Sharks Beat Oilers, Todd McLellan Keeps His Job...For Now

Simon Cherin-Gordon@SimoncgoContributor IIIMarch 13, 2012

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 27:  Head coach Todd McLellan of the San Jose Sharks answers questions from the press during the 2012 NHL All-Star Game Player Media Availability at the Westin Ottawa on January 27, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Edmonton Oilers always seem to catch the San Jose Sharks at a low point.

Two years ago, the Sharks were dominant during the first four months of the season. In mid-March, however, they went on a five-game losing streak that saw Phoenix overtake them in the Pacific. San Jose's next game was against Edmonton, and they lost 5-1. 

Last season, the Sharks were coming off an even more crippling losing skid. Although it was also five games long, those five losses saw the team fall three games below .500 and into 11th in the Conference, foreign territory for the perennial powerhouse.

Again, San Jose's next game was against Edmonton, this time at home. Of course, the Sharks lost 5-2.

Just a week ago, San Jose was coming off losses in eight of their previous 10 games. In their next game, the Sharks lost it 3-2 in a shootout. To Edmonton. It was the second time this season that the Oilers have dealt the Sharks their third straight loss.

Edmonton has been a terrible team in each of the last three seasons. Despite this, they always seem to take advantage of the struggling Sharks.

When the Sharks lost to Phoenix 3-0 on Saturday, it marked their third five-game losing streak in the past three seasons, and third in which the Oilers loomed ahead.

But more was at stake in this game than two points in the standings. More was at stake than turning around a losing streak. A loss to Edmonton Tuesday would have put the Sharks two games below .500, three points out of the playoffs, and in the deepest confidence hole they've been in for years.

It may have even put Head Coach Todd McLellan out of a job, which would be a direct result of even more colossal stakes.

SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 06:  Justin Braun #61 of the San Jose Sharks collides with Sam Gagner #89 of the Edmonton Oilers in the third period of an NHL hockey game at HP Pavilion at San Jose on March 6, 2012 in San Jose, California.  The Oilers won the game 3
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

If San Jose fails to make the playoffs this season, General Manager Doug Wilson may lose his job. And if Wilson retains his position, he'll be forced to break up the core of this team, putting him on the edge of the hot seat heading into next season.

Because of this, Wilson needs to do everything he can to get this team into the playoffs, and firing Todd McLellan is really the only thing he can do at this point in the season.

Alas, the Sharks did not lose to Edmonton on Tuesday. They won 3-2 in regulation, splitting the season series with the lowly Oilers. They ended a five-game skid, crawled from 11th to 9th in the Western Conference, and won one of their all-important "games in hand."

McLellan, knowing the magnitude of this game, drastically shook up his lines before puck drop.

McLellan paired three struggling forwards together to form a top line of Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelski.

Patrick Marleau and Daniel Winnik both made a rare appearance on the second line alongside Ryane Clowe.

The third line saw Tommy Wingels and Dominic Moore join Torrey Mitchell, while T.J. Galiardi, Andrew Desjardins, and Benn Ferriero played together for the first time. 

In what was the most overdue, obvious move of the century, McLellan benched Colin White in favor of Jason Demers and Justin Braun.

The Sharks came out of the gate strong, and at 1:07, Torrey Mitchell gave San Jose a 1-0 lead.

Mitchell brings three things to the Sharks—blazing speed, consistent physicality, and inconsistent offense. When his offensive confidence is high, Mitchell is one of the better third-line wingers in the NHL. When it isn't, his speed and aggression on the forecheck allow him to remain a plus player.

VANCOUVER, CANADA - JANUARY 2: Torrey Mitchell #17 of the San Jose Sharks jumps over the boards during NHL action against the Vancouver Canucks on January 02, 2012 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Rich Lam/Getty Images

So Todd McLellan decided to pair Mitchell with Tommy Wingels—the Sharks best checking forward—and Dominic Moore, a centerman who's faster, better on draws, and more physical than normal third-line center Michal Handzus.

Mitchell's goal was a sign of things to come for his new-look line. The Sharks third line has been dreadful since the Jamie McGinn trade, but tonight's edition was the best line on the ice.

However, lackluster play from the top two lines early on allowed Edmonton to play the Sharks evenly the rest of the way, and lackluster goaltending by Antti Niemi allowed Ryan Whitney to net the equalizer at 19:10.

The Sharks came out stagnant in period two, but a good penalty kill at 5:24 gave the Sharks momentum. They carried this momentum into a power play at 11:29, in which Joe Thornton scored just seven seconds later.

It was San Jose's first man-advantage goal in their previous 14 tries.

After Thornton scored, his line began to get their game going. The Sharks continued to outplay Edmonton, but a great individual play by Taylor Hall tied the game.

After blocking a Brent Burns shot, Hall broke down the left wing. He used his blazing speed to beat Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and his deadly shot to beat Niemi at 14:54.

But rather than letting Edmonton's second comeback on Niemi's second poorly played goal zap their momentum, the Sharks continued to play with energy and aggression. A late Sharks power play carried over into the third period, and Dan Boyle capitalized at :38.

But holding third-period leads hasn't exactly been San Jose's M.O. over the last couple seasons, let alone during this prolonged funk. Nevertheless, the team bore down during the final 19:22 in a way that can only be described as "somewhat encouraging."

The Sharks only allowed six Edmonton shots during the final frame, despite the young Oilers aggressive attempt at a comeback. San Jose did all the necessary things in order to hold their lead.

They moved pucks through the neutral zone, got in on the forecheck, won faceoffs, defended their blue-line, and cleared rebounds effectively.

Antti Niemi made the saves he had to make, and San Jose picked up their first win of March.

With the victory, the Sharks move back to .500. But in order to make this win a turning point, San Jose absolutely must complete the Alberta sweep tomorrow night in Calgary. They must do it no matter who's in net (hopefully it's Thomas Greiss), and no matter how tired they are.

They must beat the Flames because they are competing with them for a playoff spot. They must beat the Flames because they are arguably the easiest opponent left on San Jose's schedule. They must beat the Flames because they have not won two straight games since Feb. 2.

And while Monday's win keeps Todd McLellan behind San Jose's bench, anything short of a winning streak will keep his job in immediate jeopardy.


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