The San Jose Sharks were hosting their biggest non-divisional rival on the back end of their first back-to-back games of the 2013 NHL season Sunday, January 27. The Vancouver Canucks had won six of the last eight regular season contests (and all four at HP Pavilion) sandwiched around a five-game conference finals victory.
San Jose was far from the only team Vancouver dominated in that stretch. They won the President's Trophy in both seasons because they were the best team in goals scored and against and in power play and penalty kill over that two-season span. By contrast, the Sharks were headed on the way down over those two years thanks in large part to the collapse of their penalty kill unit starting in December of 2010.
For the Sharks to win this game, they would have to out-duel the Canucks even strength and stay out of the box to avoid a large special teams deficit. Instead, the game turned into a penalty fest with each side committing at least a dozen penalties and garnering seven power play chances. Ryane Clowe was eventually ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct, resulting in a double minor and an irresponsible eight penalties for 35 minutes.
Amazingly, the first seven power plays of the game came up empty. But that does not mean the penalties did not make a difference. Clowe first responded to Alexandre Burrows taking a shot at Logan Couture before the opening faceoff. Both provocateurs went off for unsportsmanlike conduct, marking the first time in franchise history that a game started four-on-four.
The penalties clearly energized the Sharks, coming off their game the night before. Joe Thornton looked as if his stick blade were a puck magnet on the first shift on the offensive zone. The third time it came back to him was on an attempted clear of a rebound, and he went top-shelf, stick-side on goalie Cory Schneider for the lead less than a minute in. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brad Stuart got the assists.
Joe Pavelski made a great individual play to widen the margin. Alexander Edler tried to go D-to-D in the defensive zone, but Pavelski picked off the pass in the slot and quickly fired it to the open glove side of Schneider.
Vancouver made it a game again when a shot by Burrows was saved by Antti Niemi right into the back of Dan Boyle's skate, knocking it back past the net-minder. But with nine seconds left to kill on their fourth penalty, the skate became an ally to Patrick Marleau. Couture shot a puck off the net that Boyle redirected off Patty.
Just the way they designed it? No, but they practice these plays especially for the power play that has resulted in 12 of 23 goals, not including Matt Irwin's first NHL goal that came 11 seconds after Phoenix returned to even strength. San Jose's 37.5 percent power play success rate is tops in the NHL, and the penalty kill is coming around.
The Sharks have allowed just seven shots while killing nine consecutive penalties to climb to 78.3 percent overall, tied for 17th in a league littered with teams out-of-sync. Taking out the goals yielded both times they faced five-on-three situations for more than a minute, the Sharks have actually killed 85.7 percent.
Based on the sum of power play and penalty kill rates, the Sharks have the third-best special teams in the NHL. Even scarier, they have given up only three even strength goals, are a full goal in every 10 better than the next best team 5-on-5 and are one goal in the black 4-on-4.
The Sharks are still having trouble locating secondary scoring. Coach Todd McLellan began splitting up the top line, but it was still the three first-line forwards that put home all four goals. Thornton has been on the ice for an astounding 19 of the team's 23 goals (82.6 percent) and only one goal has been scored with a checking line on the ice.
However, that does not mean checking forwards are ot contributing. Scott Gomez has created some very good chances and won eight of nine draws Sunday. T.J. Galiardi has managed two assists and is beating defenses with his skates. Michal Handzus had a game in which he blocked three shots and won 15 of 16 in the faceoff circle.
But the first line is not going to continue to see the opposing net so inviting. If Marleau averages one goal every two games the rest of the way, he would keep alive his streak of 30-goal seasons in just 48 games. Thornton is averaging two assists a game, a pace even Wayne Gretzky managed just once in his career (in 1985-86 he had 163 assists in 80 games).
By contrast, Vancouver found the HP Pavilion's nets inhospitable, unofficially clanging five shots off the post or crossbar to the home team's one. The Sharks scored again before the third period was half gone. After taking the puck from Marleau on the power play in the middle of the third, Thornton passed it from the goal line toward Pavelski above the right-wing faceoff dot for a one-timer.
The Canucks pushed hard to get the goal back, drawing a penalty and almost scoring on the ensuing power play. But Niemi was up to the task, making just enough tough saves to make a statement even though he faced only 24 shots and did not get the shutout.
Since bringing up the three-goal magic number in the post-game press conference opening night, the Sharks have allowed only 24 shots in each game and just one goal total—on a fluky bounce. In the process, they enabled Thomas Greiss to get his first NHL shutout.
San Jose continues to win with puck possession. They won over twice as many faceoffs yet lost only three more pucks than Vancouver. While being out-hit 30-16, the hosts attempted 15 fewer shots but got three more on net thanks to a 21-13 edge in blocked shots.
Examiner.com's "three" stars of the game:
- Niemi saved 23 of 24 (.958) to all but assure a victory
- Thornton had the first goal and assisted on another, had two takeaways, a blocked shot and was seven of nine in the circle
- Pavelski scored two goals including the game-winner while going 7-for-12 in the circle, but was not on the ice for the first goal and recorded no other stat but a giveaway (not as big as the one he received)
- Marleau's streak of two-goal games ended tied for the longest in NHL history when he could not convert late in the third. But one goal and an assist plus four of five on draws merits mention, as does Douglas Murray's four hits, three blocks, one takeaway and one fight he won.