Splitting a road trip isn’t too bad when you shut out the leader in your conference, much like the way the San Jose Sharks defeated the Chicago Blackhawks to cap off their first stretch of games back from the All-Star break.
Despite mounting pressure from the reigning Stanley Cup champs in the latter half of Tuesday’s tilt, Martin Jones and a sturdy Sharks’ defense held down the fort to boost San Jose to a 2-0 victory in a tough building. There’s really no better way to bounce back after an ugly loss to the Predators in Nashville the weekend before, and split the road series before returning home for a couple contests.
Tuesday’s game featured the kind of play the Sharks need. If you may recall — and I’m sure you don’t want to remember, but we have to talk about it anyways — February and March did the Sharks in last year. But the big win in Chicago over the conference-leading Blackhawks could be just the right jump-start Team Teal needs to make to crank through the next month, so they can jockey for a prime spot in the Pacific Division and get to playoff hockey this season.
Getting back on that hot streak the Sharks were on before the All-Star break is going to be key. While wins over Chicago and St. Louis were convincing enough, San Jose didn’t play it’s cleanest or most dominant hockey against Anaheim or Nashville. (To be fair, they looked good at the start of the game against the Predators. It just so happened that Pekka Rinne chose that evening to be in vintage form and wasn’t letting of San Jose’s early chances get by him.)
I go back to something Joe Thornton said right before the All-Star break after SJ’s win over the Avalanche: “When you’re playing this good, you don’t want a break. You just want to keep playing every other day like we’ve been doing because it feels so good.”
If there’s one player who really benefits from playing every other day in order to find a good rhythm, it’s Martin Jones. We’ve seen throughout the the better part of the season that the starting netminder plays his best when he has a heavy workload, with few breaks in between. While bad bounces got the best of him in Nashville, Jones looked every bit the veteran on Tuesday night in his fifth shutout of the season. It still remains to be seen how many opportunities Alex Stalock gets between the pipes down the stretch, but it appears Jones will maintain the bulk of the workload, which appears to make him the most productive.
Goaltending isn’t the only thing that looks better when the Sharks get on a winning stretch. This time last season, San Jose had a difficult time icing a healthy blue line. The defense in front of Jones as of late has definitely helped boost the Sharks’ chances of winning. Staying healthy and dominant is key for any defense, but we’ve seen how much it affects San Jose when a piece of that blue line isn’t up to par. (Now, maintaining a solid defense could also mean adding a new player, as there’s still a possibility that Team Teal makes a change to their blue line around the trade deadline.)
San Jose’s special teams played a big factor on the road as well, with the penalty kill going a spotless 11-for-11 on the four-game roadie. Granted the power play wasn’t as tight, giving up a pair of shorthanded goals on the trip, but the top unit righted the ship thanks to a Patrick Marleau goal in the second period on Tuesday.
Finding a rhythm after the game in Chicago will help in San Jose’s placement in the standings, given how crazy the Pacific Division has become. The LA Kings still hold the top spot and opened up their own road series with a nasty 9-2 win over the Boston Bruins. Then there are the Anaheim Ducks, who have seemingly bounced back from an absolutely horrific start to the season and are right on the Sharks’ tail in the standings. And sure, the Coyotes and Canucks have moved a bit down the divisional ladder, but they aren’t far enough in the rear view mirror that one of them couldn’t string together enough wins to make the race for the playoffs more interesting.
If San Jose is able to fire on all cylinders, much like they did in Chicago, this month should see them making a push for the playoffs, instead of unraveling like they started to do at this time last year. Either way, it’ll be an interesting February and March.