SAN JOSE — Prior to Joe Pavelski’s power-play goal at 19:52 of the second period Tuesday night, the San Jose Sharks were in danger of laying yet another egg after an extended break in the schedule.
After three days off for the Christmas break, the Sharks returned to action on Dec. 27 by being shut-out 4-0 at home by the Los Angeles Kings. During the post game media session that night, head coach Todd McLellan said his team was “out-worked, out-hustled, out-muscled, out-committed.”
Through 39 minutes against the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday, McLellan probably had similar thoughts about his team’s performance in the first game back from the All-Star break. However, San Jose responded with five unanswered goals in the final 20:08 and picked up the pivotal two points in the jumbled up Western Conference playoff race.
But, the Sharks struggled mightily early on against the Coyotes. Even after the exhilarating comeback was complete, McLellan was noticeably upset about the opening 39 minutes.
“I was really disappointed in our group tonight,” he said afterward. “Very disappointed in the lack of drive and lack of passion to come out and play. That’s the last thing I expected.”
Immediately after San Jose fell down 3-0 halfway through the second period on Paul Bissonnette’s first goal of the season, McLellan elected to pull starting netminder Antti Niemi. Even though only the Coyote’s second goal—scored on a slap shot from the top of the circle by the NHL’s leading defense scorer Keith Yandle— could be blamed on the goaltender, McLellan decided to shake things up by putting rookie backup Alex Stalock into the game for his first NHL minutes.
The response from the Sharks may not have been immediate but with Eric Belanger in the box for tripping, San Jose would go on a crucial power-play. A last minute goal from newcomer would cut the lead to two and that is exactly what they got from Pavelski with just over seven seconds remaining. Dany Heatley found Pavelski parked in front of the net and his pass caromed off the side of the net and Pavleski was able to back-hand the puck over Ilya Bryzgalov’s pad to give the Sharks some momentum heading into the intermission.
In the third, Pavelski would waste no time getting his second of the night to pull the Sharks within one. After defenseman Derek Joslin forced a turnover at his own blue-line, Ryane Clowe picked up the puck with speed and space to skate into the Phoenix zone. His short little headman pass to Devin Setoguchi created a two-on-one in front of the net with Pavelski. Setoguchi’s shot would be stopped by Bryzgalov but Pavelski was in the perfect spot to chip the rebound up over the pad, this time on his fore-hand.
Just a little over four minutes later, Kyle Wellwood notched his first goal and point as a Shark, and the game was tied at 3-3. After good work by Ben Eager and Jason Demers, Wellwood batted down Eager’s pass out of the air and on goal from right in front of the net. The rebound popped up and Wellwood again batted it out of the air but this time it went over Bryzgalov’s shoulder and into the back of the net. Eager’s primary assist was also his first point as a Shark.
The game would settle down over the next few minutes as the Coyotes got back to their style of play and were getting some consistent zone time against the Sharks defense.
Unfortunately for Phoenix, their power-play would let them down in a big way with just over six minutes remaining.
While Eager was in the box for a questionable hooking penalty taken at the 12:35 mark, Pavelski and Patrick Marleau teamed up for a steal that sent Marleau on a short-handed breakaway. And on the night when Marleau was recognized for his 1,000th game milestone, (which came before the All-Star break in Phoenix), the long time Shark buried the game winner, beating Bryzgalov stick-side under the arm to give the Sharks their first lead of the night at 13:55
Joe Thornton added an empty netter with just 10 seconds remaining as the Sharks skated away with the victory. Being able to overcome a three-goal deficit in just 20 minutes of play demonstrate a significantly improved “stick-to-it-iveness” (a phrase coined by San Jose’s color man Drew Remenda) on the Sharks’ end.
With the next seven games coming on the road for San Jose, team teal is bound to find themselves behind in some of those games and proving to themselves that they have the ability to come back in games is crucial. The Sharks had not been scoring anywhere near there usual clip during their six-game losing streak last month and on Tuesday they were able to get four goals past a top-caliber netminder in less than 15 minutes action.
Wellwood and Eager who have provided pivotal forward depth to the roster played their best games as Sharks thus far. Not only did they both pickup their first points as Sharks but the number of scoring chances they had as part of a “third” line is something the Sharks haven’t got much of at all this season. San Jose’s bottom six forwards have not been creating much momentum at all with their play thus far on the year but the two new forwards give them that extra punch offensively.
Stalock would earn his first career victory as he made nine saves in relief of Niemi, who in all fairness did face an onslaught from the Coyotes. Niemi played just 13 seconds longer than Stalock but faced three times as many shots through his period and a half. Defensively, the Sharks were clearly not where they would have liked to be for the majority of play against Phoenix.
“We weren’t playing the way we were suppose to (through two periods),” chimed Marleau.
If the Sharks are going to continue to start winning consistently for the first time all year, they are going to have to find a way not to fall behind early. Comeback wins are nice and helpful for the psyche but coming from behind down three with a period to go is not how you win in the playoffs.