The Sharks’ battle with the Blue Jackets was over as soon as Columbus scored their first goal 43 seconds into the game. Mathematically it wasn’t over, of course, but with San Jose’s goal drought eclipsing 100 minutes at the opening puck drop, it was hard to see them battling back from even a half-goal deficit, if such a thing was possible.
Losing to the Blue Jackets is never a good omen, but losing to the Blue Jackets to open up a six-game road trip (the same one that pretty much spelled “fin” on the Sharks season last year) is doomsday incarnate. Columbus was 3-7-2 coming into Monday, putting them dead last in the Western Conference. Although Nationwide Arena has been a historically difficult venue for the Sharks (3-7 in their last 10 visits), facing the worst team in the conference on a back-to-back with their backup goalie in net should have ended their losing streaking, right?
Wrong. The Sharks pulled off of the face off dot playing sloppy hockey and it reared its ugly head on Brandon Dubinsky’s goal, a whopping 43 seconds in. Intermission adjustments never materialized on the ice and more turnovers turned into back-to-back scores from James Wisniewski and Cody Goloubef in the second frame. Patrick Marleau answered immediately following Goloubef’s goal, but any hope of a comeback was squelched when Columbus opened the third period with a Nikita Nikitin goal even more quickly than Dubinsky’s. It all collapsed after that, with two more goals to follow in the fifth minute of the final frame, and by the time Joe Pavelski netted San Jose’s second goal of the game (a power play goal, thankfully) it was far too little, far too late.
Now at the quarter point of the abbreviated 2012-13 season, the Sharks face more questions than answers.
— What exactly is wrong with them right now? The Sharks had only played one game in the last five days, while Columbus was on the tail end of playing three games in four nights. With that in mind, the culprit for the awful play couldn’t possibly be exhaustion. San Jose’s early-season staple was fast starts; now they’re doing their best impression of the 49ers and falling apart at the opening whistle. What was really going on?
“No explanation for it,” Todd McLellan said. “We should be fresh, we have no excuses about being tired. We looked lethargic, we looked slow. Execution — we didn’t put two passes together, and there’s no excuses from here. We just weren’t any good.”
— Where did the discipline go? The defense appears to be clumping again. Hockey moves way too fast for Sharks to be playing out of position, and nearly every Blue Jackets goal occurred when at least one of the Sharks’ defenders over-pursued and left a man open in a scoring area. On the Columbus’ second period power play goal (also thankfully, the first the Sharks have allowed in 37 kills), three Sharks made their way towards the left side boards to pull the puck off of Derick Brassard and R.J. Umberger. It left Wisniewski wide open behind an oblivious Marleau in the high slot for the goal.
— What happened to the Sharks’ passing prowess? No-look passes are awesome when they work and absolutely devastating when they don’t. Turnovers are becoming a serious issue for San Jose — they can’t sustain pressure in the offensive zone when the passes aren’t connecting and they simply give up goals when turnovers occur in the defensive and neutral zones. The first goal is a perfect example — Ryane Clowe lost the puck at his own blue line, which resulted in Dubinsky’s goal not 15 seconds later.
— Where’s the chemistry? None of the lines are scoring and some of the blame for it has to fall on McLellan. The experiment of Joe Thornton pairing with Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe isn’t working. Whether he paired them to get Clowe out of his slump is anyone’s guess, but the big forward is still goalless and Thornton hasn’t notched a point since Marleau moved off of the top line. Marleau and Thornton making up two-thirds of the top line has always been a formidable scoring threat and it was working early in the season. It may be time to put the band back together.
— Consider this: The best line for the Sharks in the last three games (and coincidentally, the only one McLellan hasn’t broken up) has been the combination of Michal Handzus, Tommy Wingels and James Sheppard. That says a lot considering the line hasn’t scored since San Jose’s loss to the Blackhawks last week. The top two lines are barely providing any offensive pressure, let alone sustaining puck possession for very long.
— What’s next? The always frustrating Nashville Predators, who handed the Sharks their first loss of the season last Saturday. The Sharks ended last year’s SAP Open road trip 2-6-1 and significantly battered. They may have escaped game one of this six-game roadie with a healthy squad (and coaching staff), but it’s not getting any easier and they’re quickly plummeting towards .500.