In a game they could ill afford to lose, the San Jose Sharks were able to avoid déjà vu and beat the Minnesota Wild, 5-4 in overtime on Tuesday, thanks in part to a spectacular game-winning goal by defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.
Just this past Thursday the Sharks had blown a 3-0 lead at home against the Wild and ended up losing in over-time 4-3. The same exact scenario nearly took place again yesterday as the NHL leading Sharks took on the Wild in Minnesota, attempting to avenge the previous loss.
This time around was no different than last week’s match-up as the Sharks built a 2-0 first period lead.
New line-up changes for Sharks coach Todd McLellan paid off right away as the newly formed top-line of Travis Moen, Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo went to work. Less than five minutes into the opening period, Joe Thornton gave the Sharks the early lead.
At the 4:13 mark Thornton picked up a pass along the boards from Moen and threw the puck sharply towards the net where it caromed off a Wild defenseman’s stick and went up and over Minnesota goal-tender Niklas Backstrom and into the net.
Play would be scoreless for the middle portion of the first period until Minnesota went on the power-play at 11:11 when Marc-Edouard Vlasic was called for holding. However, it wasn’t Minnesota who would score.
With 39 seconds left on the penalty, Travis Moen scored short-handed for his first goal as a Shark. After Sharks' captain Patrick Marleau blocked a shot from the point, the speedy center sprung loose for a breakaway chance against Backstrom.
However both Wild defenseman were hustling to try and catch Marleau and Patrick ended up losing control of the puck which enabled Backstrom to poke-check the puck away. Fortunately for the Sharks, Moen out-hustled Wild captain Mikko Koivu into the zone and picked up the rebound of Backstrom's poke-check and fired a shot that squeaked through the 5-hole for the 2-0 lead.
In the second period the Sharks once again went up 3-0 as they had done in the previous match-up against the Wild. While on the power-play, Thornton put home his second of the game as he benefited from a blind clearing attempt after a scrum in front of the net and Joe deposited a wrister into the gaping net.
The three goal lead would last less than three minutes before Sharks fans felt that "here-we-go-again" feeling when Minnesota made it 3-1. A scramble in front of Sharks goalie Brian Boucher with defenseman Douglas Murray scrambling to clear the puck led to the Wild's first goal. Peter Olvecky picked up the lose puck and curled around Boucher and slid the puck past him and over the line.
Unlike Thursday's match-up, the Sharks would enter the final period with a two-goal lead instead of a one goal lead, but it didn't matter as Minnesota would spark their come-back right away.
Just over a minute into the third period, Wild forward Pierre Marc-Bouchard received a nice cross-ice feed from Kim Johnson and had room to skate inside the Sharks zone. Bouchard then released a nifty wrist shot that picked the top-corner, glove-side of Boucher to pull Minnesota with in 3-2. This scenario was becoming all too familiar for Sharks fans.
However, the Sharks and their fans would get a sense of relief when they regained their two-goal lead mid-way through the third. After some nice-work down low by Ryane Clowe, the Sharks forward poked it free to Michalek as both were battling the Wild defense in the corner. Michalek then astutely took it towards the net and from just over the net-side of the goal-line fired a wrister that beat Backstrom top-shelf.
San Jose seemed to get a false sense of security after Michalek's goal as a little over three-and-a-half minutes later, Owen Nolan cut the lead back down to one. Nolan cruised behind the Sharks net and around to the other-side where he deflected a point-shot past a sprawling Boucher at 13:56 of the third.
The goal was Nolan's 400th of his career, coming against his former team in San Jose and the former Shark wasn't done tormenting his old employers. With just over two minutes remaining, the savvy vet tied the game at four.
When the Sharks lost containment in their own zone, Mikko Koivu had all the time in the world behind the Sharks net as both defenders were glued to the goal-posts trying to block the pass. However none of the Sharks forwards picked up Nolan who one-timed Koivu's feed past Boucher to tie the score.
For the third time in the four regular season contests between these two teams, the game would go into over-time. Both teams traded rushes for the first three minutes but Minnesota was clearly getting the majority of scoring chances.
But with about a minute-and-a-half remaining the Sharks caught a lucky break. An errant pass by Minnesota caromed off the boards at their offensive blue-line and the Sharks Christian Ehrhoff picked up the loose puck.
Ehrhoff carried it up the wing with speed and attacked the Minnesota defense 2-on-2 with Joe Pavelski on his right-side. But Christian didn't need Pavelski who had gone straight to the net, as the Sharks defenseman burned his man on the outside and skated in on Backstrom from the left. Ehrhoff then chipped the puck up and over Backstrom's out-stretched glove and inside the post for the game-winning goal.
The over-time winner was actually not the first of Ehrhoff's young career, the German-born defensman clinched a play-off spot back 2006 with an over-time goal against the Canucks. If San Jose is going to make a deep-playoff run they are going to need Ehrhoff to step up his game like he did in over-time on Tuesday.
It was also sweet redemption for Ehrhoff who had not played particularly well of late and was out of position on the first Wild goal of the game. In fact, a good amount of Sharks haven't been playing up to their ability of late, especially the defensive corps as a whole who looked down-right lousy on the tying goal by Nolan.
San Jose's inability to close games out by scoring insurance and then protecting a comfortable lead still has many Sharks fans including myself and head coach Todd McLellan concerned. In order to keep pace with Detroit and hopefully finish first in the Western Conference, the Sharks are going to need to do a better job of closing out their opponents.
There are however some good things to take away from the 5-4 win. Even though the Sharks blew yet another 3-0 lead, the special teams made quality contributions as Thornton scored on the power-play and Moen tallied one short-handed.
Not only did the Sharks win the special teams battle but for the first time in the past six or so games the Sharks were able to roll four lines and create significant offensive pressure from each line.
The scoring didn't just come from the Michalek-Pavelski-Clowe line as the majority of scoring had been coming from lately. This time around the Sharks' big boys stepped up as Thornton had 2 goals and Marleau, who although didn't get credit for an assist, set up Moen's short-handed tally.
Michalek represented the second line's continued high-level of play and Ehrhoff's game-winner epitomised what coach Todd McLellan has been emphasizing since day one, offense from the defense.
After the win over Minnesota the Sharks flew down to St. Louis for their next match-up against the Blues on Thursday. The Sharks have had some difficulty with the Blues so far this season, twice having to pose come-backs of their own even though the Blues are basically out of playoff contention. One of the games the Sharks prevailed in the shootout while the other San Jose had to mount a come-back after trailing 3-1.
And in that game, the captain, Patrick Marleau scored the game-winner in a 5-4 win. In order to put back-to-back wins together on this road-trip they are going to need their captain to once again be at the top of his game.