Each and every season the San Jose Sharks embark on an extended road trip during the month of February. Their home arena (HP Pavilion at San Jose) plays host to the annual SAP Open tennis tournament at this time of year which sends the Sharks out on the road. And when this season’s schedule came out, the infamous road trip looked to be much more daunting than in years past.
In the previous two season’s the trip consisted of five and six games, but this year the schedulers had them on the road for seven in a row. The Sharks would have to start out in Anaheim against the Ducks, then swing east to take on the Bruins, then play back-to-backs against the Capitals and Blue-Jackets before heading onto face the Devils, Panthers and Predators, the latter three with only a day in between.
But as the trip began, the Sharks were fortunate to be playing some of their best hockey of the season.
San Jose entered the trip in the midst of a 5-0-1 stretch and had just completed one of the most thrilling come from behind victories in franchise history. In the last game before the trip the Sharks were down 3-0 against the Coyotes before a late second period goal got them on the board before adding four more in the third to win, 5-3.
The Sharks carried that momentum into the trip by rolling off wins in their first four games of the trip. Scoring prowess continued from the Coyotes comeback allowed them to knock off the Ducks, 4-3, and then Antti Niemi took over the show by posting back to back shutouts. The Sharks beat Boston and Washington by identical 2-0 scores before another come from behind effort against the Blue-Jackets earned them another two points. Despite playing on back-to-back nights, the Sharks were able to overcome a 2-0 first period deficit to knock of Columbus, 3-2.
Everything seemed to be going the Sharks way at this point. Niemi was absolutely on fire between the pipes, the defensive zone coverage was superb and the Sharks had climbed to fourth in the Western Conference standings.
Yet as fast as the Sharks climbed up to fourth, two losses later and they were back down to seventh. Despite perhaps deserving a better fate against the Devils, the Sharks fell 2-1 in regulation. A relatively soft goal let in by Niemi late in the third gave the Devils the victory. Two days later, the Sharks would blow a second-straight third period lead against the Panthers. In fact all three of Florida’s goals could be blamed quite heavily on the netminder. That said, the improved defensive coverage from earlier in the road trip also aided in the three Panther tallies.
And that is where the Sharks were sitting coming into play on Tuesday. A promising 4-0 start to the trip was quickly in danger of ending with a mark of 4-3. Three regulation losses in a row after a 9-0-1 run?
Talk about a serious buzz kill.
Yet in arguably the most critical game of the trip, the Sharks regrouped for an thrilling 2-1 overtime win over the Nashville Predators Tuesday night. Not only was in the last game of the extended trip which can sometimes be a trap game (with players possibly overlooking the contest and towards returning home) but it was only the second game of the trip against a Western conference opponent in playoff position.
Patrick Marleau provided the heroics, capping off the win with a breakaway goal in overtime with just over a minute remaining. While being highly criticized for his overall lack of scoring and abysmal plus/minus rating this season, the 31-year-old Marleau has been coming around as of late. By burying the puck through Pekka Rinne’s pads and into the back of the net, Marleau finished off the final four games of the trip with three goals and five points. In the previous three games he went pointless.
With Marleau coming up huge in the clutch, the Sharks have finished off a potentially disastrous road trip with an impressive 5-2 record. Earning 10 out of a possible 14 points sure looks a lot better than eight out of 14. Granted the Sharks would have willingly accepted a 4-3 mark on the trip had it been offered to them before the season but after being hot like they were and after winning the first four, finishing it off on a high note was imperative–especially to one Shark in particular.
Dany Heatley had the following to say to Sharks’ beat writer David Pollak, which can also be found by clicking here: “If we win this game [versus Nashville] it’s still a very good road trip and we’re going home on a good note for a really important homestand,” Heatley said to Pollack.
In point, a 4-3 finish would not be satisfactory outcome to the players in the room after starting out with four straight wins on the trip. Especially considering the 5-2 record leaves the Sharks only in four a way tie for the fourth spot in conference.
Four teams including the Sharks now have 68 points, and only one point separates those squads (who make up the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh slots) from the third seeded Phoenix Coyotes. Not to mention the eighth seeded Calgary Flames have 66 points.
The Western Conference is a dog fight this season as outside of the first place Vancouver Canucks, the standings are incredibly fluid with changes from day to day. For now however, the Sharks are continuing a general trend upward in those standings and don’t need to rely on anybody else to lose in order to make up ground.