Antti Niemi has struggled in two of his last five starts
The San Jose Sharks suffered their worst home loss of the season Thursday.
They absolutely dominated the opening minutes with the first several shots and a goal. Great teams expose pretenders like this...sorry, Ottawa Senators fans, a team with a journeyman goalie and a single line worth worrying about is a pretender.
Antti Niemi gave up three more goals on the next 18 shots. The team with just one regulation loss in 16 games was defeated by the next-hottest team in the league, 4-1.
The Sharks won virtually all statistical categories except the one that counts. They out-shot the Sens 37-21 yet still missed fewer (13-14). Despite having fewer attempts, they blocked almost as many (13-15) and accumulated a comparable number of hits (17-19).
However, they struggled with the puck possession that can allow them to get the best opportunities. The Sens won six more face-offs than the NHL's second-best team in the circle, had only two fewer takeaways and five fewer giveaways.
Now their ability on the draws will be tested against one of the best teams in the league. They will be on the road, putting them at further disadvantage. And the Vancouver Canucks have shown over the past 15 months that the Sharks cannot keep up with their speed, winning nine of the last 12 meetings.
San Jose had better possess the puck or they will be chasing it. And Vancouver is hot, having climbed from around .500 after Thanksgiving to within three points of the best record in the Western Conference.
Will the Sharks finally be able to shake their problems against the Vancouver Canucks Saturday?
It is because of puck possession that San Jose leads the league in shots per game (34.7) and among the stingiest in shots against (28.5). It also helps when you do not take trips to the penalty box, especially when you have the third-worst kill in the league (77.3 percent).
However, the Sharks have killed 34 of their last 39 (87.2 percent). San Jose is in the top quarter of the league defensively, giving up just 2.32 per game, but Vancouver is right behind them at 2.40.
On the other hand, their power play is in danger of falling into the bottom third of the league (16.9 percent) because of its own slump and the Canucks strong penalty kill (86.3). Vancouver has the league's most dangerous power play (23.6), causing them to look down at almost the entire league in scoring with (3.17 goals per game), while the Sharks languish just above sea level at 2.73.
This is the first game on San Jose's trip through Western Canada. With the next two games being on back-to-back nights, a win here is vital to the team's efforts to stave off the charge of the Los Angeles Kings. For more on the NHL Pacific, check out my column on The Hockey Beat through the link provided.