The San Jose Sharks were one game removed from a four-game losing streak and facing the only non-playoff team on their three-game road trip Saturday, Dec. 14. Instead of playing with urgency, they showed up late for the Nashville Predators, who had three of the five pictured stars of the game because of it.
Their familiar Western Conference opponent had nine of the first 14 shots and was first to score: 16 minutes into the game, Viktor Stalberg fed Victor Bartley for a slap-shot from the point that Eric Nystrom tipped in. From there, the Sharks held a 33-14 edge in shots on goal but could never tie the game up.
San Jose's inability to solve goalies that have minimal NHL success is almost as perplexing as their inability to play a 60-minute game. This is a deep, elite offensive roster that has has been beaten in three of its last five contests by Carter Hutton, Kevin Poulin and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Teams that have either problem cannot win the Stanley Cup, and Raffi Torres is unlikely to solve the scoring puzzle. Even if he could help, no title-worthy team is dependent on one role-player to make it happen.
Games like this certainly lend credence to those that say this team is not gritty enough to be a legitimate Western Conference contender. They also hurt in the Pacific Division, with three teams in the top-20 percent of the NHL (six of 30 teams) in point-percentage.
Before the Sharks could get on board, their first penalty dug them a deeper hole. With 33 seconds left in the man-advantage and 1:52 in the period, Roman Josi got the puck from Craig Smith and fired it through traffic in the net. Nick Spaling got the secondary assist.
San Jose was dominant in the third period, holding a 20-7 edge in shots. After killing their second and last penalty, Patrick Marleau got the puck to Matt Irwin whose shot-pass Dan Boyle deflected in with 12:32 left in the game.
However, pinching in for that extra goal eventually caught up with the Sharks. Shea Weber was able to advance the puck to Stalberg for a two-on-one rush. When the pass was cut off, it looked like he was trying to effectively pass the puck off the goalie. Yet Antti Niemi was not able to stop the 32-foot wrist shot with 2:39 left despite only having to cover half the net.
San Jose coach Todd McLellan pulled Niemi as soon as the puck was dumped in the attack zone for over two minutes with an extra attacker. It paid off with 55 seconds left when Boyle got the puck from Joe Thornton and saw Marleau alone at the side of the net. The longest-tenured Shark redirected the shot-pass out of mid-air just under the crossbar.
They were not able to score again, and their lack of urgency in the opening 16 minutes gave Nashville the win. For the game, San Jose won one more faceoff (30-29), had one more giveaway (4-3) and fell a takeaway short (6-7) of the hosts, but still attempted 21 more shots (59-38). Naturally that led to being out-hit 28-12 and having fewer shots blocked (10-12), but the latter is still a better percentage of attempts and ratio to shots allowed.
With the difficulty of the Western Conference, the Sharks cannot afford to give points away. With this loss, they sink to third in the Pacific Division standings and would not get home-ice advantage in even the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.