Roberto Luongo made sure of the rest, earning the top spot among the pictured stars to keep Florida alive during a San Jose-record 29-shot third period that included four penalty kills. In the end, too few of his 52 saves were obscured and his counterpart did not have a strong enough game to bail out his team's mistakes.
With the push to the Stanley Cup playoffs underway, this is a results-oriented business. Working hard to make up for what coach Todd McLellan refers to as cheating the game only constitutes playing well when it gets a win.
After out-shooting the Panthers 10-7 in a scoreless and rather dispassionate first period, the Sharks finally broke through on the power play 4:06 into the second period: Matt Nieto threw a cross-ice feed off Brent Burns and Marty Havlat reached it in the slot, slapping it home before Luongo could set.
Havlat has now doubled his goal total after March 3 with four goals in his last six games. Ironically, the prodigious passer has only one assist in that time and scored his four goals on just 11 shots.
Brandon Pirri's takeaway 11:16 into the period changed things quickly, as he tied it up seven seconds later. From then until the 13:28 mark, Florida won four of six faceoffs and registered a 5-1 edge in shots (6-1 attempts), scoring twice.
The recent addition and 2013 Stanley Cup champion then won the faceoff two draws later and got the puck back from Jimmy Hayes before shooting it on another fellow former Chicago champion. Antti Niemi failed to control it and his attempt (intentional or not) to kick it clear as it trickled through put the puck right on the stick of Quinton Howden for the easy deposit.
San Jose regained control of the game but could not beat Luongo. With 1:01 left, it was Colby Robak's turn to cue an attack with a takeaway—this time aided by a Joe Thornton giveaway eight seconds later. After Nick Bjugstad had his shot blocked by Scott Hannan, Joey Crabb got possession and threw a feed across the slot to an uncovered Scottie Upshall for the one-timer score with 15 seconds left before the second intermission.
That capped the time not dominated by the Sharks. In the other 57:02, they held a 44-30 edge in the circle with only one more turnover (giveaways plus opponent takeaways), helping build a 53-19 edge in shots and 98-34 in attempts. All they could muster was one more score—after Thornton lost a faceoff, the puck came off his stick toward Brent Burns, who fired in a quick shot Luongo could not read with just over three minutes to go.
The Panthers naturally held the edge in hits (21-7) and blocks (24-9), but those numbers are only marginally better considering they were always defending. From the 6:05 mark of the third period until there was only 6:19 left in the game, only 27 seconds was not spent killing penalties. The league-worst penalty kill even overcame 51 seconds down two men.
With the loss, the Sharks blew the opportunity to have the Pacific Division lead when they host the Anaheim Ducks Thursday. That crown could make the difference of a championship because it avoids a matchup with the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs that is bound to wear down both teams.
The regulation loss dropped San Jose to 21-7-3 against the Eastern Conference and 25-5-4 at home. Florida is now 8-11-4 against the Western Conference and 13-20-3 on the road.
It should be noted that Raffi Torres did not play for the fourth consecutive game. Early indications are that he is vital to a Stanley Cup run. In the five games he has played after the break for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the Sharks are 4-0-1 with 22 goals scored. In the five he did not play, they are 3-2-0 with 12 goals.
He might have also provided a little more intensity early and a little more focus during those 178 seconds of the middle frame. If he sits out against the last Eastern Conference foe Saturday but can play the other 11 games against the Western Conference, the Sharks can win the Pacific Division and position themselves well for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.