COLUMBUS – There are few tools an NHL coach has at his disposal during game play when trying to prove a point. Ice time is far and away the most effective.
Todd McLellan utilized it during the Sharks’ unsightly 4-0 loss to Columbus at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday night, skating his (top line?) of Joe Thornton, Marty Havlat and Brent Burns less than any of his other three forward lines. None of those three players saw more than two-and-a-half minutes in the third period, and when the final horn mercifully sounded, each had a season low in ice time in games they competed in from start to finish.
Thornton’s 10 minutes and 30 seconds of total time was only seconds more than Burns’ 10:26, while Havlat played 11:57.
The Sharks’ captain took responsibility after the game for his and his line's semi-benching.
“Speaking for my personal game, I’ve just got to tighten up and get better,” Thornton said. “If I do that, the other guys will follow.
"Tough night for our line; we’ve just got to be better.”
McLellan, speaking after Thornton, said: “Absolutely, he has to be better. There are situations that he has to be better in. I’m glad that he took that responsibility. He’s the leader, everybody follows. It starts with him, but there are other guys, as well.”
A pair of plays in the second period particularly irked McLellan, as the Blue Jackets took a commanding 3-0 lead. San Jose turned the puck over in its own zone leading to a James Wisniewski slap shot that beat Antti Niemi at 3:09, and less than two minutes later, Thornton failed to cover Ryan Johansen for an open shot in the slot at 5:05 on the Blue Jackets' third goal.
“The second goal, we turn the puck over 40 or 45 seconds into a shift, and turn it into a minute-and-a-half shift. Then the third one, we should be able to kill those type of plays in our sleep right now. … A sort-out coming into our zone,” McLellan said. “Those are the two plays that basically set us up for a bad night.”
Thornton said: “Just a couple defensive breakdowns, and our line allowed two of them."
Columbus put the game away when Raffi Torres turned the puck over at the offensive blue line, and Artem Anisimov got behind Matt Irwin for a two-on-one that Marian Gaborik finished with a backhand at 7:16 of the third. That goal chased Niemi in order for Thomas Greiss to get some much-needed playing time in a game that was already decided.
The Sharks have had a lack of practice time lately, the result of a mutual decision by the coaches and leaders at the conclusion of the previous road trip in Anaheim on March 25. A recent homestand began with back-to-back games, followed by five games every other day. The team opted for rest between those matches.
While it did them well in what ended up as a 6-0-1 run at HP Pavilion, the lack of polish and urgency has been noticeable in the last three games. The Sharks needed a late goal to beat lowly Calgary on April 5, 2-1; lost in a shootout, 5-4, to the rebuilding Stars on Sunday; and now dropped a convincing decision to Columbus.
Brad Stuart was candid after Tuesday's loss.
“Guys should have a lot of energy. I think we need as individuals to take it upon yourself to be ready, and make sure you’re on top of your game when the puck drops, because we haven’t had a lot of practices,” Stuart said. “I think tonight we failed at that aspect of that game, individually getting ready.”
The Sharks will practice in Detroit on Wednesday.
Stuart continued: “At this time of year with limited on-ice practicing, it’s got to be an individual effort. Every guy has to make sure they’re ready individually, because we’re not getting that practice time.
“It shouldn’t be a difficult thing to do. For tonight, for some reason, it was.”
The loss widened the gap between the Sharks’ impressive 14-1-5 mark at home and what is now a dismal 6-11-2 record. San Jose’s trip continues with three more road games, and five of the last nine are away from The Tank.
Joe Pavelski didn’t have an answer as to why the team has found success much more often at its home rink.
“I don’t know. It shouldn’t be drastic like that,” Pavelski said. “It’s nothing in our head, I don’t think. We’ve been good on the road in the past, with a lot of the same guys here. It’s still a game we’ve got to play, and win.”
It starts with intensity and mental focus. Neither was present against the Blue Jackets, who are fighting for a playoff spot after making some aggressive moves at the trade deadline, including acquiring Gaborik.
“We skated in sand, and even worse, we probably had our heads in the sand, too,” McLellan said. “That’s a bad combination. We had the intensity of an exhibition game, and it’s April. That’s sad.”