CHICAGO – The final meeting of the season between the Sharks and Blackhawks on Friday at the United Center could have gone either way, which was already a minor victory in itself for the visiting team, which was run out of the same building just a week ago.
The Blackhawks aren’t the NHL’s best team by accident, though. They did what an elite team does – took advantage of a mistake, or mistakes, in beating the Sharks 2-1 on Brandon Saad’s shorthanded goal at 2:24 of the third period, as Chicago set a new NHL record with points in its first 17 games (14-0-3).
Brent Burns inexplicably allowed Saad to speed through the Sharks’ defensive zone untouched on a two-on-two shorthanded rush and get an open look at the net, while goalie Antti Niemi was caught leaning on a play that resulted in the Sharks’ eighth loss in the last nine games. Saad’s shot found a lane inside the far post in beating Niemi for his third goal of the season.
“He had a lot of speed coming down. He just came down the wall, went wide, and I don’t know if it hit my stick,” Burns said of the play.
Head coach Todd McLellan made it known that Burns misplayed it, in his view.
“I thought we let a player that wasn’t very dangerous – not because he’s not very 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. “Then, I’m not sure if our goalie was on the angle or not, but [I’m] disappointed we didn’t challenge him earlier.”
Should Burns have been more aggressive on Saad?
“Absolutely. Absolutely. The average hockey fan could tell you that. It’s as simple as that,” said the head coach.
Niemi didn’t let himself off the hook. The goaltender, who fell to 1-4-1 in his career at the United Center since leaving the Blackhawks, said: “I should have the shot, anyway. [Burns] didn’t screen me.”
While the result was the same at the end of the night, the Sharks were much more competitive than in a 4-1 loss here on Feb. 15. San Jose took a first period lead on Patrick Marleau’s 11th goal with 14.2 seconds to go before intermission.
The Blackhawks responded in the second, keeping the Sharks from getting a shot on net until nine minutes in. Viktor Stalberg tied it up at 16:40 on a shot from the corner that banked in off of Niemi from behind the goal line. Niemi was unhappy with his positioning.
“I should be tied around the post when he goes behind the goal line,” he said.
Still, the game was up for grabs at 1-1 to start the third, and the Sharks went to the power play thanks to Brent Seabrook’s tripping minor just 27 seconds after the faceoff.
Instead of taking advantage of that chance, though, and putting Chicago’s run of 16 straight games with a point in jeopardy, the Sharks allowed their first shorthanded goal of the season.
“I thought we played better than the way the last time we were in here, but we’ve got to find ways to win games in this league,” Logan Couture said. “We’re not going to win scoring one goal, and we know that now. We had a lot of opportunities, we’ve just got to bear down and score.”
Joe Thornton said: “We felt real good. We talked like it was right there in the second intermission. For whatever reason, we couldn’t bear down and they scored the shorthander, which just killed us.”
For the 10th time in the last 11 games, the Sharks failed to score more than two goals in regulation. The power play failed a total of four times, and is just 2-for-46 in the last 11 games. Since Joe Pavelski scored late against Columbus on Feb. 11, when that game was already out of reach, the Sharks are 0-for-18.
McLellan kept Tim Kennedy on the top power play unit, and Couture on the second crew as he struggles to find combinations that will produce.
“We can sit there and bang our heads against the wall, night in and night out, we’ve got to keep trying different units and different pairs,” McLellan said.
The Sharks (8-5-3) didn’t take any solace in playing better against the Blackhawks than they did a week ago.
“We lost. That’s not what we came here to do,” McLellan said. “We’ll look for positives in it, but it’s till a loss at the end of the night.”
Burns said: “They’re obviously a good team. We did some good things. At the end of the day, you don’t get the two points, so it’s tough.”