If the San Jose Sharks do not win the 2014 Stanley Cup, they need only look to their poor play against poor competition. They were fortunate the shifts they once again took off after getting the lead came against the worst defensive team in the NHL on Tuesday, April 1.
That is why the Edmonton Oilers lost despite the best efforts of their three pictured stars of the game. They lost despite San Jose's lack of defensive commitment.
They also lost despite another poor performance by Antti Niemi. The 2013 Vezina Trophy finalist has had a save percentage under .900 in 24 of 53 games since starting the 2013-14 NHL season with seven performances that hit that basic mark. At the time, the Sharks were 6-0-1 with him allowing just under seven goals every 100 shots and a fraction under 1.70 goals per 60 minutes in net.
Niemi was beaten twice glove side, one of which was from quite a distance. He had no chance on another goal and faced another prime chance on the other because his defenders were not helping.
San Jose took the first lead when Jason Demers advanced the puck to Tyler Kennedy, whose wide-angle shot rebounded to Andrew Desjardins for an easy tap-in 3:11 into the game. However, Edmonton controlled most shifts over the rest of the first 15-plus minutes.
On a power play just over 12 minutes in, Jordan Eberle's breakout pass to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was passed off entering the attack zone to an uncovered Taylor Hall. The wicked wrist-shot goal that came from above the circle and bounced off the far post rang in the beginning of a dominant game for the forward trio.
However, a sustained attack to end the period allowed Dan Boyle time to wait until Ben Scrivens was screened to shoot uncovered from the high slot. Joe Thornton got the only assist and the Sharks went into the intermission fortunate to be winning.
A power play did not get credit for the next score to deepen the lead, but was only one second expired when Tommy Wingels put home a Justin Braun slap-shot rebound that also hit Brad Stuart. Just 2:45 into the second period, they had a 3-1 lead.
San Jose continued to put the pressure on for almost six more minutes, but surrendered the momentum by the mid-point of the game. Edmonton got a goal on a simple shot from the circle by Nugent-Hopkins after Anton Belov pushed the puck down the boards to him.
Hall got the secondary assist on that goal and the one on the next 38 seconds later, when he fed the crease on the rush and the puck caromed around past Niemi. Oscar Klefbom ended up with the primary assist and Eberle got the game-tying goal with 6:18 left of scoreless hockey before the second intermission.
The Oilers actually went ahead 6:16 into the third period when Hall's takeaway fed a counterattack. Getting the puck through the neutral zone to Eberle led to a fortuitous bounce right to Nugent-Hopkins to slam home through some traffic before Niemi could get in position.
The Sharks regained control by the mid-point of the third, tying the game with 9:25 remaining: Joe Pavelski kicked the puck off the back of his skate to Thornton near the goal line, who fed Brent Burns on the far side for the one-timer score.
Before two more minutes had passed, Patrick Marleau put home a rebound of a Burns shot that was blocked and came off Pavelski. The scoring finally stopped after that, allowing San Jose to skate away with a 5-4 win.
Edmonton was close in the game's possession stats: 32-37 faceoffs, 11-12 giveaways and 9-9 takeaways. Still, most of the game saw this young team defending...not exactly its strength. However, a 20-17 hit edge still is a better ratio to those possessions above and the road team was the only one blocking shots.
Ten blocks makes this the second consecutive pathetic shot-blocking performance for the Sharks. It is only one per 3.2 shots allowed (the Oilers blocked a mediocre one per 2.3 shots) and explains why they had a 61-49 edge in attempts and only got four more on goal.
It is true that at this time of the year, earning two points is what matters most. However, a team entering the Stanley Cup playoffs must be playing well enough to beat other qualifying teams. Sloppy games like this show a lack of focus, and Niemi is running out of time to find his game.