It's past the quarter mark on the roller coaster season for the San Jose Sharks. For many fans, experts and observers alike, seeing the Sharks sitting where they are in the standings is not a sight they are used to.
Any number of reasons can be attributed to the topsy-turvy start. From the rust showing in Sweden to goaltender issues, everyone has an opinion.
Once you take a walk down any number of these common paths, however, you will reach the same result. This team has been horribly inconsistent and to be brutally frank, a bit of an enigma when it comes to on-ice performance.
An awkward October, a horrid November and a December that so far has proved a glimmer of hope is all fans have to formulate their opinions of this team.
Let's not fool ourselves; this isn't last year's Sharks. They have been missing assignments, have had poor defensive play and seem disinterested. In that same breath, however, for one to honestly imply this team will miss the playoffs seems to be a stretch any way you look at it, given the team's talent level, from the superstars to the role players.
The Sharks have alternated wins and losses in the last eight games, providing the perfect inconsistent blueprint heading into last night's game.
Heading into the Joe Louis arena against the dominant Red Wings would prove to be quite the test for the up and down Sharks. And for this young season, what better team to try and make a statement than the best team in the West?
This Red Wing team is a machine this year, quietly and efficiently putting together a dominant record atop the Western Conference. Although Detroit had lost their last game in overtime, they have won nine out of the last 11 and have only one loss on home ice by way of the Phoenix Coyotes on Oct 28th.
For those Sharks fans fearing the worst that awaited at Joe Louis Arena, their fears were not alleviated after the first period.
The Sharks, looking lost in the first period, simply were not ready to play or compete on any level in the NHL. A long stretch early in the first found the Red Wing third line dominating the Sharks offensive zone despite missing Mike Modano.
Niemi got the start and has enjoyed success at the Joe last season, recording a 2-0 record with a 1.44 GAA and a sparkling .958 save percentage as a Blackhawk. Sharks fans have yet to sniff anywhere near those types of numbers as Antti has looked out of sorts and uncomfortable on many nights. He would respond early in the first, stopping eight consecutive shots while the team in front of him floundered.
Niemi has looked lost for the majority of the season but played an exceptionally sharp game last night. He saw the puck well, didn't fight the rebounds and displayed an excellent demeanor; perhaps the recent run of starts has him in the groove?
San Jose had no answer for Detroit's third line of Cleary, Abdelkader, and Hudler as Joslin would take a lazy cross-checking penalty at 7:08 of the first.
The Sharks went down 1-0 at the 7:48 mark of the first period when Tomas Holmstrom deflected a slap shot past Niemi for the power play goal.
Just a blink of the eye later, it appeared that the Red Wings would add to their lead when a Filppula shot trickled just past Niemi. The Sharks would luck out as the officials would rule that the whistle had blown the play dead before the puck had crossed the line.
Todd McLellan took a timeout with the Sharks being manhandled and outshot to the tune of 12-1. Although he kept his cool in front of the cameras, you could almost see his displeasure seething through his teeth. The timeout rallied the troops as the Sharks picked up their game.
“The guys were a little bit shaky early on,” Thornton said, “so I think it was smart timeout by him to relax the guys.”
Captain Thornton has had a bad November after a positive start to the season was sidetracked by a suspension on the blindside hit on David Perron versus the Blues. Joe failed to record a point in seven contests in the month of November and needs to step up his game if the Sharks are going to make a much-needed push.
Thornton provided some of the scoring, capping a beautiful give and go, 2-on-1 short-handed rush with Dany Heatley at 15:59 of the first period. A huge goal that showed the Red Wings the Sharks were finally ready to play and compete, but after a ticky tack roughing call on Couture, Johan Franzen took the lead back for the Red Wings at 18:35.
Coach McLellan tore into the team during the intermission in a tirade that assistant coach Jay Woodcroft would simply describe as "highly charged" in postgame comments. Assistant coach Matt Shaw told Versus in-game reporters that the Sharks had played their worst hockey all season in the first period.
The Sharks came out for the second period firing on all cylinders, looking nothing like the team that had just walked into the locker room after the first period.
Dany Heatley had his recent point streak stopped at 10 games by a determined Canadiens team but has been the best offensive weapon many nights for the Sharks. Heatley double-shifted with Mayers and Nichol and got the cycle going down low before a Wallin shot found its way past Howard at 4:53. The goal was initially ruled to Heatley but awarded to Wallin, who had just returned to the lineup after missing time for a lower body injury.
Just eight seconds later, Couture tallied his first goal of the night on a terrific shot up high on Howard after winning the face-off and picking up the loose puck at the feet of Clowe. Couture's speed and energy was evident all night; this young man is quickly making a name for himself after an impressive showing last year.
The top line struck late in the second, at 18:57 as Douglas Murray smartly moved the puck ahead quickly and Heatley out-waited Howard before roofing the puck and staking the Sharks to a 4-2 lead.
Couture recorded his second goal of the night on a deflection that was upheld after review at 11:17 of the third period. Couture brought the puck into the zone, chipped it deep, recovered it and then headed directly to the net where he deflected the Clowe centering pass. Enough cannot be said about Logan's maturation into a true three-zone player, thoughts that were echoed by former Calder winner Heatley after the game.
After the game, Todd McLellan refused to get excited about the impressive win against the Western Conference-leading Red Wings. Is this win a big one? Of course it is, given that the Sharks had handed the Red Wings only their second defeat on home ice this season.
But McLellan is taking the correct tactic in being hard on this team, and they responded in spades. The Sharks will do well to put this win behind them and keep the hard working, underdog mentality going moving forward.
"The motivation cannot be external; it has to be internal to our locker room," McLellan said. "Until we get that, until we make that decision, we'll continue to play the way we've been playing."
"I don't know when the light is going to go on for them; they prove to each other on alternating nights that they can get the job done."
Coach McLellan has been quick to mix the lines up this season, and last night was no different. Torrey Mitchell continues to make the best of his time when called upon for spot duty on the top line. The Thornton, Heatley and Mitchell line was dominant during the second period, with their roles perfectly executed.
Sharks youth continues to serve this team well with the third line of Clowe, Couture and Ferriero responding after a poor first period. Couture continues to haunt Red Wing goalie Jimmy Howard, scoring twice, including the go-ahead goal mere seconds after Wallin scored.
The youngsters are skating hard and fast and on many surges down ice seemed to catch Detriot defenders flat footed.
Will this win be the turning point of the season? Will this be the cold slap in the face that this team needs? Have they finally turned the corner recognizing that nothing will be handed to them this season after climbing out of the Pacific Division cellar? Fans certainly hope so.
Stars of the Game
Third Star: Antti Niemi
I must admit I've been more than a Niemi naysayer since his signing, given the state of our defensive corps. And despite the big win, I'm still not sold on his performance and feel he's just too shaky still. But he did stand on his head against a powerful Red Wing team very early when the Sharks had just left him out to dry time after time.
The Bertuzzi save early in the first was a huge one and Niemi made it look easy, a sign that the goalie is on his game and feeling sharp. Perhaps this will be a springboard into Niemi enjoying a little more success than he has had so far this season, and his stretch of starts may have allowed him to warm up as it were.
Recording 25 saves in the big win, Coach McLellan's strategy of riding Niemi out may be proving to be a solid choice, now it's up to him to build on this performance and get into a groove.
Second Star: Dany Heatley
Heatley continues to be the straw that stirs the drink, while Marleau is more the foam along for the ride. Heatley has been the team's best offensive option and, when motivated and driven, is a force on the ice. He looks significantly more comfortable in his second year under McLellan and is making plays despite being moved up and down the lines at different times of the game.
Doug Wilson has to be pleased with how Heatley is playing thus far; it's still early but the fact that Heatley does not rely on Thornton to generate offensive chances is a huge plus.
First Star: Logan Couture
Is it possible Couture has been the best all around skater so far this season? You better believe it. Among team leaders in shots blocked, takeaways and shooting percentage, Couture is proving his doubters wrong. Despite taking over the scoring lead from surprising rookie Jeff Skinner, Couture continues to be an afterthought in Calder Trophy conversations.
I don't think Logan minds flying under the radar for the time being, but he should enjoy it while he can because the rest of the league will soon learn that he is the real deal.
His speed, tenacity and, above all, his defensive responsibilities are terrific for his age, and he's doing all the little things right. The rest of the skaters should take his emergence as a wake up call, because Logan is going to make someone expendable this year.