Two teams inexorably linked after working out three trades over the summer meet for the third time this season on Tuesday in Excel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minnesota. Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, prospect Charlie Coyle and draft picks went to Minnesota for Brent Burns and Martin Havlat.
That is not how things started for either team. Other than a 12-2-1 stretch leading up to Thanksgiving, the Sharks tarried at the edge of the playoff picture right through the end of 2011. The Wild spent most of that portion of the season atop its division, if not the entire league.
The Wild looked like geniuses for not only brightening their future, but bringing better immediate results. Havlat has been hurt much of the season, and Burns has just 13 points. Instead of being the catalyst for an improved blue line, San Jose ranks near the bottom of the league in scoring from the back-end.
The Sharks won the first contest at HP Pavilion, but Minnesota won the next, 2-1, with a goalie who had never played in the NHL. It was their fifth of seven straight wins and the fourth Sharks loss in five games.
But the Wild is in a free-fall since the end of that streak, losing 10 of 11 (two in overtime). San Jose needed four more games (1-1-2) to get fully on track, but are on an 8-1-1 tear including four consecutive victories.
The last was an impressive win at home over the surging Washington Capitals.
After a tight, scoreless first period in which the Sharks were outshot 12-9, both teams opened up. San Jose had 30 of the remaining 48 shots and five of seven goals.
The blue line woke up with Jason Demers slap shot to open scoring 5:15 into the second that Michal Handzus avoided touching as he was deposited into the net. But Washington's Dennis Wideman responded with a power-play goal just 1:22 later.
Burns had the next tally, also on the power play, with nine seconds remaining in the second period. Again Washington answered, with Joel Ward needing just 44 seconds of the final stanza to tie things up.
Just 16 seconds later, the Sharks made the kind of skilled play they are built for. Dan Boyle kept the puck in and found Joe Thornton drifting into open ice in front of the net. Thornton did a no-look pass to Patrick Marleau behind him, who did not miss the open net.
It seemed to break the Caps. Before the mid-point, Marc-Edouard Vlasic attacked the net and deposited his rebound past Tomas Vokoun on a backhand. Torrey Mitchell added an empty-net goal with 1:17 to play.
The Sharks had 75 shot attempts to 60 for Washington, who blocked 22 to San Jose's 13. But the Sharks actually outshot the Caps 28-25, while winning four more faceoffs and taking advantage of a plus-four giveaway-takeaway differential.
The Sharks are still struggling in some areas. Despite recent improved play on the penalty kill, it still is the third-worst in the league at 75.9 percent. The Sharks power play has only four goals over eight games, falling to the bottom half of the league (17.6 percent).
But while Minnesota is eighth killing penalties (84.5), it is better than just six teams on the power play (14.5). And the two teams are on opposite ends even strength: San Jose scores three goals for every two it gives up—third in the NHL—and Minnesota scores 10 for every 11 it gives up, ranking 19th.
Overall, San Jose is 11th in scoring (2.82 goals per game) and Minnesota is 29th (2.12). Only six teams rank ahead of the Sharks in goals against (2.32), and though one of them is the Wild, that is by only one one-hundredth of a goal.
San Jose keeps teams from scoring by controlling the puck and the play. The Sharks rank second in faceoffs (53.6 percent), take more shots than any other (34.9 per game) and have only two teams that give up fewer than their 28.6 per game.
Minnesota is also great in the circle (52.1 percent ranks fourth), but only two teams take fewer shots (26.7) and no one gives up more than their 31.9. Expect the Sharks to take a lot of shots but light the lamp just enough to slip past their hosts.