As much as we all tried to convince ourselves the lockout wouldn’t affect the NHL’s on-ice performance, it certainly looked like the Sharks were out of sorts in the first period of their season opener against the Calgary Flames. You can’t expect too much in the way of chemistry between linemates after one week of practice, but San Jose looked more than sloppy in the opening 20 minutes. Not even the top line could muster much in the way of a threat, while every Shark seemed to have forgotten how to play clean hockey. They rarely possessed the puck for long and played on their heels from the opening puck drop. The first period was downright awful; they were outshot 16-9, only mustered two scoring chances and allowed one goal (though it could have been much worse if it weren’t for Antti Niemi).
The second period spun a much different tale, however. After a strong shift from the third line found the Flames on the penalty kill thanks to Tommy Wingels drawing a roughing call, Patrick Marleau started his 2013 campaign with a bang. Joe Thornton battled behind the net and found the crashing Marleau in the crease, snatching Jumbo’s pass in for the equalizer. The Sharks turned it into a lead minutes later thanks to a slam dunk from Martin Havlat and extended the lead to 3-1 before the second frame’s end — another score from Marleau.
San Jose got comfortable with a two-goal lead in the third, weathering the storm for much of the period while leaning on Niemi to do most of the dirty work. The nail in the Sharks’ 4-1 coffin was a 5-on-3 goal from Dan Boyle, but the Sharks’ power play prowess in this game isn’t exactly breaking news. San Jose has always been dominant on the man advantage (and their opportunities to continue dominating it should increase with the NHL’s more stringent focus on interference). What stood out was how different the penalty kill looked in the first 60 minutes of the Sharks season.
Different, in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean better. They gave up a power play goal to Lee Stempniak midway through the first period and allowed several scoring chances moving forward. On the other hand, the Sharks were much more aggressive, going after puckhandlers rather than sitting back and waiting for disaster to strike like they did so often last season. There seems to be some serious risk/reward in Larry Robinson’s new, more proactive penalty kill — clears and scoring chances could come more frequently at the expense of some dangerous times in Nemoland. It will be interesting to see both the killers’ and Niemi’s numbers change from last year as this season wears on.
For all of its blemishes, you really can’t complain about the Sharks leaving the Scotiabank Saddledome 1-0 on the season. Not to get all sentimental, but I think I would have been okay with a loss simply because the Sharks were back on the ice. Nevertheless, San Jose showed some grit out of the gates, roaring into the win column on the strength of Marleau and Niemi’s stellar play. They’re two of the Sharks’ most important pieces, and they’ll need to keep it going while the Sharks sprint through the next 47 games.