Predators Bring Down Sharks 3-2

By Mary Walsh

Amid the hubbub of Olympic roster announcements Tuesday, the San Jose Sharks had a game to play in Nashville. They lost 3-2, but made a game of it despite yet more changes to their lineup, including the loss of Logan Couture to injury. Couture is scheduled for surgery, and is expected to be out for three to four weeks.

The Sharks were still without Tommy Wingels (upper body), Martin Havlat (lower body), Tyler Kennedy (flu) and Tomas Hertel (knee). No reinforcements were coming from the old list of injured, no Raffi Torres, no Adam Burish. Freddie Hamilton had just been sent down to Worcester, while Matt Nieto, Bracken Kearns and Eriah Hayes stayed with the big club. Hamilton was called right back up.

The game was an opportunity for new players to step up. One always wants a win, but it is not surprising that recently-arrived players in new positions, with new linemates, will probably need more than one practice to get in sync. Seeing the team find some cohesion as the game wore on should make the loss a little more palatable.

A failure to call goaltender interference in the second period made the Predators’ game winning goal count. The official explanation was that Marc-Edouard Vlasic had pushed Colin Wilson into Antti Niemi. Todd McLellan said a few words about that after the game* (from CSNCA broadcast):

Even if there was a touch of contact there, you’re not allowed to jump on top of the goaltender. We all know that, there’s a lot of people that understand that, but… it happened.

The game started out inauspiciously, when Joe Thornton was called for hooking just ten seconds into the game. The Predators’ power play was ranked 7th in the league. The Sharks’ penalty kill was ranked 14th. The Sharks killed the penalty, despite some failures to clear.

At 8:57, Matt Cullen was called for interference on Jason Demers, putting the Sharks on the power play.  It was an unspectacular power play. They only mustered one shot with that man advantage.

Possibly the Sharks’ best chance of the period came in the final minute, when Matt Nieto passed the puck from the blue line to Patrick Marleau in the slot, with Joe Pavelski in range of a rebound. Apart from that, the first period was a grind, at least for the Sharks.

The Predators kept them well to the outside whenever they gained the offensive zone. At the end of the period, the Predators led 10-7 in shots on goal and 9-4 in faceoffs.

At 6:11 of the second, David Legwand opened the scoring to give the Predators the lead. Joe Thorton and Jason Demers were both trying to move the puck away from Craig Smith but the puck got through both of them. Legwand got behind Demers and put a shot past Antti Niemi on the far side. It was Legwand’s first goal in 11 games. Assists went to Smith and Shea Weber.

The Sharks answered a few minutes later with a power play goal, after Mattias Ekholm was called for delay of game at 6:11. Joe Pavelski tipped a Dan Boyle shot from the blue line to tie the game. It was Pavelski’s 19th goal of the season, his 10th in the last 14 games. Assists went to Boyle and Demers.

Less than a minute later, the Predators retook the lead. Despite good pressure from Justin Braun, Ekholm got a backhand shot off, with good traffic in front of Niemi. The assist went to Legwand. It was Ekholm’s first NHL goal.

The Predators’ third goal came after Colin Wilson fell across Niemi’s right leg, pinning him in place and leaving the net wide open for Nashville defenseman Roman Josi’s shot. Officials apparently believed Wilson was pushed by Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Assists went to Weber and Wilson.

The Sharks didn’t score on their next power play, when Nick Spaling was called for holding the stick at 13:38 of the second. Nevertheless, the Sharks’ third power play was miles better than their first. The new lines seemed to be finding a groove.

The Predators outshot the Sharks through the second period as they had done in the first, 13-10.

Brent Burns drew a hooking call on Shea Weber with a driving play that gave the Predators a scare at 4:05 of the third period. The Sharks held the zone for about 45 seconds before the Predators could push the first power play unit out of the zone. The next good chances fell to Bracken Kearns on the second unit. The Sharks had four shots on that power play.

With under two minutes left and the Sharks’ net empty, Nieto found Marleau in front of the net for a tip in to make it 2-3. Assists went to Nieto and Demers. Todd McLellan used his time out shortly thereafter, but the Sharks ran out of time.

The Sharks outshot the Predators in the third, to bring the final count even at 28. Nashville won 32 faceoffs to the Sharks’ 20. The Sharks got credit for 12 takeaways to the Predators’ 9. The Sharks’ power play finished 1/4, the Predators’ 0/1.

Brent Burns led the Sharks in shots with five, and Patrick Marleau had four.  Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi each had five for Nashville. Mike Brown led the Sharks in hits with five, while Rich Clune and Kevin Klein led the Predators with four each.

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*More of what McLellan said about that non-call:

Does it make it tougher? That’s a blown call, and we played 44 games, I go back to the Buffalo blown call in overtime, I go to the blown call in Winnipeg. I go to one against Minnesota, and I go to another one tonight, and that’s one in every eleven games. And I understand mistakes, because I make a lot of them behind the bench. But when you get an explanation from a group of people and it didn’t happen, it’s disappointing. It really, really is disappointing. And there’s also a protocol to follow in our league. That protocol is you get together and you discuss it. That didn’t happen either. So obviously I’m not very happy with it.

The lines McLellan started with, and pretty much kept in place through the game were: Burns-Thornton-Pavelski, Nieto-Marleau-Kearns, Hamilton-Desjardins-Sheppard, and Hayes-McCarthy-Brown. Defensive pairs were Stuart-Demers, Boyle-Vlasic, and Braun-Irwin. The only healthy scratch was Scott Hannan.

Sharks Need a Quick Reset

By Mary Walsh

The Sharks lost two games in a row. How tedious of them. The Pittsburgh Penguins are having a fine season, so losing to them isn’t something to be completely ashamed of. The Carolina Hurricanes, however, should not have defeated the Sharks 5-3, even if the Sharks’ backup goaltender was in net, even if the Sharks were on the second half of back to back games with travel. The Hurricanes had matching travel issues, and San Jose didn’t give Cam Ward enough work for goaltending to be the difference.

Yes, the Sharks should be thoroughly disappointed with themselves for losing to Carolina, especially after being blown out the game before. How awful to respond to a bad loss by losing again, giving up an early two-goal lead, and being outshot 35-25. Three goals and 30 saves would normally be enough for a Sharks win this season.

Despite all that, it would be unreasonable for anyone to get too excited about that lost pair. The Sharks have a record to be proud of, 19-5-5 on the season and 7-3-0 in their last ten. Still, San Jose has a responsibility to make sure that little pair doesn’t grow up to be a great big panic-inducing streak of losses.

To that end, the Sharks made some roster moves. Matt Pelech, who didn’t play on the road trip, was sent to Worcester, while Matt Nieto and Freddie Hamilton have been called up. Mike Brown was placed on injured reserve, for injuries initially described as almost negligible.

Who will sit now? The switching of  Joe Pavelski and Andrew Desjardins at the end of the last two games could indicate that the coaching staff will focus their adjustments on the bottom six. Pavelski always seems like an unlikely candidate for the press box. Tyler Kennedy’s minutes have been slipping. Will he sit? Was that line juggling a demotion of both Kennedy and Havlat to the fourth line? Will they both sit? Or will Hamilton, a center, be in for Desjardins? Will Nieto or Hamilton replace McCarthy, he of the two penalties in Pittsburgh? Would any of that be enough?

The problem in both losses was defense. Not defensemen per se, but this creeping habit the Sharks have of giving up goals in bunches. In Toronto and Pittsburgh, the leak seemed to be confined to the second period. San Jose patched that, only to see the Hurricanes tear open a four-goal breach in the third. It is hard to see exactly how those failures can be solved by changes to the third and fourth lines. There isn’t a lot you can do when you are not on the ice.

On his first stint with San Jose, Nieto played on the top line. If McLellan really wants to mix things up, the lines may look nothing like they did in these last three games, and the winning streak that preceded them. It sounds like overkill to throw all of the forward lines into flux over two measly losses, but waiting to see how bad it can get isn’t a good plan either.

The team’s best hope won’t be found in the defensive instincts of two call-ups. Even if they are perfect, they can’t compensate for a team-wide meltdown. A change to the lineup might focus the team, make them more cautious and attentive to communication and execution. The refreshed, reset Sharks’ mantra has been speed. That is all well and good, but if you are heading into a wall, you don’t want to get there faster. It might be time for the Sharks to slow down, at least mentally.

San Jose Sharks Testing the Depths

By Mary Walsh

It is never a good thing when a roster player is out due to injury, as so many San Jose Sharks are right now. That obvious truth should not tarnish a high-quality silver lining. As effective as the Sharks have been over the last several seasons, their depth has not been tested as it is being now. The Sharks have had to fill spots in the lineup to replace (in the order they fell): Martin Havlat, Adam Burish, Raffi Torres, Brad Stuart, Dan Boyle and Brent Burns. Thursday in Boston and Saturday in Montreal, they were without five of those six. They even had to go without Tommy Wingels for most of the Boston game. However you measure the value of one player, that list punches holes in every line, every aspect of the Sharks’ game except goaltending. In the midst of this injury epidemic, Doug Wilson acquired Mike Brown. In the big picture, it seems that acquiring Brown had little to do with the Sharks’ injury problems.

The replacements the Sharks already had were not all likely to be playing in the NHL this season.  The most conspicuous of them, Tomas Hertl, has reduced the odds to slim or nil that he will be sent down to the AHL, barring some freak salary cap or roster size event that forces him out.  Would he have had the chance to make such an impression if Raffi Torres had been available? Freddie Hamilton and Matt Nieto, though both showed promise, were very likely to spend this season in the AHL with the Worcester Sharks. John McCarthy has been up and down and back again, as has Matt Pelech. Scott Hannan, the presumptive seventh defenseman acquired last season, has played in all but one game this season.

Those players have turned in respectable to excellent performances, and until last Thursday, helped keep the Sharks’ point streak intact.  We can’t know how the team would have done with every asset ready to go. The games got closer when the team lost Dan Boyle, and then Brent Burns. How much of that was their absence alone? How much of it was the natural ramping up of play as opponents found their legs after rocky starts?

The point is moot. Hannan has held down the fort on the blue line, and the bevvy of young players from Worcester have kept the forward lines moving. The readiness of those young players does the organization proud. They don’t have to be Brent Burns or Logan Couture or Raffi Torres, they just needed to not be a drag on a fast-moving ship. They did better than than that, by and large.

San Jose fans might not have seen these reinforcements in action were it not for what could have been a season-crippling casualty list. The missing starters will return, gradually. Replacements will be sent down again, but knowing they can step in and be better than “not a liability”… that is very exciting for the team. When playoffs roll around, chances look slim that the team will be overwhelmed because one or two key players get hurt (or suspended).

So why acquire Mike Brown? In his first game as a Shark, Brown wasn’t a problem. He didn’t take penalties or cause a wreck. He performed as advertised. He brought energy on the forecheck but only got credit for one hit. On the stat sheet that stands out, since Tomas Hertl was second in hits behind Zdeno Chara and Shawn Thornton in the game. Hertl had significantly more ice time at his disposal than Brown, and the fact remains that Brown was fine. That is saying something on his first day with the team.

He still doesn’t seem like a necessary addition. The Sharks might not be winning lopsided games now, but they are doing more than keeping themselves afloat. Many have said this team looks better than they ever have. The season is long, there is no straight course through it. Were it not for so many injuries at the start of the season, the Sharks might not have tested the depths of their organization so extensively. The team will certainly be stronger as their experienced players return, but so far the pressure hasn’t crushed them. It hardly slowed them down.