In the marquee match-up of the NHL regular season, the San Jose Sharks proved that the best in the west is better than the best in the east. Tuesday' nights game saw the western conference leading Sharks taking on the eastern conference and NHL leading Bruins in a match-up that hockey fans rarely get to witness.
Over the past few seasons the NHL's schedule had each team play their divisional rivals eight times, and only play a select amount of teams from the opposing conference. With that being the case, the NHL was limited in its ability to show-case east-versus-west. However with the schedule changing back to a schedule where every team plays every team at-least once, it gave for better odds of having a game like Tuesday night's match-up between the Sharks and Bruins.
But of course, even with the new-schedule, the chances that the top teams in each conference were to meet this late in the season, are extremely low. Therefore, hockey fans around the country should savor the game they just witnessed. Games like it don't come around very often, and it may have in fact been a Stanley Cup Final preview.
The Sharks came into Boston on season-high three game losing streak, (albeit, two losses in OT/Shoot-out) while the Bruins on the other-hand came into Tuesday's game with a 2-0-1 mark in their past three contests.
In the first, Boston showed why they were the No. 1 team in the NHL by skating hard from the opening face-off and creating havoc in the Sharks zone. And it took less than four minutes into the opening period before Boston would take an early lead. With the Sharks' defense out of position, Bruins defenseman Dennis Wideman had a clear lane to fire a shot on net. The ensuing rebound was whacked at by Bruins all-star Marc Savard and then shoveled over the line by the up-and-coming power-forward Milan Lucic at 3:58 of the first.
The Sharks would tie things up less than four minutes later on the power-play. A simple dump-in by San Jose was recovered and worked back to defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic who then went D-to-D with a pass over to Rob Blake. Blake then unleashed his famous rocket hard slap shot that ricocheted off a Bruins stick and past Tim Thomas to tie things up at one a piece.
Boston would bounce right back the following shift with pressure inside the Sharks zone, and although the score was tied, the Bruins seemed to be dictating the tempo for the majority of the first period.
And with just over five minutes remaining, a poor give-away in the neutral zone during a Sharks line change led to Milan Lucic's second goal of the game. Lucic dished the puck off to wing-mate Petteri Nokelainen who fired a hard wrist shot on net that Nabokov was forced to kick out with his pad. However, with the Sharks defense caught flat-footed on the turnover, Lucic was able to get to the rebound and slide one past Nabokov who could'nt get back into position.
In the second, both Evgeni Nabokov and Tim Thomas would show why in order to have the best team in the NHL, you need a world-class goaltender. Each goalie would post up zeroes in the score column of the second period. Nabokov robbed Marc Savard early in the period when he stacked the pads to prevent Savard from scoring top-shelf. Tim Thomas would make a strong stop on Mike Grier when the Sharks winger broke into the Bruins zone all by himself. Grier made a strong move to the backhand but Thomas shut the door.
Even though the score remained a one goal cushion for the Bruins, the second period was undoubtedly a victory for the Sharks. San Jose was faced with killing 49 seconds of a five-on-three early in the middle period. Their penalty kill was up to the task, and the Bruins weren't able to capitalize. The Sharks penalty kill was a perfect five-for-five on the night, and so was their powerplay, converting on their only opportunity.
With a couple breaks having gone their way in the first couple periods, San Jose had to prove that they could beat Boston five-on-five in the final period if they wanted to beat the league leaders.
Which is exactly what they did.
San Jose would take control in the third period, scoring four unanswered goals. The first of which came from the Sharks captain Patrick Marleau at 3:32 of the third. Sharks' defenseman Christian Ehrhoff made a nice play to keep the puck inside the Bruins zone and then blasted a slap shot that got through to Thomas, but the rebound kicked right out to Marleau who cashed it in for his 27th goal on the season.
Less than four minutes later, the Sharks got their first lead of the game. Seemingly out of nowhere, San Jose's offense had come alive. This time it was all-star defenseman Dan Boyle who aggressively maneuvered his way inside the Boston zone and gained leverage on the defense before dropping a nifty back-hand pass to Milan Michalek. Michalek would gather it neatly on his stick and fire a wicked wrister that picked the top corner, glove-side of Thomas off the post and in at 7:28 of the third.
Unlike recent Sharks games where the opposing team would seem to dictate play after a goal, San Jose kept the pressure on. After only 2:20 had ticked off the clock after Michalek's goal, the man of the hour gave San Jose a two-goal lead. Joe Thornton, in his first full-game back in Boston as a Shark, chipped in with a huge marker at 9:48 of the third. Thornton, who spent his first seven full-seasons with Boston before being traded to San Jose, was the beneficiary of a centering pass by line-mate Devin Setoguchi that went off his skate and past Thomas for the 4-2 advantage.
The Sharks would fend off two more Bruin power-plays in the final 10 minutes of the third and Boston was forced to pull their goalie down by two with a minute remaining. Nabokov, who finished with 28 saves was up to the task in the final moments, turing away shot after shot. The Sharks were then able to clear the zone and Mike Grier put the game away with an empty-net goal with 29 seconds left.
The win gives the Sharks 81 points on the season, still technically the second-best team in the NHL as they are four points back of Boston (who has 85) but San Jose has not only just beaten Boston head-to-head but has four games in hand on the Bruins.
Therefore it is once again safe to say that the San Jose Sharks are the best team in the NHL.