The last time the San Jose Sharks came out of a break on a streak, they promptly dropped their next 2 games en route to a huge 10 game slump.
So tonight's Pacific Division matchup at home versus the Phoenix Coyotes after the All Star break was sure to be a challenge. The coaching staff would make a point to the team to focus into putting their best effort forward coming out of the break to prevent any potential slide.
These Coyotes have been hot on the road, and was sure to be a tough litmus test for the up and down Sharks this season. One would figure given the Sharks standing and the Western Conference being as tight as it is, that the Sharks would come out with guns blazing.
On a night kicked off with a celebration of longtime fan favorite Patrick Marleau's 1000th game recorded against these very Coyotes Jan 17th, you had to figure the team was ready to play.
The Sharks did charge out of the gate early, but after the first three shifts their energy seemed to disappear. The Coyotes dominated early and often in the attacking zone. The Sharks play in the first period would look a lot like the Sharks during their December slump.
Miscommunication, poor puck control, sloppy play and lackadaisical defensive focus would have the Coyotes swarming in the first period.
The Sharks would be missing their leading scorer, rookie Logan Couture who was scratched before the game due to flu-like symptoms, and dressed only 11 skaters. Alex Stalock would be called up in relief of Antero Niittymaki who was taken off the IR, but still not ready for action.
With the Coyotes controlling the action, Dany Heatley would take a poor boarding penalty on a hit against Ed Jovanovski at 14:33 in the first period. The following power play would lead the Coyotes to an early lead that only further drained the Sharks. Radim Vrbata would open the scoring at 16:11 for the Coyotes, tipping home a Shane Doan slap shot past Niemi on the power play.
Later in the first, Keith Yandle would extend his scoring streak to 10 games by blasting a slap shot home from just above the left faceoff circle. The Sharks would fail to clear the zone on three direct attempts, and get caught on a lazy shift change leaving Yandle almost wide open.
The Coyotes would enter the locker room having dominated the Sharks zone and outshooting the home team. The second period was much of the same until Paul Bissonnette would slap the one timer past Niemi pushing the lead to 3-0. John Mccarthy would lose Bissonnette after the Coyotes would cycle the puck and Huskins would fail to take his man.
A clearly frustrated Todd McLellan would give Niemi the yank in favor for the rookie Stalock shortly thereafter. While some may say it was due to Niemi's play, it was not due to his lack of performance in the game to that point. This game could have been easily out of reach without Niemi's efforts, he had stopped 27 shots midway through the second.
Bissonnette would strike again fooling Jamal Mayers into dropping the gloves and drawing a game misconduct penalty. With Mayers out for the misconduct, and Couture already missing from the lineup, it left the Sharks with just ten skaters.
A reversal of roles found the Sharks on the right side of a late period goal for once. Kyle Wellwood would draw a tripping penalty on Belanger with just 57 seconds remaining.
The ensuing power play would struggle until Pavelski sidestepped a lunging Adrian Aucoin and sent the puck deep to the opposite boards. Heatley would center a pass with Pavelski parked in the crease and would backhand the puck past Bryzgalov for the late goal.
Pavelski would strike again just about a minute into the third, slamming home the Setoguchi rebound on a nifty feed from Clowe. The Sharks with the momentum would run into a slight speed bump as Ferriero would draw a questionable tripping penalty on Ekman-Larsson.
Always amazes me how world class skaters can go down like they were shot after a stick touches their skate blade, but I digress.
Kyle Wellwood would tie the game tapping the puck past Bryzgalov on a midair rebound opportunity, on a great pass and hustle play of Ben Eager. With the game tied, the Sharks would have a golden chance taken away after yet another Ekman-Larsson penalty neutralized the Sharks power play.
Ekman-Larsson really should be given an Emmy after last night's performance, maybe Thornton and Pavelski could learn a thing or two after taking sticks to the face with no call.
With the Coyotes on a shortened power play, Patrick Marleau would strip Keith Yandle of the puck at the Sharks blueline and race towards Bryzgalov. Patrick Marleau would not miss his mark and snap the shot high to the stick side for the lead. The game winner was classic Marleau, stripping Yandle and capitalizing on the breakaway.
Marleau's goal provided a perfect symmetry given his 1000th game was against these very same Coyotes and with the pregame festivities to honor him. Hopefully it begins a turnaround to his so far forgettable season, because the Sharks need him to get it going.
Joe Thornton would add the empty netter with just 11 seconds left to ice the game.
With the win the Sharks move into a two way tie for eighth place on the strength of four unanswered goals, three of which came in the wild third period. After struggling for the better part of the first two periods, the Sharks continued to show exactly what they are capable of when they decide to get to work.
"We just had a big talk during the second intermission," Marleau said. "We weren't playing the way we were supposed to. Pav got that goal late and it gave us a little bit of life going into the third. We got a lift from everybody in the third and we got the win."
With 58 points now, and a projected point total of 95 to secure a playoff berth, the Sharks head to Anaheim to start their road swing.
The Sharks don't figure to take the Ducks lightly, but the coaching staff will be sure to hammer the message home before the game. Sadly, the Sharks would squander a solid performance by Niemi after leaving him out to dry one too many times.
While the Sharks won the must-win game, they would do well to remember the lessons learned from the early game miscues.
"If we leave here patting ourselves on the back, we've got huge problems," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "I was really disappointed in our group tonight. Very disappointed in the lack of drive and lack of passion to come out and play. That's the last thing I expected. I do give them credit they found a way to dig in and come back."
If the players start taking the initiative and stop relying on the coaching staff to provide motivation, they can truly realize their true potential.
What worked :
The Second Line : The Clowe-Pavelski-Setoguchi line was great last night and Pavelski would miss several chances at the hat trick late in the third. Setoguchi would lay down for a huge blocked shot late in the third and Clowe would deliver several huge hits and be crisp passing the puck all night.
Pavelski is hitting his stride netting two goals, and played with huge all night winning 75 percent of his faceoff opportunities after two periods.
The Other Rookie : Stalock would play well for the Sharks in a situation that was not ideal for the youngster. He would come up with a huge stop on the Upshall breakaway on a horrible turnover by Heatley high in the Sharks zone.
Stalock would also stone Coyotes captain Shane Doan midway through the third period. Stalock saw the puck well and played with confidence despite entering the game stone cold and down three goals.
The Newcomers : Ben Eager and Wellwood did not waste much time making an impression on the home crowd. Ben Eager looks to be a bigger, faster version of Nichol and is much stronger along the boards so far. Wellwood would miss on quite a few passes, something that figures to improve with more time alongside Eager and Ferriero.
The trio has got some serious wheels and their speed and effort is sure to pay dividends in the playoffs. This line really had it going and save for a few turnovers due to unfamiliarity with one another, played an excellent game.
What didn't work :
The Top Line : Outside of Patrick Marleau's terrific shorthanded effort and goal, not much went right for the top line last night. Too many times Thornton and Heatley would attempt the pretty pass instead of the smart safe one and the Sharks would have paid if it weren't for the efforts of Antti Niemi.
Marleau did not play well in the first, but answered the call in the second and third periods.
The turnovers in the offensive zone are just maddening and the line just doesn't seem to have it when the Sharks have needed it this year.
It wasn't until the third period when the Sharks were playing desperation hockey, that the top skaters started to make the safer plays with the puck.
Maybe the Sharks should listen to themselves talk about how it's desperation hockey time, because it didn't look like it in the first.
The Sharks will need to keep their foot on the pedal and build momentum after this character win at home versus a quality division opponent. February is a key month with a grueling 10 out of 12 games on the road with a comfy March home schedule to launch the Sharks into the playoffs.