued in the second period. Both teams traded a few chances, and the physical play definitely picked up. The Sharks just couldn’t solve Pekka Rinne and after 40 minutes it was still 1-0. Late in the 2nd period the Predators took a penalty. So the Sharks would open the 3rd on the powerplay.
Just :55 seconds into the 3rd period, they capitalized on the powerplay chance. Joe Thornton buried a rebound from out in front and it was all tied at 1-1. The Predators had the better of the chances down the stretch and by the time regulation ended the Sharks had just a 32-30 edge in shots on goal. Both goalies played solid in regulation. Niemi stopped a mini-breakaway with about 6 minutes left to preserve the tie.
In overtime, the Sharks had a good chance to score early but couldn’t cash in. The 4-4 situation in overtime creates a bunch more room for players to operate. Typically overtimes are full of scoring chances and this one certainly had a few as well. But Niemi and Rinne were both up to the task. As OT wore on, the Predators had regained control of things and had a few chances to win it. In the closing seconds, Shea Weber was forced to take a penalty. Despite a quick flurry at the buzzer, the Sharks didn’t have enough time to mount a legitimate scoring chance.
So it was onto the shootout. Did I mention I hate the shootout? Because I do, I really hate the shootout. It undermines the effort of the players for 65 minutes. Hockey is the ultimate team game and it gets decided on an impromptu, individual skills session. Who is better at best of 3 breakaways gets the extra point. Doesn’t that just sound ridiculous? That’s because it is ridiculous.
Lately shootouts involving San Jose involve a lot of participants with little scoring. Last night nobody scored for either side through the first two rounds. Havlat and Pavelski both couldn’t solve Rinne. At 6’5″, Pekka Rinne is an imposing force in the net. He was at his best last night swallowing everything the Sharks threw his way and seldom did he allow a sniff of a rebound. On the Sharks third attempt, Ryane Clowe solved Rinne to put the Sharks up. Niemi then did his part stopping the final attempt for the Predators and the Sharks had a 2-1 shootout victory and a MUCH needed 2 points.
The crowd was good last night, but there was a prevalent sense of trepidation. These are truly anxious times in San Jose. And with every goal Jaime McGinn scores for Colorado, the worse it gets. So with the win, the Sharks have 80 points. They trail McGinn and the Avs by 1 point for the last playoff spot, but they have 3 games in hand. Calgary also has 80 points and the Kings are right behind with 78. Things are tight in the West to say the least.
Martin Havlat returned to action last night. Although he was clearly not up to game speed yet, he was able to use his great hockey sense and still be an impact on the game. He is the piece to round out the Sharks top 6 forwards and get everyone back into their natural role. Havlat is going to be relied upon heavily down the stretch to provide much needed offense.
The Sharks next opponent is Detroit, this Saturday. They are already in town as I saw their Head Coach, Mike Babcock in the press box last night. They have faint hopes to catch St Louis now as the Wings have struggled and the Blues have continued to light the league on fire. They also have Nashville only 1 point behind them in the Central Division.
The Sharks struggles are partially self-imposed, granted. But I also feel the overall talent of the players has risen, teams are just better then they were even 3 or 4 years ago. It’s time for the Sharks to adapt again. The Western Conference is stacked this year. The Sharks now have 12 games to decide their fate. The nice win they picked up against the Predators is certainly something to build on. Even if it came in a shootout. Did I mention I hate the shootout?