The San Jose Sharks had everything set up the way they wanted Sat., April 5. The Nashville Predators came into town playing on a second consecutive night on a road trip with a backup goalie and two points away from elimination from the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Better yet, the Sharks had a chance to get back in the race for the Pacific Division title because the Predators had just beaten the Anaheim Ducks. Instead, the team with only one star also swept the pictured stars of the game to take this game easily.
San Jose actually had the advantage for most of the first period, but came out flat in the second. Nashville took advantage, scoring three goals in 9:28.
The first came just over three minutes in. Antti Niemi failed to control a rebound of a Matt Cullen shot, and Patric Hornqvist punched it by him. Colin Wilson got the secondary assist.
Horqvist struck again about nine minutes in with a one-timer goal set up beautifully by Nick Spaling, who fought off a defender for the puck that Calle Jarnkrok had gotten deep. Once he came clear, he found the open man in the slot.
Hornqvist looked like he had the third goal over four minutes later while crowding the crease, but he did get the secondary assist when Roman Josi got the puck from Shea Weber and attacked the net. The puck went off Jason Demers, who admitted in the post-game broadcast that he was responsible for being beaten on the play to begin with.
The Sharks dominated in a 19-shot third period but still could not pierce their old prospect's net. They hit iron three times (twice for Brent Burns) while only getting that bounce once on the other end, but Carter Hutton has his first career NHL shutout.
In short, San Jose lost the battles. In the circle, the best faceoff team in the 2013-14 NHL season won just 31 of 72. Yet it also gave the puck away a whopping 20 times to just six for Nashville, though that is somewhat mitigated by a 13-2 edge in takeaways.
Despite those extra 13 possessions, the Predators faced 30 more shot attempts and allowed 11 more on net. They also blocked over twice as many shots (21-10) as the third-best shot-blocking team in the NHL. It represents about one more block in every 20 attempts and about two-thirds the number of shots allowed per block.
Could it be that the Sharks are not committing to blocking shots with the potential of injury as the Stanley Cup playoffs approach? In three of their last four games—but not the big one against the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings—they have had no more than 10 blocks.
All the players shown in the post-game interviews echoed the sentiments of coach Todd McLellan that the lack of defensive responsibility was unacceptable in the 79th game of the season. If it was not a lack of passion fueling poor defending, perhaps the poor defending fuels a lack of passion.
Either way, this game was a stinker when a gem was needed to realistically avoid facing the Kings in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. Admit it or not, this is the team no one wants to face. They are a bruising, grinding, championship team that is playing well down the stretch, has probably the best goalie in the world and added a needed scoring-line forward at the trade deadline.
They could have been Anaheim's problem. Failure to earn any wins against non-playoff teams like Nashville, the Buffalo Sabres or Carolina Hurricanes mean Los Angeles will be San Jose's problem as the second-place team in the Pacific Division. Just having to get through them lessens the chance of winning a Stanley Cup, much less the toll that series can have on the ones that follow.
The Ducks still hold a one-point lead and the tiebreak over the Sharks, and play the two extra games on the next two nights before the teams meet in the Honda Center Wednesday. Even if the hosts did lose both games in hand in regulation, they would need simply to reach overtime to hold onto the top spot.
San Jose hosts one more game after dropping to 26-7-5 at home on the 2013-14 NHL season. The magic number for Anaheim to repeat as regular season champions of the Pacific Division is just five.