Despite riding a season high eight game winning streak, the San Jose Sharks took their first step backwards in over a month.
Even though San Jose played arguably their best game of the season two days ago against the Detroit Red Wings— a game which they won 3-1—the play against the Dallas Stars on Saturday night reminded more of their early season struggles than recent dominance.
In fact, while Thursday’s bout with Detroit felt like a game being played in mid-May, Saturday’s contest felt closer to that of the early-October variety. Both sides played a game of tentative, reactionary hockey.
Jamie Benn opened the scoring early in the first with a short-handed break away tally. With Karlis Skrastins in the box for delay of game, Benn was hit with a strong pass from defenseman Stephane Robidas that hit the Stars’ forward in stride, splitting the Sharks defense at the blue-line. Benn then skated in and faked the fore-hand shot before sliding it through Antti Niemi’s five-hole on the backhand at just the 1:18 mark of the period.
The short-handed marker definitely appeared to take the wind out of the Sharks’ sails as team teal didn’t find much consistency early on after giving up the quick goal. And even when the recently hot third line of Joe Pavelski, Torrey Mitchell and Kyle Wellwood teamed up for Wellwood’s fourth goal of the year, the overall execution level was no where near that of San Jose’s previous game.
While Dallas didn’t perform up to a relatively high caliber either, the Sharks were still being out-worked physically and out-skated. Against Detroit the Sharks put together one of their most complete defensive efforts all season, yet against the Stars they allowed easy entry into the zone by playing with an extensive gap and not protecting their blue-line.
For the first time since his injury against Pittsburgh four games earlier, the Sharks clearly missed the services of Dan Boyle and even the lesser known Kent Huskins, who had been a regular in the Sharks defensive corps before being sidelined on the most recent road trip. Jason Demers, Ian White, and most notably Niclas Wallin all underperformed on Saturday.
Getting pucks out of the defensive zone and springing the forwards the other direction had not been a problem for San Jose for the vast majority of their hot streak but against the Stars it was a much different story.
Passes weren’t crisp, clearing attempts were ill-advised and when the Sharks did manage to get the puck into the offensive zone, rarely did they create quality scoring chances.
In the second period a two-on-one rush between Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau ended up giving the Sharks a 2-1 edge but from then on the consistent offensive chances were few and far between. While he picked up the assist on the goal, Heatley—who had his best game all year against Detroit–once again was rather quiet and appeared almost dis-interested.
At one point Heatley was two feet away from getting back onside in the neutral zone which would have allowed the Sharks to catch the Stars on a quick change. But Heatley stayed in the zone jousting with a Stars defenseman and Marleau had to hold the puck instead of getting the quick play into the zone for a chance on net.
The play in particular foreshadowed the eventual outcome of the game. San Jose had their fair share of puck possession but were just missing that one key pass to get off quality scoring chances. Meanwhile the Stars continued to pepper Niemi with quality look after quality look for the majority of the game. It didn’t seem as if the Stars were making any incredible individual plays but rather that San Jose simply couldn’t keep up with the quick puck movement and speed Dallas brought.
In the third period, Loui Eriksson popped home a rebound of a point shot by Mark Fistric at the 7:27 mark and a little over five minutes later Jason Williams’ wrap around attempt on Niemi caromed off Heatley and through Niemi’s five-hole. With a 3-2 lead, Dallas clamped down and continued to force the Sharks to the perimeter.
Outside of one close look with Niemi pulled late for and extra attacker, the Sharks couldn’t muster any real push. Out of Kari Lehtonen’s 29 saves on the night for the Stars, not a single one of them came of the “jaw-dropping” variety. The words “glorious scoring chance” in reference to the Sharks could just have easily never been used by those broadcasting the game.
Led by their new acquisition Alex Goligoski and the veteran Robidas on the blue-line, the Stars effectively kept the Sharks at bay and found just enough cracks in the Sharks’ usually solid defense to squeak away with a critical two points in their push to qualify for the post-season.