The San Jose Sharks have had their ups-and-downs this season.
They started out with just two points through four games, then won five in a row en route to a 12-2-1 run. Then they went 2-5-2 before bounding back with four straight wins before Christmas.
After dropping two games (one in overtime), they responded by going 6-0-1. But they again proved what goes up must come down by going 1-3-1 before a 1-0 victory sent them to the All-Star break.
Hopefully, that was the beginning of an upswing. At the very least, the Sharks are swinging now. In a chippy game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose landed almost as many fights as goals.
Four of the Sharks defencemen received fighting majors, including ironically its oldest and smallest skilled player, Dan Boyle, rather than its two biggest, Douglas Murray and Brent Burns. Jim Vandermeer fought twice and Boyle was also tagged with a 10-minute unsportsmanlike conduct; forward John McCarthy received one of those, too.
An offence that had just seven goals in the previous five games without Ryane Clowe also came out swinging. They registered 16 of the first 20 shots on goal and had a two-goal lead (Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton) before the mid-point of the first period.
Vandermeer's first fight came against Jared Boll on the faceoff that followed Marleau's goal. It was a response to Boll's hit to Thornton's head on the opening shift, for which he was fined $2,500 by the NHL.
The penalty box remained empty until Derick Brassard was called for interference less than four minutes into the middle frame. Joe Pavelski's power-play goal 68 seconds later gave the Sharks a commanding lead over the offensively-challenged Jackets.
Jamie McGinn turned it into a rout with his 10th goal of the season with over four minutes to go in the period, but San Jose was not done. He assisted on a Michal Handzus goal under two minutes into the final stanza, and that was when things turned ugly. Vandermeer was called for boarding 36 seconds later and again dropped the gloves with Boll.
The frustration of the Jackets escalated when Thornton one-timed a beautiful pass from Pavelski for the Sharks final goal mid-period. Brassard hooked Boyle, who boarded him in retaliation (neither penalty was called) and challenged him to get up and fight.
He began unloading on Brassard immediately after the forward tossed off the gloves, and afterward was willing to take on the even larger Columbus captain, Rick Nash, had the linesman let him. Less than a minute later, Torrey Mitchell and Derek MacKenzie earned matching minors for roughing, and it was clear the tension lingered.
On the next shift, two fights broke out. Derek Dorsett fought Colin White and Fedor Tyutin fought Justin Braun. While the fights were done (with the Sharks winning all but the first Vandermeer-Boll bout according to a HockeyFights.com fan vote), McCarthy and Aaron Johnson received matching game misconducts 31 seconds later.
The Sharks had 27 hits and the Jackets 31, but it was not all hits and goals. Antti Niemi earned his second straight shutout with 30 saves, including a few of the highlight-reel variety. Brent Burns chased down a breakaway and got his stick on the shooter's to help preserve it late in the third period.
Columbus actually won four more faceoffs, had the same number of giveaways (11) and just two fewer takeaways (10-8). Yet San Jose attempted 11 more shots and got 13 more on net, with just two fewer blocks—almost a 40 percent higher number of those attempted.
Still, the game will be remembered for its 92 PIM. It was the kind of game the Sharks most often reserve for the Dallas Stars, who are coming in Thursday off an impressive win in Anaheim. It was their second in a row—both over the Ducks—following a four-game losing streak.
Dallas is fighting for their playoff lives. They have gone 11-10-1 since last losing to San Jose, their second loss this season and fourth in a row to the Sharks.
The Stars are ranked 14th in scoring at 2.63 goals per game; the Sharks are 12th at 2.73. Only five teams have a worse power play than Dallas (14.0 percent), and the Sharks PP is beginning to show signs of life, climbing back into the top half of the league (13th) at 17.9 percent.
San Jose's penalty kill has been experiencing a resurgence (36 of their last 42) that has seen them climb from under 75 percent and last in the league to 78.5 percent and 26th. That has helped them climb to fifth in goals against (2.23) and keep pace with the elite teams in the Western Conference despite a scoring drought.
Only four teams give up fewer shots per game than the Sharks, and no team puts as many on goal. Part of the reason for this is their ranking as second-best in the faceoff circle.
Dallas averages the ninth-fewest shots on goal and gives up the fifth-most, but they are just below-average in faceoffs (49.8 percent), penalty kill (82.4) and goals against average (2.73).