The San Jose Sharks have had an up-and-down 2011. They went from being on the outside of the playoff picture after a six-game losing streak to being on the precipice of taking over the Pacific Division lead with a 10-game point streak (9-0-1).
Then they were in danger of throwing it all away after blowing two third period leads in a row to teams in the bottom-six of the league. Following a loss in New Jersey, the Sharks were playing a strong game in Florida before appearing to lose intensity.
With a 2-1 lead for most of the third, the Sharks were out-shot the rest of the way despite having the only power play of the period. The Panthers scored two goals in the final 9:24 to deny the Sharks even a point in a game in which they controlled play. They out-shot their hosts 30-22, had no giveaways and eight takeaways to seven and six, respectively, and won the faceoff battle 29-24.
One reason for the loss was that Florida blocked 23 shots while the Sharks managed only 11. Another was the lack of power play opportunities, which was fully expected given the Panthers are the least penalised team in the NHL (San Jose had just two power plays and Florida had four).
Thus, a loss to end the road trip in Nashville would have turned what started as a perfect trip through four games to merely earning eight points in seven games. It would have knocked the Sharks down to the West's tenth-best record by point percentage and worst in the division. A win would give them the sixth-best record and put them a half-game behind the division lead.
That is the nature of the race in the West, especially the Pacific where just one game separates first and last place.
Nashville is also a team the Sharks are chasing, starting one game ahead for the sixth seed. Moreover, the Sharks had lost the two previous match-ups in regulation.
The hosts began the game with a push that resulted in a screened power play goal and a 1-0 first period lead. But the Sharks pushed back, with Devin Setoguchi sniping a bad-angle wrister over the shoulder of Pekka Rinne just before the mid-point of the game.
That would be all the scoring in regulation, despite the Sharks absolutely taking over. They had the first 12 shots on goal of the third period and out-shot the Predators 38-17 from the start of the second period on. Overall, San Jose had a 50-31 edge in that category, had fewer that missed the net (8-9), and blocked almost as many (11-12) despite facing fewer attempts.
The Sharks were able to take over the game through discipline. They had fewer giveaways (16-7) and the same number of takeaways (10), and just two minors to four for Nashville, the third-least penalised team in the league.
But the Sharks did nothing with their four power plays, including about 30 seconds of unwarranted five-on-three. San Jose has struggled on special teams of late, and was just 50 percent on the kill Tuesday night.
They were also out-hit 24-14 and lost in the faceoff circle, 36-33.
Still, they hung on to take the game to overtime, where a breakaway goal by Patrick Marleau with 67 seconds left ended it. Kent Huskins continued his improbable offensive output, assisting on both goals; Marleau and Joe Thornton also got assists.
The win gave the Sharks an impressive 10 of a possible 14 points on their longest road trip of the year. Thursday, they take to the ice at HP Pavilion against the Washington Capitals, who they beat 2-0 in the nation's capital Tuesday.