San Jose had a chance to keep their hopes of stealing the Pacific Division crown away from the Anaheim Ducks alive when the two teams faced off at the Honda Center Wednesday night, but an awful showing from both Antti Niemi and the Sharks’ defensive core crushed their chances. Niemi got pulled midway through the second period after giving up three Charmin-soft goals, and the porous defense that didn’t offer Nemo any help wasn’t much better for Alex Stalock in the 5-2 loss.
With the loss, Anaheim has officially clinched the Pacific Division title, and the Sharks have officially clinched their worst nightmare of a first round matchup: the Los Angeles Kings. This team — as they’re currently constructed, anyway — doesn’t look like they stand a chance against those Kings, who even Todd McLellan admitted was a better team this season.
Simply put, the Sharks are far too unsettled, and not nearly deep enough to say that things will be any different this postseason. It’s disappointing, especially considering how stacked they were to open the year. Delusions of a Sharks team flaunting players like Tomas Hertl and Raffi Torres got the better of us, didn’t it? Sure, Torres could be back, but Hertl playing in the first round is a fantasy, and Hertl in the second round is only marginally more realistic than that.
That is, if the Sharks even make it that far.
San Jose’s depth issues are only compounded by McLellan’s unwavering dedication to front-loading his first two lines with all of his scoring talent. James Sheppard had a nice few games late in the season, but watching him center San Jose’s third line tonight made me feel like Bob Costas rinsing his eyes with water from the sink of a Sochi hotel room. He was 4-10 in the faceoff dot, and that whole third line — which consisted of Tommy Wingels, Sheppard and Bracken Kearns — was a dumpster fire against the Ducks. The third line was outscored 2-0 and outshot 12-7, only to be backed up by a fourth line of Tyler Kennedy, Andrew Desjardins and Mike Brown, who, despite only going -1, were even worse.
While the solution to the issue of having a horrible bottom-six issue (moving Joe Pavelski to third line center) seems simple enough, is it really? Is anything really that simple with McLellan. It’s stubbornness. It’s the same stubbornness that drove so many minutes for Douglas Murray last year, and it’s the same stubbornness that explains why Antti Niemi has gotten the majority of the starts in goal over Alex Stalock this season. In fact, it’s the same stubbornness that kept Niemi in Wednesday night, even when it became clear following the second goal that he was far from sharp.
In sum, the Sharks glaring deficiencies this season come down to a failure to anticipate trouble and act accordingly. San Jose’s draft was defense-heavy, but it was far too late for a team with three ancient blue-liners, including Dan Boyle, who still sees considerable TOI and quarterbacks the top unit of an underachieving power play. Doug Wilson’s stagnant trade deadline further compounded the issue. Finally, McLellan’s incredible knack for line-shuffling when it isn’t necessary, and line-holding when it’s equally unnecessary, has cost San Jose games — not to mention Stanley Cup berths — since McLellan showed up behind the bench, plain and simple.
It’s time for damage control. McLellan has to protect his rapidly declining defensemen. He has to spread his scoring threats as thin as possible. And for the love of all that is right and just in this world: if McLellan is going to insist on going with Niemi to start in a playoff series against the Kings, he has to keep him on the tightest damn leash you can buy.
McLellan has to stop being so stubborn with what hasn’t worked, or else the Sharks’ pathetic playoff history is doomed to repeat itself again, against the team Sharks fans hate the most.