New Years is fast approaching, and some Shark fans may say none too soon for putting this year's struggles behind us. It's been a roller coaster season with some terrific highs and some horrific lows. While December has proved some positives after a poor November, the only thing consistent about this team is its inconsistencies.
For the glass half full personality, the resolve this team can muster when being down and against top level talent in the NHL is impressive at times. Signature victories can show us that really on any given night this team has special depth and skill. One would point to the four-game winning streak, and that certain players like Vlasic and Marleau are beginning to warm up from their slumbers coming into Christmas.
The glass empty personality however, can easily point to the defensive lapses that still seem to haunt this team. Giving up position, dumb turnovers, mental lapses or poor decision making is leading to late surges or collapses. Some of the very signature victories are directly due to defensive collapses that result in a run of goals against and this is an alarming trait that isn't going away.
There's also the small fact that coming into this matchup, the Sharks had been outscored to the tune of 7-0 in the third period of their last two games.
Coming into the third matchup of the season versus the Chicago Blackhawks, the question was which Sharks team would show up? Which side of the coin would fans see from the Sharks? True to form, the Sharks would continue to struggle to consistently put together a full game.
Antti Niemi would start in his first appearance at the United Center since backstopping the Blackhawks on their magical run to the Stanley Cup just a year ago. Let's be honest, Niemi hasn't exactly been what most fans expected, and the Hawks would answer with Marty Turco taking his third straight start.
The Blackhawks would have to come out strong considering they were missing Jonathan Toews who who sustained a upper body injury in a 3-1 loss vs. the Blues on Tuesday.
Patrick Sharp would open the scoring on a power play goal with 4:16 remaining in the first period after Brandon Mashinter would take a lazy hooking penalty. He would snap a shot from the left edge of the crease after taking a feed from Tomas Kopecky circling behind the net. Niemi looked slow cutting across the net and couldn't square up fast enough for Sharp's shot.
Scott Nichol would provide the equalizer on a bad angle shot from just above the right circle as his slap shot would just sneak past Turco to even up the score.
The line of Ferriero, Couture and Clowe would strike again in the opening minutes of the second period as Couture would whip a pass across the crease for the easy goal. Ferriero was cash in after being absolutely robbed on a chance in the first during a sequence where Turco mishandled the puck leaving an empty goal. Without the stellar save by Brent Seabrook, this would have been Brian Ferriero's second goal of the night.
The Big Line would extend the lead at 13:46 as Dany Heatley would tap in the easy goal after Turco would make the save on a Demers snap shot from above the left faceoff circle.
And the meltdown happened, with the Blackhawks on the power play, Troy Brouwer would attempt to center the puck after Vlasic would sink down to apply pressure. The puck would take an odd glance off of Niemi's stick and then proceed to trickle past him with just 22.9 seconds left. A very similar play to the Logan Couture goal vs. Jimmy Howard and the Red Wings last postseason, the goal was a very bad angle and just a tough break for Niemi.
Instead of circling the wagons, the Sharks would continue to make the very same boneheaded mistakes that sunk them against Minnesota just a few nights previous. Jason Demers would again turn the puck over at a crucial moment, losing the puck behind his net to the Shark Super Pest Dave Bolland. Bolland would feed Brian Campbell who would pinch in behind the play for an easy goal with just 0.5 seconds left in the period.
"You never can get caught up in anything that happens on the ice," Niemi said. "You just have to get through it. It was a great time for the intermission for us to forget those two goals and keep on going."
The third period had the Blackhawks riding a wave of momentum. But Niemi would fight off the early surge. Captain Thornton would provide the heroics at 7:13 as he tipped a Vlasic shot past Turco while fighting off Seabrook.
Ryane Clowe would steal a pass at center ice and waste no time snapping it into the empty net at 19:12 for the finishing touches on the victory.
The Bad: Wallin, Vlasic and Demers continue to make some huge mistakes at crucial times in the game. All three were guilty in the second period collapse and too many times would get caught being mesmerized by the puck in the defensive zone.
I'm not sure what the issue is because NHL level defencemen just should not be making these types of mistakes on such a consistent basis.
Jason Demers continues to fail to build on last year's experience and again failed to make the right play in a crucial situation. The coaching staff keeps putting the ball on the tee for Demers and trusting him in important situations, but he keeps whiffing.
Is there a move coming? It's when, not if, for many enthusiasts. While Doug Wilson certainly has played a patient game so far, one has to honestly ask the question when?
James Wisnewski, whom we missed the first time around in free agency, played his first game since being traded to the Canadiens from the Islanders. He's a relatively young defenceman most familiar to fans during his time in Anaheim that would have looked darn good in teal. The asking price wasnt too steep for a guy with 21 points in 32 games for a very bad Islander team and the Canadiens did not give up a roster player.
The Good: The top line really played with a crisp efficiency this game, backchecking with verve and playing positionally sound defence in their own zone. Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau had a terrific second period creating chances and making strong plays in the attacking zone.
Joe Thornton had a strong game along the boards and protecting the puck and seemed to be skating with extra purpose in the third period when the team needed him to.
"We expect them to carry and lead the team," Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan said. "They have in the past and we expect them to do it again. They've been very, very good in power play situations. They haven't been as good as they're capable of in 5-on-5 play, both offensively and defensively."
Stars of the Game :
Third star : Joe Thornton
Joe Thornton would record the game winner and he's really starting to come on strong. He was also excellent in the dot last night, winning 64 percent of his faceoffs and playing very strong along the boards all night. More to the point, Joe is starting to get his game going again after a brief November dropoff, and looks to be taking more of the leadership reins over by posting six points in his last four games.
"We lost focus for about a minute there," Thornton said. "Then we regained our focus and came away with the two points. That's the most important thing."
The top line would shine when needed last night, as Heatley carried the puck deep into the offensive zone and after kicking the puck back to Vlasic at the left point, Joe would redirect for the game winner.
Second star : Dan Boyle
With all the speculation and hand wringing about the team defence and issues surrounding the backend, Boyle is again proving to be the bellcow. He continues to log heavy minutes and is consistently one of the best Shark on the ice. How much longer can the coaching staff rely on him to log an average of 28 minutes a game and still be effective?
First Star :Antti Niemi
Niemi is continuing to look stronger and slowly rebound from the bad start to his season as a streak of starts has him putting his game together and gaining confidence. He would stop all 11 shots in the third period and withstood the Blackhawk surge late in the game. Niemi was strong and this win can do nothing but continue to build his confidence as he is slowly gaining traction to his game.
The Sharks now hold a 3-0 advantage over the Blackhawks this season, but needs to put together a complete game before any of these regular season stats start to matter to anyone.
Is this team ready for the postseason now? Whoever can honestly say that they are ready after witnessing the collapses against Minnesota and the Blackhawks would be lying to themselves. But the team is ready to make a run to secure their playoff seeding, and it can't happen soon enough for most fans.