SAN JOSE – All the Sharks needed was another 97 seconds of scoreless hockey, and their playoff ticket was officially booked.
Instead, Joe Pavelski failed to control a pass from Justin Braun in the defensive zone, and Ryan Johansen fired in a wrist shot late in the third period to keep the Sharks from earning that precious little ‘x’ next to their name that would signify the organization’s ninth straight playoff berth.
[Kurz's Instant Replay: Blue Jackets 4, Sharks 3]
Columbus’ 4-3 win was just the Sharks’ second regulation loss at home, and first since a 5-3 defeat to NHL-leading Chicago on Feb. 5.
The loss was a bit of a heartbreaker, even though it would still take a minor miracle for the Sharks to miss out on the postseason. Pavelski had tied the game just a few minutes earlier, when his wrist shot on the power play beat Sergei Bobrovsky to the short side at 14:57. That was preceded by the most beautiful goal of Andrew Desjardins’ NHL career at 6:34, after the Sharks entered the third period trailing, 3-1.
“It was right there for us, obviously. It’s tough, you never want to make a play like that at the end,” Pavelski said. “You understand where you are in the game, and you understand these things do happen once in awhile. It’s tough when they do.”
Pavelski took the blame, although Braun could have made a smarter decision with the puck, too. He could have played it up the boards to an open Tommy Wingels and out of the defensive zone, but instead chose to slide it to Pavelski, who had it bounce off of his stick to Johansen.
The Sharks outshot Columbus for the game, 35-22.
“We had our chances, but I don’t know if we deserved to win the game. We didn’t play our best,” Logan Couture said. “But, it was good to fight back there. It’s tough to lose in the last minute and a half.”
Pavelski said: “Definitely the third period was our best period, by far. The crowd got into it, we found our legs a little bit better, we were quicker and executed a little better. We tie it up and give it away right at the end. It’s tough.”
Head coach Todd McLellan wasn’t focused on the single point the Sharks needed to clinch, instead expressing his annoyance that his club played much looser than it had in recent weeks for long stretches in the game. The Sharks had won 11 of their previous 14 games before Sunday (11-2-1).
“At this time of year teams are playing and preparing for playoff hockey. The team that gets it – there will be a team out there that figures it out and commits to playing that way from this point forward – that’s going to have a pretty good run.
“There will be other teams that waver, and decide to do it one night, and maybe not the next, and they’ll find themselves in a hole.”
The Sharks found themselves in that hole after two periods. While Pavelski’s turnover was the most glaring based on when it occurred, Brad Stuart’s misplay on a pass through the neutral zone led to a breakaway goal by Vinny Prospal at 4:27 of the second period. It gave the Blue Jackets a 2-0 lead at the time.
Marty Havlat made it 2-1 when Couture found him open in the slot at 7:14 of the second, but Mark Letestu’s power play goal gave Columbus its two-goal cushion back.
“My fault on that one. Just make a better pass,” Stuart said of the Prospal goal, his team-leading 12th. “You make little turnovers at this time of year it’s going to cost you. That’s what happened to us.”
McLellan said: “Offense was not the problem one bit tonight. It was the defensive part, and the puck management and game management.”
The head coach made a notable change to start the third period, when he put Thornton on a line with Desjardins and Adam Burish, while Scott Gomez took Thornton’s place between TJ Galiardi and Brent Burns. Thornton was on the ice when Desjardins scored his fancy goal, waiting for Columbus defenseman Dalton Prout to slide by and then cutting to the slot to make his move.
“It worked. Jumbo with Desi and Burr scored the second goal, and I thought it gave us a lot of energy,” McLellan said, before adding that the move was not a reflection on Thornton’s game to that point.
Desjardins said: “I guess it doesn’t happen too often with me, but I’m fortunate it happened the way it did.”
The Sharks had been coming on even before the goal, according to Desjardins, and the momentum continued to shift to San Jose’s favor. In the end, it didn’t help.
“You get that late goal on the PP, the momentum is on your side and you’re feeling good, and feel like you can win it. … It’s a tough one to take,” Thornton said.