Antti Niemi will have to carry the load for the Sharks on this road trip
On back-to-back nights, the San Jose Sharks showed they are still the team to beat in the Pacific Division.
After falling down 3-0 and pulling goalie Antti Niemi, they found a way to score five unanswered goals in the final 20:08 of Tuesday's game against the Phoenix Coyotes. This exemplified why at the All-Star break, I predicted the Sharks to rise to the fourth-best record in the West and the Coyotes to fall to eighth.
It all comes down to talent. As the games become more important, teams with superior talent usually rise above over-achievers because they start to match the intensity and work ethic of those squads. It is one of the reasons the Sharks have been in the top 20 percent of the league in each of the last six seasons from March on.
It also may be one reason they are barely over .500 in the playoffs—bad habits are learned, as is the idea that they can always turn on the switch. But that is a matter for another day.
In the first game back from the All-Star break, and the Sharks' last home game before their seven-game road trip, they played flat. They were being outshot 27-17 when coach Todd McLellan made the switch in net just seconds past the mid-point of the game.
Afterward, they became more responsible in their own end, allowing just nine shots in 29:46 on Alex Stalock, making his NHL debut. Meanwhile, they recorded 21 of their own.
Where will the Sharks finish the season?
In the final minute of the second period, the Sharks best period so far this season, a penalty was drawn. With just over seven seconds left in the period, Joe Pavelski put home a rebound of his own shot to get the Sharks on the board.
It took less than a quarter of the third period for him to get the next, this time a rebound of a Devin Setoguchi shot. Kyle Wellwood added his first goal in teal by swatting down a pass at the corner of the crease, then swatting the rebound of his shot out of mid-air as soon as it came out of Shark-killer Ilya Bryzgalov's glove.
Patrick Marleau added a short-handed breakaway late in the third, and Joe Thornton got an empty-netter to cap it off. In addition to getting more shots and goals, they got one more block (14-13), won one more faceoff (31-30), had one fewer giveaway (12-13) and the same number of takeaways (nine). Phoenix out-hit the Sharks 18-13 and still managed one fewer minor penalty.
Such comebacks tend to wear teams down, and the Sharks had to fly down to Anaheim and play the Ducks, who had not played in a week, the next night. Given that, perhaps the see-saw battle was predictable.
San Jose carries the momentum and sharp play with them, with Dany Heatley scoring just 14 seconds into the game. Ben Eager added his first goal as a Shark, and a tally by Jason Demers brought an end to Jonas Hiller's night after just 10 shots and less than one period.
Similar to what happened for the Sharks the night before, the Ducks responded. Niemi seemed to get crossed up on a shot by Joffrey Lupul in the second period, and it was a game again.
The Sharks answered with a power play goal on a rebound by Ryane Clowe, but poor defensive coverage by Heatley gave Bobby Ryan an open shot in the slot, and the hosts went into the third period with a two-goal deficit.
In that third, the Sharks appeared to be on their heels throughout to the fresher Ducks. They ended up out-shooting (30-28) and out-hitting (26-17) San Jose, and took just two penalties to the Sharks five. On one power play, Calder Trophy contender Cam Fowler crashed the net from the blueline before the mid-point of the final period to close the gap to one.
But the Ducks could never get the equaliser, in part because the Sharks did so well blocking shots (14-5) and winning faceoffs (32-19). Another reason may have been the failure of coach Randy Carlysle to pull Curtis McElhenny until the final 20 seconds even though the Ducks controlled the puck in the Sharks end for a over a minute of the final two.
With the two wins, the Sharks leap-frogged both teams to second place in the division and fifth in the conference. They now travel out to Boston to take on the division-leading Bruins, and have games in Columbus, New Jersey, Florida and Nashville before returning home for 16 of their last 25 games.