Thanks to getting a little more from the pictured stars of the game playing for San Jose, Anaheim is now half a game back of getting home-ice advantage in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs until the Western Conference finals. Tommy Wingels talked about the importance of reaching that standing:
This was something we've had our eye on for a while. Now that we've got a grasp of it we can't look back. We've gotta keep the pedal down and try to pull away. We've worked this hard to get here and we can't give it up now.
That next goal could well be the top spot in the Western Conference if not the NHL. The St. Louis Blues currently hold both distinctions and are just two games ahead. When captain Joe Thornton was asked about what has helped in overcoming a five-game deficit to the defending Pacific Division champions in the span of 16 games played, he offered a variety of factors:
We all took care of ourselves during the Olympic break. We've been hungry to win every night. We've been getting really good goaltending, all four lines chipping in and we're just playing as a team right now.
Both teams played playoff-tight games, but it did not acquire the intensity of a late-season rivalry game much less a Stanley Cup playoff game until the third period. The two teams only attempted 26 shots in the entire first period.
The Sharks entered intermission with a 1-0 lead on a rare converted power play. After two of the three first-period blocks by the Ducks to start their penalty kill, Thornton got the puck from Logan Couture behind the net and fed Patrick Marleau for a sharp-angle, one-timer goal 13:52 into the game.
Coach Todd McLellan called the power play "dangerous" but Wingels still expects more improvement:
It feels good to get some results. I still think as a whole we can get a little sharper...You get confidence from some goals sometimes and hopefully this is a catalyst for that.
San Jose was very strong in the second period, but it did not end well. Four seconds after the first of two very questionable calls over a span of 1:50 ended—and before Logan Couture could skate into defensive positioning—Ryan Getzlaf fed Corey Perry, whose shot came to Mathieu Perreault on Antti Niemi's weakside for the easy score with 2:20 to go before intermission.
A penalty 40 seconds left in the middle frame carried over to the third period. When it was over, McLellan could not match the tired Thornton line against Getzlaf's, and the Anaheim captain fed Perry for a slap-shot deflection off Teemu Selanne to grab the lead.
Thornton talked about the team not getting discouraged: "We were playing (well), we just happened to be down 2-1. We still felt confident. We just stuck with it."
Stanley Cup contenders have to be able to overcome a little bad luck and a bad call. Eventually, that broke back their way when the referees blew the whistle right before the Ducks scored,. (The Sharks are hardly going to feel sorry for another team for premature whistles this season, much less a Pacific Division rival.)
Thornton had more to say about Brent Burns, who was the story of the rest of this game: "Nobody can handle his size and his speed out there." The power forward got to the puck that Joe Pavelski chipped past a pinching defenseman and skated up the ice on an odd-man rush. His shot bounced right to his captain, who gathered the puck and roofed it past a sliding Frederik Andersen to tie the score again with 11:49 to play.
Almost eight minutes later, Thornton shot a rebound back off Burns for the lead; Marc-Edouard Vlasic got the secondary assist. San Jose endured a furious attack from Anaheim—eight attempts that resulted in just two shots thanks in part to four blocks—over the last 3:15 to hold on for the regulation win.
McLellan was asked repeatedly about the impact of Burns:
As coaches we have to recognize that (players have) their own tendencies or uniqueness. Sometimes we can't get that out of them and we have to let them play with it...I was happy with his game defensively, as well. He worked hard coming back into the zone, picked the right people up and he was good on the boards—overall, a really good night for him.
Asked about if his unconventional style could be more useful on a sometimes-predictable power play, he countered "(he's) on the power play so that...uniqueness he brings to the table—he does get to use that." However, on the end of one third-period power play, James Sheppard appeared to have replaced Burns on the ice.
In the end, it was still a team effort. The Ducks had one more takeaway to compensate for their one more faceoff loss. The Sharks were generous hosts, giving the puck away seven more times than their guests.
However, San Jose still led by a wide margin in shots (28-18) and attempts (65-48). Considering that edge, it is a sign of playing fast that Anaheim still had only one more blocked shot and five fewer hits.
The win put the Sharks in the driver's seat in the Pacific Division. Though they are almost sure to lose the first tiebreak, they are hotter, playing with a true half-game lead and their rival's extra game is on the road in a tight schedule that is only a little lighter competition for the Ducks.
There is one more game in Anaheim April 9 that may literally determine the Pacific Division. With the way San Jose is playing, another regulation win at that time could clinch the title. That remains the key to this team winning the 2014 Stanley Cup.