Chicago Blackhawks Sink San Jose Sharks, 6-3: Top 5 Things We Learned
The San Jose Sharks entered the game looking to put an exclamation point on the regular-season series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
A strong start by the Sharks and Patrick Marleau had the Sharks sporting a 2-1 lead over the Blackhawks and looking to secure the sweep.
Unfortunately, the Blackhawks had different ideas, exploding for four unanswered goals in the second period. The quick turn of events found the Sharks unable to respond to the Blackhawks charge out of the first intermission, and they could not recover.
The Sharks could not stop the bleeding and would tally a goal late with Logan Couture crashing the net. The loss makes it two very recent chances to put down an opponent and climb the standings closer to the Red Wings.
However, one would be remiss to ignore the obvious lessons the Sharks learned at the United Center last night.
No Killer Instinct
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The Blackhawks are coming off of a huge overtime loss to the red-hot Washington Capitals, and played their second game in as many nights. They are among the hottest teams in the league but had lost three straight at the United Center entering last night’s game.
Sharks had outscored the Blackhawks 12-6 in three victories and had the chance to make a statement on national television.
This Blackhawk team had every reason to be gassed after a tough loss against Washington, and much like in the Dallas and Detroit games, the Sharks failed to capitalize against a tired opponent.
In many ways, the game looked a lot like the game the Blackhawks won on Nov. 26 by a score of 7-2.
Much like in that game, the Sharks could not stop the bleeding, could not slow the Blackhawks as they racked up six unanswered that time, four last night.
With a clear chance to keep the Blackhawks out of the top four seeds, and the Los Angeles Kings taking the night off, the Sharks didn’t get it done.
The Sharks were winless in their two previous contests, and did not start particularly well in either contest, being outshot 23-14 in the first period.
They reversed this trend against the Blackhawks but got buried by Sharp, Hossa, and Toews in the second period.
Instead of separating themselves from the pack, the Sharks fall back into the crowd and sit only five points from eighth place.
With Chicago and Los Angeles nipping at their heels, the Western Conference is again reminding the Sharks how unkind losing can be.
Demons of Complacency
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It’s a tough to play in the Western Conference this year, and every team in the NHL this year has gone through their shares of struggles lately. The top seeds are no different, with Detroit and Vancouver both enduring long stretches of inconsistency and listless play recently.
While the Sharks certainly did not play with any urgency after the first period, this kind of loss can put the perspective back in the locker room. The fight and will was just not there consistently after falling behind, which is a frustrating thing from a fan perspective to be certain.
The Sharks have now lost four of their last five, but recorded points against the Canucks and Rangers.
Problem is, in the Western Conference a point isn’t going to get the job done and can mean missing the playoffs entirely. Perhaps this team needs this type of wakeup call to get back to dedicating themselves to the system and the game.
Could this mean the Sharks peaked too early? They must turn things around quickly, or they know they could easily find themselves on the outside looking in.
Will Heater Ever Warm Up?
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Let me preface this section with the statement that I hate the perception of California and warm weather teams in general.
However, it’s a fair stance when you consider Danny Heatley’s season thus far and what real impact if any he will have in the postseason.
He has been the victim of some serious snake bite since the new year and is in a deep slump. The unlucky bounces and iron have not helped Heatley out of this funk.
Heatley has just four goals since Jan. 17 and has not responded to the many linemate combinations during the season-long line shuffle.
It’s really five if you truly wish to count the long Boyle wrist shot that bounced off three bodies before bouncing off Heatley and in.
He was one of the better Sharks early on in the season generating chances away from Thornton while the team was struggling.
Now he’s a struggling winger in a defensive system dedicated to an area of his game that he’s never truly been exceptional in.
After a brief appearance against Detroit, he’s had a rough go of it in the last three games.
Will he return to that form and be a factor in the playoffs this year?
Neutral Zone Turnovers
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It’s Ian White’s 11th game with the Sharks this season, but he’s still not clicking quite yet with his teammates. While White’s got five assists so far, only one of those came via the power play, despite decent time with the man advantage.
His continued play there should improve his impact, given the nature of the power play and the rapport and chemistry required.
The areas that sunk the Sharks last year in the playoffs, however, reared their ugly heads again and especially in the third period.
During long stretches the second and third periods, the speed of the Blackhawks forecheck gave the Sharks big trouble in transition.
Ian White’s continued building of chemistry with his teammates needs to be a factor moving forward to help alleviate some of these issues.
Some smarter play by the forwards in the neutral zone couldn’t hurt, either; a lot of the problems are still mental.
This is a disturbing sign from a team not known for team speed and known to struggle against a quick-footed foe.
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The Sharks have ridden Antti Niemi to a surge to the top of the Pacific Division and had been arguably the hottest team in the West. Niemi has saved the Sharks so many times, one can easily lose count or track of all the miraculous saves.
The second period was not kind to Antti with three goals in the first seven shots, but the Sharks could not stop the bleeding. The penalty kill could not erase some key mistakes, as Marian Hossa scored two power-play goals, just two and a half minutes apart.
Taking three straight penalties is not the way to start a period against the Blackhawks, and Niemi couldn’t save the Sharks as he’s done routinely since January.
The questions may arise from those that question the four-year, $15.2 million extension and sizable commitment to Niemi recently, but there’s really just one answer.
And that is Niemi is still every bit the goaltender that made fans want to dream of the Stanley Cup being paraded down West Santa Clara.
The real question is how many more games will he start, and which games would Antero Niittymaki take?
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The Sharks are currently third in the Western Conference, and although they are just five points away from eighth place, they still control their own destiny.
With seven of the remaining 12 games at home, the Sharks will need to rebound quickly to gain some traction in the slippery standings.
While some may point to a Kings-Coyotes-Stars stretch, the Sharks' propensity to play down to their opponent at home would suggest otherwise.
With only Dallas left on the road swing, the Sharks must win the next three at home, facing the Wild, Blues and Flames.
Outside of St. Louis, the Sharks take on every imaginable foe in the Western Conference standings, including Phoenix three times.
Antti Niemi has rebounded every time he’s had a difficult outing, and I just don’t see that trend changing.
The remaining three weeks of the season and postseason will see if the lessons learned last night will reap the rewards the Sharks want.