For the first 39 minutes of Tuesday night’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes, the San Jose Sharks looked pretty dreadful—flat, sloppy, undisciplined, lackadaisical. On-ice communication was heavily lacking, and turnovers were numerous.
This lull allowed the division-rival Phoenix Coyotes—whom the Sharks trail in both tightly-packed Pacific Division and Western Conference races—to stake themselves to a 3-0 lead mid-way through the second period. At least for this night, it seemed the Sharks had emerged from the All-Star break in a similar rut to the one they suffered after carrying a four-game win streak into the Christmas holiday.
The Coyotes’ third goal led head coach Todd McLellan to change goaltenders—benching Antti Niemi in favor of rookie Alex Stalock, who is now serving as the backup while Antero Niittymaki recovers from a lower-body injury. The move gave Stalock an unexpected NHL debut, but also had the desired effect of revitalizing a Sharks team that had drifted through the first two periods.
The Sharks drew a late power play and scored a goal in the closing seconds of the second period, then used a four-goal third period as Stalock held the Coyotes scoreless to rip a much-needed victory from the jaws of defeat. It was the first time this season that the Sharks had won a game in which they trailed by 2-0 or more.
While the win was impressive, the problems which led to the original deficit cannot be ignored. McLellan stressed this point in his postgame press conference, so expect discipline to be a heavy emphasis in Anaheim tomorrow night.
The wild game provided a variety of interesting story lines.
Patrick Marleau was honored before the game for becoming the first San Jose Shark to play 1,000 games with the team (a mark he set against the Coyotes just before the All-Star break). He celebrated with a short-handed break-away goal in the third period which proved to be the game-winner. Marleau was named second star for his efforts.
The goaltender switch was not the first time a McLellan coaching move made largely in desperation has sparked an incredible turnaround this season. In three consecutive road games in early December, McLellan was forced to use his timeout early in the game to refocus his team after the opponents had wrested a lead.
It worked in each case, with the Sharks winning games against the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers, but failing to fully complete the comeback against the Buffalo Sabers at HSBC Arena. Needless to say, McLellan starts the stretch run by continuing to find the right buttons to push to motivate his team.
Stalock’s NHL debut will certainly be a night he will never forget. He faced relatively easy duty, with just nine shots on net in nearly 30 minutes, but gave the team the shake-up they needed to make an improbable recovery and earn a much-needed four-point swing against a division opponent.
The win drew the Sharks within one point of Phoenix, maintained their status as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, and affords them the opportunity to tie the Anaheim Ducks at 60 points with a win tomorrow night.
While unlikely, there is one more interesting undertone. As a rookie with the Chicago Blackhawks last season, Niemi replaced the struggling Cristobal Huet as starting goaltender shortly after the All Star Break and helped the Blackhawks earn their first Stanley Cup title in 49 years.
Could Tuesday’s events be a prelude to the tables being turned on Niemi—with Stalock assuming the starting role and leading the Sharks to their first Stanley Cup?
Stalock’s debut win was inspiring and hopefully a great catalyst for a strong stretch run, but it is not likely to create a legitimate goaltending controversy, at least not just yet.
Given the investment in Niemi and Niittymaki, the Sharks are probably tied to them, unless they can find an interested suitor by the trade deadline. Stalock’s brief appearance is also a loose justification at best for considering such a move, but if nothing else it shows Stalock can be a serviceable option if called upon.
A fan can dream.
Keep the faith!