The long-awaited Brent Burns debut game for the 2013 NHL season turned out to be Saturday, February 9. It was not what he or the San Jose Sharks had in mind, as Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith stopped everything that came his way in regulation, overtime and the shootout.
It was Smith's fourth shutout in his last six starts against Pacific Division rival San Jose. The Sharks have just six goals in 177 shots over those games, giving Smith a 5-0-1 record and an eye-popping .966 save percentage.
Adding Burns to the lineup gave he Sharks one more offensive weapon on the blue line. To make room for him on the roster, they optioned Matt Irwin back to the their minor league affiliate in Worcester, MA—one of two predicted moves laid out in the game preview Thursday, as an ill Andrew Desjardins was also scratched in favor of T.J. Galiardi.
Irwin had a goal and an assist in his first nine NHL games. Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area doubted via Twitter Friday that the rookie would be sent down because head coach Todd McLellan had said, "He's made enough of an impression to be an NHL player."
However, no other defenseman could be moved off the roster without clearing waivers—a move made with reserve Nick Petrecki, whose time in San Jose may have come to a permanent end. With four players fighting for the final two blue line spots, getting a young player ice time in the minors is better for his development than playing sporadically in the NHL.
Thus for Irwin to stay in the NHL, he needed to offer more than two of the other three fighting their way on. He is the second-best of the four offensively to Jason Demers, whose defending (nine hits, three blocks and two takeaways in three games) has improved enough to no longer be considered a liability. He lacks the shot-blocking and hitting prowess of Douglas Murray that is at such a premium for the Sharks, and Justin Braun's experience makes him a safer choice for the seventh defenseman.
Optioning Irwin made room on the roster for Burns, but not on the ice. The Sharks decided to sit Murray, replacing their stay-at-home defenseman with a rusty one that likes to jump up in the play. Yet there was no boost to the offense or hit to the defense: Antti Niemi faced just 21 shots through 65 minutes, earned his first shutout of the season and faced only one shot in three chances on a penalty kill that has now shut down 34 straight opportunities.
Phoenix came out of the gate faster, having played Thursday while San Jose had been off since Tuesday. They had a 7-2 edge in shots and 12-6 in attempts through the first 7:05 of the game before their intensity could be matched. From that point on, the home team had a 67-33 edge in attempts and got 31 on net to just 14 for the visitors.
Part of the reason for their early struggles was the sloppy giveaways by San Jose. They had 11 in the first period but finished with 20, giving them 26 more than the next worst NHL team in that category (Toronto has 111). In fact, the shot dominance came despite a deficit of 16 possessions: Phoenix won five more draws, had five more takeaways and six fewer giveaways.
By the third period, the Sharks were dominating thanks in part to three power plays. (After failing in four chances, they are now one for their last 25). They had more dynamite scoring chances among their 15 shots than the Coyotes got to the net (three), but Smith was up to the task every time.
In the shootout, both Coyotes (Mikkel Boedker and Radim Vrbata) scored and both Sharks (Michal Handzus and James Sheppard) were turned away. With the loss, the Anaheim Ducks are a full game ahead of their northern California rivals in the Pacific Division.
Examiner.com's three stars of the game:
- Smith had given up three or more goals and had a save percentage under .900 in four of his previous seven games, including allowing six goals in 35:08 Thursday. None of that mattered, as he was obviously and decisively the best player on either team.
- Niemi only had to make a few impressive saves, but did keep the Sharks in the game through the rough start.
- Zbynek Michalek blocked eight shots and had a takeaway in 25:02 on the ice.