The San Jose Sharks received a bit of bad news before hosting the NHL Pacific Division rival Anaheim Ducks Tuesday, January 29: Dan Boyle was scratched because of the flu. The strain on the blue line increased, with the top two players on the blue line now out along with the unit's top sub.
They also happen to be the three best offensive players. Boyle led the blue line in assists and points while Brent Burns led in goals. While Jason Demers only scored 13 points in 57 games in 2011-12, he had been over a point per three (45) in the first 126 games of his NHL career.
Neither Marc-Edouard Vlasic nor Brad Stuart were good for more than about a point per four games in recent years. Justin Braun (who just hit the 100-game career milestone) and Douglas Murray had a total of 78 points in 525 games between them. Rookie Matt Irwin (goal, assist) was a relative veteran to Nick Petrecki after playing the previous five games.
This depleted unit was going to have to deal with three lines that could score on them. Antti Niemi would have to out-duel Jonas Hiller. And someone outside of the five players that make up the first power play would have to score.
The Sharks are a better team this year. They came into this game unbeaten with the best goal differential in the NHL. But they were much better than the Ducks last year—who are better this year than last—and still were bested five of six times.
Odds were against staying unbeaten, but they got better when Patrick Marleau got the puck to Joe Thornton in the neutral zone. The captain drew the only defender and slid a pass in the high slot to Joe Pavelski, who closed and shot quickly past Hiller's glove.
San Jose held the advantage into the second period, but a bad tripping call on Marleau led to a power play that, when finished, gave Anaheim a 17-5 edge in shots. While technically the penalty was killed off (being part of a string of 13 straight over three games), five seconds later Francois Beauchemin put a goal in from the boards along the goal line.
Personally no angle seen even showed the carom, but the broadcast team said it went off Murray's foot while NHL on the Fly said it hit Niemi. Either way, the game was tied and the Ducks dominance could be felt. They got their next goal on the very next shot when Vlasic couldn't bring the puck out from behind the net with him even though he was alone. The Ducks stole it and fed it to the slot for the open look.
Just like that, the Sharks were down 2-1 and being out-shot 19-5 because the outside of Vlasic and Stuart—both played over 25 minutes—the blue line just could not advance the puck. Murray took bad angles on his exit passes, Braun had three giveaways even though he was assigned two and Irwin's clears were weak. Petrecki hardly touched the puck—seemingly by design—and forwards were looking to pass through or puck-handle around defenders rather than dump it down.
Then San Jose made adjustments. Five of the last seven shots in the second belonged to the home team, and they matched their guests shot-for-shot in the third. And Niemi turned all other shots away—including a couple more highlight reel saves—and got the help of the post twice again Tuesday.
However, with under three minutes left in the game, Ryane Clowe passed the puck to Scott Gomez over the blue line. He left it for Logan Couture, whose shot trickled through Hiller for Gomez's first point in teal. The Sharks nearly lost the game in the final seconds, but survived the final eight minutes including overtime. Michal Handzus had the only shootout goal to give them the extra point.
Both teams were blocking shots well. The Sharks had a 22-15 edge—a slightly higher percentage of shot attempts (67-52 Anaheim) but a lower ratio to shots on goal (30-18). They also did less when they had the puck, losing the four-possession edge in the circle to extra giveaways. Still, their one extra takeaway means one more possession for the team with 12 fewer shots and 15 fewer attempts.
Couture pointed to the lack of shots in the dressing room after the game as a reason he wanted to fire the puck that eventually tied the game. Gomez may have been elevated onto the second line during the game because of what he referred to as the team trying to be "too cute," which may be an indictment on the man he replaced, Martin Havlat. It may have been about splitting up scoring threats or simply shaking players out of their funk.
It worked, but the Sharks better simplify their game if they do not have Boyle back Thursday. The Edmonton Oilers are going to be in town looking for revenge.
Three stars of the game:
- Logan Couture gave the Sharks a shot at two points instead of none with his late goal, plus had a takeaway (but also a giveaway) and was eight of 14 on draws.
- Antti Niemi either should have stopped the puck from going in or from getting to Murray, depending on which television analysts one believes. Otherwise he was basically flawless.
- Francois Beauchemin shows why you throw it on net to see what happens, but he also led either team in blocked shots with five, plus two hits and only one giveaway.