It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t certain. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t decisive. It wasn’t any of the things that a March matchup between an NHL conference leader and a team seemingly destined to be watching from the sidelines in mid-April ought to be. What it was was another encouraging sign of the evolution of the San Jose Sharks toward becoming a team worthy of claiming hockey’s ultimate goal.
Saturday night’s contest against the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets started in a fashion that had to be all-too familiar for anyone used to watching the San Jose Sharks over the past several seasons. D
espite out-shooting the Jackets 29 to 13 through two periods and carrying the play through extended sequences of the first two periods, it seemed like the Sharks just could not catch, nor create, a break.
A missed wrap-around attempt on a short-handed rush by Joe Thornton in the first period with Columbus goalie Steve Mason uncharacteristically out of position and an ugly Blue Jackets’ goal by Andrew Murray at 1:00 of the second period following a Sharks offensive zone turnover extended the Blue Jackets’ streak of games scoring first to nine and the Sharks’ streak of games allowing the first goal to eight.
Stingy goal-tending by Mason kept the Sharks off the board for the remainder of the period and led to a 1-0 deficit for Team Teal into the second intermission. This followed on the heels of a 3-0, 40-save blanking of these same San Jose Sharks by Mason in Ohio on February 10 leading up to the Olympic break.
Mason’s luck seemed to continue into the third period, as despite a spirited onslaught by the Sharks in the opening minutes, Mason managed to keep the puck from crossing the goal line. It seemed certain that the Sharks had scored at one point midway through the third period. AHL call-up Ryan Vesce had a brilliant chance from the top of the crease off a Patrick Marleau face-off win at 7:35, but a sprawling Mason somehow made the stop.
Mason would not be as lucky on the Sharks’ next opportunity. With Antoine Vermette taking a hooking penalty on the play leading to the Ryan Vesce opportunity, San Jose took to a critical power play.
Leading power play goal scorer Dany Heatley soon added to his total at 7:53 when he one-timed a slap shot past Steve Mason from the right edge of the crease on a brilliant feed from Joe Thornton. Heatley’s 16th man-advantage marker of the season tied him with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos for the league lead in that category.
The Sharks had solved Steve Mason for the first time since November 4, 2009, but were still far from claiming victory in the contest.
Their hopes of doing so seemed bolstered at 12:31 when Joe Thornton broke through the Columbus defense half way through a power play resulting from a Jan Hejda delay of game penalty for knocking the net off its moorings. Thornton roofed the puck past Mason and seemingly into the net.
The goal light came on the HP Pavilion faithful erupted in cheers, but the referee immediately waived off the goal.
An ensuing review revealed no indisputable evidence to overturn the call on the ice as every available camera angle revealed that the puck had bounced off the underside of the crossbar and nestled halfway over the goal line before Mason was able to amble backward on top of it. The Sharks alternate captain looked frustratedly skyward as Steve Mason had seemly dodged another bullet.
The Sharks would finally respond even strength at 15:20. Ryane Clowe broke in on a rush to the left of the Columbus goal and fired a shot from short range at Mason. The Jackets goaltender allowed a juicy rebound to former Sharks Captain Patrick Marleau but made the ensuing save.
Team USA Olympian Joe Pavelski swept in to corral the second rebound and darted behind the net and out under the right circle. There he unleashed a beautiful wrist shot, which beat Mason over his glove side to give the Sharks a 2-1 lead.
The Sharks were able to fend off a desperate onslaught from Columbus in the last several minutes of the game, finally clearing the puck down the ice with under five seconds to play to seal the victory.
The Columbus loss marked their tenth blown second intermission lead of the season, a mark which leads the NHL. The Sharks win was the second consecutive impressive comeback in which the men in teal found a way to wrest victory out of a game where they seemed to be snake-bitten and facing a goalie on the very top of his game.
This bodes incredibly well for the Sharks moving forward. Where previous Sharks squads would have folded under the weight of facing such adversity, this year’s roster has consistently found creative ways to rise above the odds and win critical games.
Am I ready to say “This is the year the Sharks win the Stanley Cup”? No. And I won’t be until that silver chalice parades its way down West Santa Clara Street. Am I excited? You bet!