The Sharks played a fantastic first period, but unfortunately, a good 20 minutes of hockey isn’t enough to keep the best team in the NHL from breaking records. The Blackhawks successfully got through the first 17 games of the season without a regulation loss, and despite Antti Niemi’s best efforts, they took down the Sharks 2-1 to secure the record.
San Jose came out fast to open the game, finishing checks and putting chances on Blackhawks’ backup goaltender Ray Emery. Although they were outshot 11-8, they outchanced the Blackhawks 6-2 through the first period. San Jose finished strong when Joe Thornton threw a pass towards the net, tipping off of Joe Pavelski’s stick and bouncing back out for Patrick Marleau to bury beneath Emery’s blocker. The goal came with 14 seconds left in the first, but the momentum didn’t carry over through the intermission as the Blackhawks took control of the game and never relinquished it.
Chicago put the pressure on in the second period while the Sharks failed to put a shot on goal for almost nine minutes. San Jose basically weathered a 20-minute long hurricane of chances from every single Chicago line. It looked like the Sharks would pull of a small miracle by keeping them off the score sheet, but after Brent Burns played very soft defense against Viktor Stahlberg, a centering pass from the Chicago forward deflected off of Burns and found its way past Niemi. It wasn’t the last of the trouble for Burns: he played equally passive defense on Brandon Saad — this time with San Jose on the power play — and Saad buried a wide-side wrist shot after Burns surrendered the shooting lane for a shorthanded goal.
Burns hasn’t looked like the top-five defenseman the Sharks traded Devin Setoguchi and Charlie Coyle for. He doesn’t even look like the defenseman the Sharks had last year for that matter. His legs look tired and his offensive prowess just isn’t there. I’ll forego speculating why he isn’t playing up to snuff, but the Sharks absolutely need him to perform better if they want to get back into the conversation of elite Western Conference teams. Todd McLellan seemed to be calling out Burns indirectly when he was asked about Saad’s goal.
“I thought we let a player that wasn’t very dangerous — not because he’s not talented or anything — but a player in a situation that wasn’t very dangerous, skate into a primary scoring spot without even challenging him,” McLellan said. “I’m not sure if our goalie was on the angle or not but, I’m disappointed that we didn’t challenge him earlier.”
He indirectly called out the 2-for-46 slumping power play as well when he was asked about Niemi’s first goal-against.
“The first one was one he’d like to have back, but we’re talking about… getting a one-hit night from our pitching, night in and night out. He gives us everything he has, he’s probably been our most steady player throughout the season. Would he like to have the first one back? Of course he would. But that baseball analogy holds true too many nights for him.”
McLellan made some interesting moves in this game, some good and others… not so much. The Sharks shifted lines frequently, keeping legs fresh in order to hang with one of the fastest teams in the NHL. He kept the top line together, and while it paid off with the first goal it didn’t materialize in anything more, neither five-on-five nor on the power play.
And the power play is exactly where McLellan faltered Friday night. While he cited “trying different units” as the team’s attempt to find a scoring solution, putting Michal Handzus on the second unit and Marc-Edouard Vlasic at the blue line is probably not going to materialize in goals. It was a turnover by Handzus that led to Saad’s game-winning goal.
Ultimately, the Blackhawks’ record-breaking win demonstrated an alarming schism between the two teams. While the Sharks are dependent on one line to score goals, Chicago finds scoring from all four. The Sharks are slow, deliberate and sometimes sloppy, while the Blackhawks transition fast and remain dangerous. Until proven otherwise, the Blackhawks sit atop the NHL leaderboard, looking like the team to beat in this abbreviated season. The Sharks, now six points behind Anaheim for second in the Pacific Division, are still searching for answers. Is it time to panic yet? Probably not, but it’s not too early to start thinking about making changes if this team wants to compete for a Stanley Cup Championship this year.