The first four games of the current road trip for the San Jose Sharks have been through the Eastern Conference. They ran their record to 3-1-0 on the trip, 5-1-0 against the Eastern Conference and 10-1-1 on the 2013-14 NHL season with a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators Sunday, October 27.
The win moved them back ahead of the former Western Conference-leading Colorado Avalanche in the standings, though not in point percentage that should be the determinant in a league with so many three-point games. No Eastern Conference team is closer than five points away from the Sharks.
This game was especially tough, starting not 20 hours after San Jose's win in Montreal. Elite goalie Antti Niemi was the last starter standing to abdicate his net to a backup, but Alex Stalock was finally got the first start of his NHL career.
Being opportunistic early in the game allowed the Sharks to play a defensive game and make the game easier for him. He did his part, saving 38 of 40 (.950) to earn his second career win.
That means the defense gave up 40 shots (and 69 attempts) for the first time in the 2013-14 NHL season. They only had 29 shots on 53 attempts, meaning even their edge in blocking shots (16-12) actually represents about the same percentage of attempts (23.2 vs. 22.6 percent) and slightly lower ratio to shots allowed (one to five vs. 4.67 percent). They were out-hit 27-13 and still only drew as many penalties as they took (three, with no scores for either team).
What the Sharks played was not a strong game, but an efficient one. Statistically, they held a 34-29 edge in the circle, had just two takeaways but also just two giveaways. The Senators had five takeaways but 12 giveaways, and it was the loss of a possession battle in the circle that led to four of the seven goals scored. Two others followed hits that changed possession and the other a blocked shot.
Freddie Hamilton, Scott Hannan and Justin Braun made defensive plays that led to scores for San Jose. The other two included the first that started with a faceoff win by Joe Thornton and the second-last that still came on a giveaway when he was on the ice.
By scoring early, the Sharks were able to simplify their game and roll all four lines: Andrew Desjardins (12:03), John McCarthy (10:06) and Mike Brown (10:52) did not exceed 14 minutes of ice time, and only Hannan and Braun had even 20 minutes.
Brown essentially took the spot of Matt Nieto—out with an "upper body injury" according to coach Todd McLellan, who added "I don't think he's going to be really long, but he wasn't able to play." There were no other replacements to the active roster from the night before, but that does not mean there were not changes.
Perhaps the biggest was starting Stalock, but James Sheppard made the leap to Joe Thornton's line and made an immediate impact. On their first shift, he deflected a Jason Demers slap-shot from the point that Tomas Hertl was able to collect for a point-blank shot with goalie Craig Anderson unable to move in the way fast enough.
A little over five minutes later, Desjardins widened the lead when he gathered a puck sent in by Brad Stuart. With his back almost facing Anderson, he whipped a backhand to the blocker-side corner for his first goal of the year. That gave his new fourth line with Brown and McCarthy a goal, and they did not give one up.
The Senators fought back at the middle of the period. From the nine-minute mark until their score at 11:07, they had all four shots and six attempts. The only two other stats accumulated in that 127 seconds were one hit and one takeaway, also both by the home team.
Cory Conacher's miss eventually led to Kyle Turris possessing the puck and finding Erik Karlsson for the one-timer from the point. When Brown was called for interference near the end of the period, it looked like the Sharks may be giving up the lead.
Instead, Logan Couture did a smart pinch in hopes Tommy Wingels could come up with and advance the puck. He did, and ended up cleaning up the rebound from the resulting breakaway.
That shorthanded score re-established a two-goal lead and gave the Sharks the momentum to kill the rest of the penalty. They played better in the second period, but gave up the only goal when Karlsson's hit got the Senators the puck. When they got it in the zone, they set up and a Jason Spezza pass to Karlsson, who found Marc Methot for a point-shot to draw within one with more than half the game to go.
Instead of running out of gas, San Jose stepped on the pedal. Ottawa was out-shot 10-8 over the next 19 minutes. An early-third period giveaway led to Thornton controlling the puck behind the goal and finding Sheppard on the near-side in front of the crease for another of this team's one-timer goals. Braun's block over six minutes later led to getting the puck back on the attack from Wingels and feeding yet another one-timer to Joe Pavelski crashing the net.
Even though the score is misleading, knowing the Sharks can win decisively on the road with a ridiculously short turnaround while their goalie makes his first-ever NHL start is impressive. It was important to see the offense wake up after they scored just three goals in three games without Brent Burns after scoring at least three in every game with him.
Such a win could not come at the hands of just a few players, but the Examiner three stars of the game go to some unexpected players:
- Stuart had an assist and only one shot, but four hits and three blocks.
- Stalock turned away 19 of every 20 shots from a skilled team behind a tired defense in his first start.
- Karlsson may have been on the ice for three goals scored in a significant loss, but one of his three hits led to his assist and he scored the other goal after a one of his two takeaways on one of his astounding nine shots on 15 attempts in 29:29 of ice time.
The Sharks returned home after the game and will make the trip down to Los Angeles Tuesday for their tilt the next day with the Pacific Division rival Kings. Seven of their next nine games are against Western Conference teams, with only three home games in that stretch.