The San Jose Sharks are set to play their last two games at home before the All-Star break. In fact, they are two of just six home games they will play before February 28.
In the first and second-longest road trip in that span, they managed to play over .500. But they had only one game against a likely playoff team in that stretch, Sunday night in Chicago.
The Blackhawks were also coming off a game the night before, and while both of Chicago's were at home, San Jose only had to travel from Columbus. Yet the Sharks looked overmatched, giving up 40 shots and registering just 24. Much of this was because Chicago had a 33-24 edge in the faceoff circle, and 16 takeaways to San Jose's three.
But the Sharks battled hard to keep it close, getting three shots by Corey Crawford. They blocked 16 shots to the Hawks' four and registered a rare edge in hits, 32-19. And as usual, Antti Niemi played lights-out against his former team, with several highlight-reel saves among his 36.
Saturday night, Thomas Greiss played his second game since early December. It was his second in a row against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and he once again allowed only one goal so the Sharks could score just two and win.
The Sharks were out-dueled in the faceoff circle 28-24 and out-hit 27-19, but controlled the game against the league's worst team in most other categories. With just one giveaway to four for the Jackets and a 5-4 edge in takeaways, they had equal possessions. But the Sharks did more with theirs.
San Jose out-shot Columbus 33-26 and still managed to keep pace with them in blocked shots (13 each). Yet Curtis Sanford allowed only one goal in the first 95 percent of the game—a power play rally Ryane Clowe batted down from just below the crossbar.
This allowed the only healthy Jackets scorer to worry about, Rick Nash, to tie the game late in the third. His wicked wrister beat Greiss' blocker from the other side faceoff circle, because he used defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic as a screen.
But Patrick Marleau got the game winner with 2:57 left, assisted by Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle.
The split gave the Sharks a 2-1-1 record on the trip and kept them within percentage points of the best record in the Western Conference. With the Pacific Division struggles continuing, they are on pace to win their fifth consecutive title, unless a rival performs better over the remainder of the season than any team in the NHL is currently playing.
It starts with a game against the struggling Calgary Flames on Tuesday night. But Calgary reacquired sniper Mike Cammalleri for Rene Bourque last week to turn things around.
Both the Flames' power play (17.1 percent) and penalty kill (82.2) are middle of the pack, but they have the eighth-worst record in hockey because only eight teams are worse five-on-five. Just five teams score fewer goals than their 2.39 per game, and they are also in the bottom half defensively, giving up 2.80.
Comparatively, the Sharks are reversing the early trend of a bad kill and good power play, but still rank third-worst (77.4) and 17th (17.4). However, the Sharks are the fourth-best team five-on-five, and thus rank 10th in scoring (2.81 GFA) and sixth defensively (2.31 GAA). They win over eight percent more draws, seven more shots and almost two fewer against.