The San Jose Sharks entered Friday night's game desperate. They had just lost back-to-back games against average teams and had given up nine goals in the losses.
The Chicago Blackhawks were even more desperate. Halfway through a nine-game road trip, the Hawks needed to pick up a win to avoid their seventh straight loss.
The Sharks came out with more desperation and energy and took a 2-0 lead in the first period. Chicago responded by controlling the second period, and tied the game at 2-2. They again tied it at 3-3 early in the third, but San Jose took over the game down the stretch and rolled to a 5-3 victory.
This was, in a sense, the Sharks' last game before the real push begins. They embark on a nine-game road trip tomorrow, and it's all uphill from there. As it turned out, this highly emotional, violent, and spirited game between two desperate rivals ended up telling us a ton about where the Sharks are, where they're going, and where they want to go.
Specifically, each goal and each stretch leading up to the goals in this game tell stories. Let's delve into them.
Summary: Joe Pavelski drew a high stick just 58 seconds into the game. Michael Frolik went to the box for four minutes, but it only took the Sharks one to score. Logan Couture took the puck behind the net and found Justin Braun skating in down the left side. Braun one-timed Couture's pass into the back of the net before Corey Crawford could get over. It was also Braun's birthday.
The Story: Joe Pavelski was all over the ice tonight. Although Pavelski always puts up good-looking numbers—after tonight, he has 19 goals and 40 points in five straight seasons—but his true value goes so far beyond numbers.
Pavs is the smartest player on the Sharks. He always thinks one step ahead, making him deadly away from the puck, and his constant activity always leads to something positive, whether it's a goal, a takeaway, or, in this case, a penalty drawn.
The Sharks needed a boost early in this game, and Pavelski promptly found a way to provide one. Little Joe plays an instrumental role in almost every Sharks victory whether he scores or not, and this early penalty drawn was only the beginning for him tonight.
Summary: Joe Thornton and Jonathan Toews got into an altercation. Several players from each side skated over to join in. Somehow, the Sharks came out of it all with a power play. 27 seconds in, Logan Couture's shot led to a juicy rebound, which Dan Boyle slapped behind Corey Crawford.
The Story: Joe Thornton and Jonathan Toews are not only two of the game's best centers, but also two of the most respected captains. The Sharks and Blackhawks proved what most people already know—they are highly functional families. Both teams have a reputation for being very close and sticking up for each other, and that's exactly what happened here.
For some inexplicable reason, the Sharks ended up with a power play, even though Joe Thornton was likely the most guilty party during the scrum. But the Sharks have been shorthanded an NHL-low 146 times this year, 30 times less than their opponents.
Summary: The Blackhawks dominated the first seven minutes of the second period, and it paid off. Nick Leddy beat Antti Niemi on the stick side, but couldn't beat the post. Marcus Kruger was quick to the puck as it remained in the crease, and stuffed it home from point-blank range.
The Story: The story here isn't so much the goal reflecting a trend as much as it being an exception. San Jose is simply a stymieing team defensively. Shot-blocking, goaltending, and quick sticks are huge reasons why.
That's why it was uncharacteristic when Nick Leddy's long-range shot was not only blocked, but somehow saved by Niemi. Part of the reason was Marcus Kruger's screen, but that's something Niemi is usually great at fighting through.
After Leddy's shot rang off the goal post, the quick-clearing stick of Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Burns or Douglas Murray was nowhere to be found. Instead, Joe Pavelski couldn't find the loose puck behind his netminder (playing in front of his own net is uncommon for Joe), and Kruger got to the puck for an easy tap in.
It was one of the easiest goals San Jose has given up all year, and, hopefully, it will remain as such.
Summary: The Blackhawks continued to ride the momentum they had been building all period, and eventually tied the game up. Marcus Kruger scored his third goal against San Jose this year after Antti Niemi struggled to handle a Brent Seabrook shot.
The Story: A full 60-minute game is easier said than done, but the Sharks have struggled all year to even start off a second straight period well. After coming out desperate in the first—as they should have—San Jose took their foot off the gas to begin the second.
Letting up is never a good approach, but especially not against a frustrated Blackhawks team with a deadly offense. But given the doom in this, one must conclude that the Sharks don't think they can afford to let up. Rather, they seem to be unable to hold their intensity when things are going their way.
In other words, the Sharks almost thrive on adversity. While success under pressure is a necessity for a team that wants to win a Stanley Cup, never taking you foot off the gas is an equally important skill, and less letting up means less clutch performances are required.
Summary: Joe Pavelski came up with a Blackhawks neutral zone giveaway. He broke up ice and had a step on everyone. Patrick used his blazing speed to join the play and create a good-looking two-on-one. Pavelski missed Marleau on a cross-ice pass, but Patrick Marleau immediately went after the puck and canceled out the Blackhawks defender.
Joe Thornton, who had trailed the play, retrieved the puck and took it down behind the goal line. Pavelski skated to his usual sweet spot in the low right-hand slot, and Thornton tried to find him for an easy goal. Diving Blackhawks defenseman Dylan Olsen admirably broke up the pass, but not without accidentally knocking the puck through Corey Crawford's five-hole.
The Story: How about that Joe Pavelski? He may have only picked up an assist, but did he ever make this key go-ahead goal happen.
First, he used his incredible intuition to poach the passing lane and make a big-time neutral zone interception. He then immediately headed up ice without hesitation, creating a good break. His pass to Marleau was off, but the brilliance was about to continue.
Pavelski skated down to aide Marleau on the forecheck. Once he saw Thornton come towards the puck, he made a decision that most hockey players simply won't make. He skated as fast as he could to his typical location in front of the net. By the time Thornton got to the puck, he turned to the net and Pavs was already waiting there.
The Blackhawks defense knew this. Corey Crawford knew this. And they played it well. Rather than letting Pavelski sneak behind them like most teams do, they focused on him. Thornton, a world-class passer, still tried to put it on Pavelski's tape, because he simply doesn't miss from close range very often. When Olsen cut off the pass and knocked it into the goal, Thornton got credit, but Pavelski may as well have been the one to hammer it home.
His one official offensive play of the shift was a bad pass to Marleau, but Joe's brilliance off the puck make him as hard to defend as the most skilled playmakers. That's why he's an absolute fixture of the Sharks top line now.
Summary: Early in the third, Sami Lepisto fired a puck deep from the point. Harmless as the play seemed, Dave Bolland out-skated the Sharks defense and got to the puck behind the net. He continued to take it around to the other side, and as Niemi slid across, Bolland delivered a sweet pass across the crease to Bryan Bickell, who slammed it home.
The Story: This one is pretty simple. The Sharks are 18th in the NHL in terms of winning percentage when leading after two. While 18th isn't terrible, it isn't good either. More importantly, many of those wins come after giving up tying goals or even leads.
The Sharks still need to figure out their "run out the clock" game. While the best way to protect a lead in hockey is to keep pushing offensively, the most important thing to do is get the puck deep and not allow the opponent get in on the forecheck often. But San Jose instead plays conservative with the lead, which allows an aggressive forechecking team like Chicago all kinds of offensive chances.
It's almost a confidence thing. San Jose knows that the other team is going to make a push late. The key will be, using that knowledge as motivation to keep playing desperate, rather than as a reason to be careful and get conservative.
Summary: The Sharks had begun to grab some momentum back after Chicago's third goal. Brad Winchester had an excellent shift. After nearly scoring on a tough angle shot, staying with the rebound, skating around the net, and throwing the puck back into the crease, he came up with a big assist. Benn Ferriero was right there to bang home a puck that was under but not smothered by Corey Crawford.
The Story: Benn Ferriero scored his seventh goal of the season. Oh, and his fourth game-winner. That leaves him second on the team—three behind Patrick Marleau—but Marleau has 13 more goals than Ferriero overall.
So what makes Ferriero so clutch? Going back to his playoff heroics on his birthday last season, Ferriero seems to always be scoring when it matters most. These goals are all random, whether it be weird deflections or the puck just ending up on his blade somehow.
That isn't to say Ferriero is lucky. Rather, it's shows that when the games are tight, when defenses are cranking up the intensity, Ferriero is one of the best at fighting for goals. To score in these situations, one must go to the net and to any prime rebound area, but they must also be thinking only about putting that puck in the net.
The puck finds Ferriero's stick no more often than anyone else's in front of the net—he simply goes there more relentlessly and consistently late in games. And Ferriero doesn't somehow have more shots go in for him—he simply is ready for the puck to end up on his stick at all times.
Summary: After Ferriero's goal, the Sharks picked their game up. They controlled the middle of the third period, evening the shot clock and using time in the process. After Douglas Murray received a high hit from Andrew Shaw, the Sharks went on the power play.
Some good puck movement got Brent Burns the puck on the left side. Burns made a pass to space in front Ryane Clowe, who played the pass off the boards and threw it to Jamie McGinn's open stick next to the net.
Even though McGinn's stick was not in scoring position, Clowe trusted the youngster to make a play. Sure enough, McGinn quickly switched to his forehand, and roofed a shot over Crawford's right pad.
The Story: What else is there to say about Jamie McGinn at this point? He's ironed out his game beautifully this season, and he's been the one goal scoring threat on the third line. But this may have been the nicest goal yet from McGinn, and it shows that he is continuing to grow.
Jamie McGinn has benefited from Michael Handzus' and Torrey Mitchell's creativeness this season. But last night, on the power play, the veteran Clowe essentially said, "Here's the puck, make a play." McGinn made a move that an elite goal-scorer usually makes, quickly moving the puck to their forehand before perfectly placing it home.
McGinn has simply arrived, and he will be monumental for this team down the stretch and into the playoffs, and moving forward as a franchise. He's only 23, and at the rate he's improving this year alone, McGinn could be an offensive force in a couple seasons.