SAN JOSE — After falling short in games 80 and 81, the San Jose Sharks closed out their 82 regular season game schedule with a 3-1 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes Saturday night.
With the two points, the Sharks will now be guaranteed the No. 2 overall seed in the Western Conference.
“You want to play good going into the postseason,” said Sharks captain Joe Thornton, “and it’s important to get as high as you can.”
While Thornton also added that he felt his team played a “solid game” in the finale, the last three games in particular haven’t been San Jose’s best and it’s not as if there was nothing to play for.
The win on Saturday night guarantees the Sharks home-ice through at-least the first two rounds of the playoffs if they are able to advance and although many debate the value of home ice, most players will tell you it makes a significant difference.
“I’m a big believer in home ice advantage,” defenseman Dan Boyle said after San Jose’s most recent victory prior to Saturday night.
But going into the season finale against Phoenix, the Sharks had dropped two straight games against Anaheim on Wednesday and in Phoenix on Friday. It was the first time they had dropped back-to-back games in regulation since Feb. 11 and 13. In doing so, the Sharks were in danger of losing out on the second overall spot to the Detroit Red Wings.
Fortunately San Jose played well enough to earn the victory Saturday night, but the Coyotes skated with the Sharks all night long and were out-shooting team teal deep into the third period.
The Sharks ended up with more shots 37, to the Coyotes’ 36 but Phoenix came to play as a victory for them would have given them the fourth seed in the conference and home-ice advantage in round one.
“We probably played a little bit more on our heels than I would like,” said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. “We’ll have to tighten up a little bit in the third in a week from now.”
McLellan often jibes how coaches are never happy but his assessment of his squad’s play definitely creates a considerable contrast to Thornton’s post-game remarks.
San Jose earned the win but outside of a few little flurries of consistent offensive pressure, the Sharks weren’t the squad dictating the play. Phoenix came into the finale with just as much on the line and played a steady road game.
If not for a couple of power-play goals by the Sharks’ second ranked power-play unit against the Coyotes’ 26th ranked penalty kill, the Coyotes could just have easily sent the Sharks into the post-season a three game losing streak.
Those power-play goals for the Sharks, one by Joe Pavelski in the second and another by Logan Couture in the third, were opportunistic goals but weren’t of dominant fashion. Conversely, the opening goal on a point shot by Ian White during the second period came after the Sharks had been controlling the puck in the Phoenix zone for what felt like a full two minutes.
“A great momentum shift for us,” White said of the sequence leading up to his goal. “Fortunately one of [the shots] went in.”
San Jose had been dominating for quite a few shifts leading up to the White tally but for the most part, outside of their three goals, They didn’t bring that same consistent level of puck possession they had been showing just a few games prior.
Pavelski’s power-play tally increased the Sharks lead to 2-0 late in the second period but in the third the Coyotes got right back into the game when left wing Lauri Korpikoski bagged his 19th of the year on a semi-breakaway rush down the left wing. Marc-Edouard Vlasic was the only defender back for the Sharks but could not cut off the angle well enough and Korpikoski beat Sharks netminder Antti Niemi to the glove side at 8:36.
Both sides traded chances down the stretch and with just a few minutes remaining the Sharks went back on the man-advantage when Dany Heatley drew a tripping call. Moments after Coyotes’ star netminder Ilya Bryzgalov robbed Joe Thornton on a diving effort on what looked to be an empty net, Couture chipped home his own rebound to re-store the two goal lead.
While it wasn’t the best performance by any stretch for the Sharks, there were a couple of definite positives to be taken from the finale with the playoffs on the horizon.
Goals from Couture, Pavelski and White, a second-line center, a third line center and a defenseman (not named Dan Boyle) is just a snap shot of how San Jose has been blessed with a vast amount of secondary scoring this season.
Unlike years past where the Sharks have been top heavy with their top line; this season the scoring depth is nearly unmatched by any other team in the league. And also unlike years past, the Sharks have the makings of a fourth line that opponents will definitely have to game plan against. If put together for the playoffs, the potential trio of Ben Eager, Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers would be by far the strongest “grind line” in recent years for the Sharks. All three can skate like the wind, and all three are known to dish bruising hits night in and night out.
Scoring depth and physical play? These were two of the biggest criticisms facing the Sharks in recent seasons and this year they have vastly improved in these two areas.
Will the improvements pay off with the first Stanley Cup in franchise history? We’re about to find out.
Ryane Clowe missed his third straight game with a lower-body injury.