The 2013-14 NHL season did the San Jose Sharks a solid. The break for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics came at the right time and right place for a Stanley Cup run. After beating the Philadelphia Flyers the night before, they faced a shaken Buffalo Sabres team Friday, Feb. 28.
Trading away the face of the franchise since the lockout that cost an entire season (or perhaps you prefer the second lockout as the means to distinguish between them?) has a way of shaking things up. The trade left the worst team in the NHL shorthanded and vulnerable, but Buffalo still had the pictured stars carry them to victory over Western Conference power San Jose.
Standout goalie Ryan Miller barely had time to return from the Sochi Olympics before getting shipped off to the St. Louis Blues. The Sabres got Jaroslav Halak in return, but not in time for him to play against the Sharks.
The late nature of the trade also shook the team's leadership beyond Miller. Steve Ott was sent away for Chris Stewart (also unavailable) with too little notice for the team to choose a new captain.
St. Louis has the best record in the Central Division but should get better given Miller has done more with less than Halak thus far when it matters—in the current 2013-14 NHL season. Buffalo gets younger but less-reliable players and more of what they covet—a prospect and what could be two first-round picks.
Instead of taking advantage of a shorthanded team, the Sharks gave them life with mistakes. Now they are at risk of losing ground while playing weak Eastern Conference teams. The Anaheim Ducks won Friday to increase the lead for the Pacific Division title to seven points with just 21 games to go.
San Jose may have lost the division by losing the possession battles—by six in the circle, two in giveaways and seven in takeaways. Buffalo got its first score after a giveaway and second on a faceoff win.
The Sharks still managed to have more shots (38-20) and attempts (72-44) while blocking the same 25 percent ratio of the attempts faced (11-18). Hits were close (11-14), but none of that matters when the two goals that put the decided the game were scored directly on possession losses.
When the second was scored, San Jose just did not seem to have enough in the tank to fight back. To that point, only James Sheppard had found a way past Jhonas Enroth after a Marc-Edouard Vlasic shot wide came his way. Minutes later, they gave up another Buffalo goal while struggling to just three shots in the first 12-plus minutes of the third period.
Only after the Sharks pulled Antti Niemi for the extra attacker was Patrick Marleau able to get a stick on a puck sent toward the net by Joe Thornton. Dan Boyle got a secondary assist on both goals, but Tyler Myers scored on the empty net with 21 seconds left to seal the game.
Buffalo has only won six games against the Western Conference all season (6-13-1). Two came in the only two matchups with San Jose, which is 14-5-1 against all the better Eastern Conference teams.
The final game of the road trip is against the New Jersey Devils at noon Pacific Time Sunday. If the Sharks ever had to play three road games from start-to-finish in fewer than 71 hours, coming off a long break for the Sochi Olympics is a good time.
Without a win Sunday, that will mean nothing. It will be hard enough to win the 2014 Stanley Cup without having to win outside San Jose in three of the four series.