The San Jose Sharks tamed the hottest team in the NHL Sunday, Dec. 29. The Anaheim Ducks came in riding a 10-game winning streak, but lost in regulation for just the second time in their last 17 games.
The difference for the Sharks was having most of the candidates for the pictured stars of the game, including some to miss the cut. This was a 60-minute effort that the team needs to show to be true Stanley Cup-contenders.
Not all of it was pretty. They had tough shifts against the team that maintains the best record in the NHL, albeit a road team coming off an overtime game the previous night. In the tough Western Conference, teams have to make the most of those advantages.
Perhaps that contributed to San Jose's ability to take the lead on the second shift of the game: Joe Thornton's takeaway led to Joe Pavelski attempting four shots (two of which were on net) in 11 seconds, after which he gathered it behind the net and fed it to the slot for Brent Burns to slap home.
The next goal would stand as the game-winner, but its importance went far beyond that. Just before the mid-point of the period, Jason Demers got hold of the puck after a Dan Boyle blocked shot and got it out of the defensive zone. Burns got possession and advanced it to Logan Couture, who blew by the defender and lifted a backhand into the glove-side corner to end an 11-game goalless streak during which he had just two points.
While Couture's reaction displayed relief at the slump's end, coach Todd McLellan raised the question of whether it was really broken because of another hit post later in the game. It is hard to see how putting that doubt in his dynamic young forward's mind is helpful, but everyone involved is aware that there are more ways to contribute than scoring goals.
The 2013 Pacific Division champion Ducks were on their heels, but they finished the period with 14 of the last 22 shots. After the first television timeout of the second period, they really turned up the pressure. They had a 10-2 edge shot attempts over the next three-plus minutes, but only got two shots on goal because the Sharks blocked seven shots.
Then Andrew Desjardins stole the puck and eventually got a shot off on the rush that rebounded right to Bracken Kearns for his first NHL goal. Mike Brown got the secondary assist even though he had been replaced on the ice with Tyler Kennedy, who was providing traffic by the time of the goal (9:16 of the second).
Just because San Jose attempted just six shots in the half of the game remaining does not mean the effort dropped off. For one thing, the team was battling for most of the game without Tommy Wingels, who went awkwardly into the boards in the first period.
Moreover, the three-goal lead means the most important thing was to reduce the opponent's chances. Just 13 shots were allowed the rest of the way, with the only score coming with over eight minutes to play: Cam Fowler was the beneficiary of a Justin Braun giveaway, and Corey Perry gathered the puck behind the net and fed Patrick Maroon for the one-timer goal.
That gave them some momentum leading to a few chances, but Antti Niemi was outstanding in putting a lid on them. Both teams really exemplify the Western Conference's reliance on the blue line. San Jose's is stronger at blocking shots while Anaheim's is better at advancing the puck.
For the game, Niemi faced eight more shots (31-23) than Frederick Andersen. It would have been worse if not for his defenders—the Ducks had 19 more chances but the Sharks blocked twice as many shots (30-15).
On the other hand, Anaheim was able to get those extra shots despite fewer chances with the puck. San Jose won the faceoff battle 40-23 and had eight more takeaways (13-5) to more than make up for three more giveaways (9-6).
With the win, the Sharks move a full game ahead of the Los Angeles Kings for second place in the Pacific Division. The Ducks are still five points ahead for first place in the standings but have played two more games. Both teams would project to have home-ice advantage in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The two teams square off in Anaheim Tuesday, for whom another regulation loss would close the gap between them to half a game. That contest will likely see the return of Teemu Selanne as well as Jonas Hiller in net, while San Jose will likely have to rely on John McCarthy to replace Wingels.