PHOENIX – If Tuesday’s playoff-clinching, come-from-behind victory was the top of the emotional roller coaster for the Sharks, Wednesday’s performance in Phoenix, particularly in the first period, was the sudden and dramatic freefall back to solid ground.
The Sharks were badly outplayed in the opening 20 minutes by the Coyotes, surrendering two goals and failing to recover in a 2-1 loss to a team that made it to the Western Conference Final last year, but is already out of contention for a postseason spot in 2013.
“The first, we were just too casual,” Dan Boyle said. “Defensively, we just didn’t compete. We played too loose, probably at their level. We are obviously in a different position than they are, and we had to be better than that.”
“Obviously, last night was a real emotional game,” said Todd McLellan of San Jose’s 3-2 win over Dallas at home on Tuesday. “You’re always concerned about getting off to a good start and guys being invested. It took a little while for us to get our legs going and decide to play the way we needed to play. As the second and third periods rolled around we were there, but just not enough tonight.”
The Sharks were playing in their third game in four days, and second game in as many nights, while Phoenix hadn’t played since Monday. Could fatigue have been a factor, too?
“You’re never going to hear that from me,” Boyle said.
San Jose improved after the first period, but couldn’t solve Smith except for Brent Burns’ slap shot in the second period after a horrific turnover by Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The Sharks outshot the Coyotes 13-5 in the third period, too, and nearly tied it on a one-timer by Boyle from the slot in the final minute.
Smith was there, though, and improved to 6-0-1 in his last seven games against the Sharks, including four shutouts. He’s allowed just seven goals in seven games.
Boyle said: “Unfortunately, I hit him right in the crest. Not where I want to shoot. I wish I could have put that in.”
“Mike Smith’s a great goalie, and we saw it again tonight,” Joe Thornton said. “A couple plays we thought it was going to go in, and it just didn’t. He has our number.”
At the other end, Thomas Greiss, who saw his first action since March 6, was also on top of his game. The 27-year-old made a pair of stellar saves early, stopping Lauri Korpikoski on a breakaway shortly after the opening faceoff and Radim Vrbata’s point-blank attempt two minutes into the first period.
Greiss, who gave Antti Niemi a well-deserved rest, didn’t mind the early defensive breakdowns in front of him and they may have even benefited him for the remainder of the game.
“It gets me pumped up,” he said. “If you make the save it’s always nice, it doesn’t matter if it’s a muffin from the blue line, or a breakaway.”
Greiss allowed a slap shot by Michael Stone and a Keith Yandle goal that deflected in off of Brad Stuart’s stick, but shut the door after that, keeping the Sharks within reach.
McLellan said: “I thought he was exceptionally sharp. The first two chances they had were them staring him down, and he made very good saves.
“I thought our team felt good playing in front of him. The loss is one thing, that’s a little disappointing, but the fact that Thomas went in and played very well is a rewarding thing for our club.”
Niemi had started 24 straight, but McLellan said before the game that Greiss needed the work in case they need to call his number in the postseason. In six games, Greiss now has a 1-4-0 record with a 2.53 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
He was asked how he felt despite the lack of actual NHL competition in recent weeks.
“Pretty good. Just shake the rust off, and find that level of aggressiveness, but staying calm at the same time,” he said. “It wasn’t bad.”
Boyle said: “He did real well for not having played for so long. I thought he had a really strong game. We let each other down with that first period. The intensity was just lacking. It’s unfortunate that we played like that in the first.”
Even more unfortunate is that the Sharks chances of securing home ice in the first round suffered a huge hit. They can still finish fourth, with a win over the Kings on Saturday, but will need St. Louis to falter in at least one of its two remaining games. The Kings and Sharks are tied with 57 points with only a head-to-head matchup on Saturday remaining, while the Blues have 56 points and two games left.
San Jose can still finish as low as seventh in the West.
“We control only what we can control, and that was what we put into the game and what we got out of it,” McLellan said. “It wasn’t enough tonight.”