Joe Pavelski

Sharks punch their ticket to the dance amidst the game of the year

When the snow finally settled on the Sharks’ 6-5 overtime win against the Los Angeles Kings Thursday night, most people watching probably needed time to catch their breaths. At some point in the middle of the second period, the news surely reached both teams’ benches that the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars had both lost, ensuring a playoff seeding for both the Sharks and Kings.

It didn’t matter, however, as there was a war ensuing on the ice. One thing is for sure — the paying customers at the Staples Center got their money’s worth. The tilt was a showcase of everything that the National Hockey League has to offer: hard hits, fights galore, stout goaltending, mind-boggling drama and, oh yeah, a whole lotta goals.

The laser show

The Sharks fell to an early 1-0 lead at 8:45 into the first period – a power-play goal scored by Dustin Brown. The Sharks’ inability to stop the Kings’ mediocre power-play squad would be a theme on the evening, giving up 4 goals to the Kings out of their 8 man-advantage opportunities. San Jose found a way to come back and tie the game late in the first period as defenseman, as Jason Demers dug a puck out from the crease and threw it past Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick.

The action only built from there. The second period saw the Kings take a 3-1 lead with goals from both Jarret Stoll and Dustin Brown, but momentum to a quick turn with less than 30 seconds left in the period. Joe Thornton netted a power-play goal, trimming the lead to 1 for the Sharks before they regrouped in the locker room.

Regroup they did. The momentum carried to the third, as Ryane Clowe put the puck past Quick on a breakaway just 1:10 in. Los Angeles tied it just minutes later, again on the power play, when Justin Williams put one past Niemi. The Sharks answered quickly, though. This time it was on a power-play of their own, as Patrick Marleau finally got in on the fun and again tied the game once again.

That wouldn’t be all. Martin Havlat netted what seemed to be the game winner (again on, you guessed it, the power-play). With just under 8 minutes left to play, the Sharks simply needed to hold on, but after two awful penalties put the Sharks on a two-man disadvantage, Justin Williams found a way to tie it and send the game to overtime.

An action-packed five minutes of 4-on-4 hockey culminated in a flurry of chances for the Sharks, including a slam dunk opportunity for Joe Pavelski, who whipped his shot over the net to end the extra period.

The Sharks would emerge victorious in the shootout. After Niemi stoned Mike Richards and Dustin Brown, Joe Pavelski would not be denied again, whipping the eventual game winner past Quick. Niemi gloved Anze Kopitar’s last chance shootout try, making the Sharks’ most exciting win of the year official.

The Clowe and Joe Show

Without a doubt the two most influential players were Joe Thornton and Ryane Clowe, both of whom set a physical tone early on in the game. Thornton got chippy almost immediately, cross-checking Drew Doughty in the chest before dropping the gloves and engaging in a rare fight. Although the cross checking penalty would result in the Kings’ first goal, it also sent a message to both teams about just how deep the Sharks’ desire ran.

That wouldn’t be the last impact that Thornton would have on the game. His goal late in the second period matched up with his assist in the third, successfully completing the Gordie Howe hat trick.

Clowe followed Thornton’s physical lead, dropping gloves with LA’s instigator Kyle Clifford twice. All told, Clowe totaled 12 PIM, but that wasn’t the only stat on his score sheet. He also knotted a goal and an assist, giving the Sharks their first back-to-back Gordie Howes in team history.

That’s not to say that Clowe and Thornton were the only standouts on the team – 10 different Sharks got on the score sheet Thursday night. That’s the kind of productivity that they will need when the NHL playoffs begin.

It also should be mentioned that Clowe had a pretty questionable no-call go in his favor late in the game – though this one came from the bench. As the Kings pushed through the neutral zone with time dwindling in regulation, Clowe stuck his stick onto the ice to disrupt a King’s puck handler. Luckily for Clowe and the Sharks, there wasn’t a referee around to catch it or else it would have been a 2-minute interference penalty. It’s certainly something to be chuckled at if you’re a Sharks fan, but I doubt many Kings fans were happy about that one.

The Sharks bipolarity

This was really a tale of two different teams for the Sharks.  The first half of the game featured a San Jose squad that could not kill a penalty; a team that couldn’t score on the power-play; a goalie that couldn’t stop a shot.

The second half spun a much different story. Suddenly the Sharks were explosive and defensively stout. Aside from the 5-on-3 disadvantages (which, especially in the third period, came on extremely avoidable penalties), the Sharks penalty kill was disciplined and successful. Their power-play was dangerous – even reminiscent of years past. The Sharks played with heart and intensity. They finished this game much like they did in their miraculous comeback in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, not allowing any adversity to stop them from getting two points.

The Sharks seem to be battling a severe identity crisis. In a way they still play as if success is deserved rather than earned. Unfortunately, those easy snipe shots from Devin Setoguchi or Dany Heatley are no longer an option for them. They have to fight for every goal. They have to win every battle.

The NHL postseason is a completely different animal. Defenses and goaltenders buckle down. The battles for pucks are more ferocious, the physicality is ramped up, and the only goals that get scored seem to be of the dirty variety. This is the way the Sharks must play going forward, not just because that’s who they are now, but because that’s how teams win in the playoffs. Mediocre regular season be damned, the goal is still the same for the San Jose Sharks – it’s time to contend for a Stanley Cup Championship.

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