SAN JOSE – Earlier this month when they were off to their 4-0-1 start, the Sharks were surviving their late game blunders and still escaping with wins.
Team defense was spotty, and so was the goaltending in a 5-4 loss to Columbus at SAP Center on Thursday night. A very winnable game slipped through the Sharks’ fingers and they dropped their third in a row, all in regulation.
San Jose jumped out to a 2-0 lead, allowed the only three goals of the second period, but then responded to go ahead again at 4-3 on goals from Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. Nick Foligno tied it on a power play with eight minutes left, though, and soon after that the Sharks hit the panic button.
Columbus swarmed the home team in the final few minutes of regulation with the scored knotted at 4-4, and it appeared that Ryan Johansen had given the Jackets a lead with a goal that was controversially disallowed with 1:20 to go.
No matter, though. The Sharks stayed in turtle-mode and allowed Mark Letestu to tip in a David Savard shot with just 20 seconds to go to seize the two points.
San Jose’s final shot attempt came with just under four minutes left, reflecting the Jackets’ late-game territorial dominance that eventually resulted in the game-winner.
“I was a little more disappointed with the last three or four minutes in the game than the fact they came back and tied it,” Todd McLellan said.
Couture said: “That was the big moment there, they scored that goal then we went back to playing scrambly in our own end.”
Niemi, making back-to-back starts for the first time this season, didn’t do anything to lock down the starter’s job for the forseeable future. Although he was hardly the only one to blame for the loss, he didn’t come up with the big save against the Blue Jackets, or the Bruins on Tuesday – when the Sharks also saw a third period lead evaporate.
Still, Niemi probably isn’t used to seeing the kinds of things he’s seeing so far this season, in which the only really consistent defensemen the Sharks have had are Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Scott Hannan. Everyone else needs work.
Niemi said: “We know the system. We know how we play. We should be ready every night.”
“Our defensive play right now is killing us,” McLellan said. “It’s not just one player or one line. It’s all the lines right now, it’s the D, it’s the goaltending. The overall defensive game obviously has to improve, or we’re in trouble.”
The Sharks are showing signs of being a fragile team right now, perhaps a result of the changes they made to their leadership structure in the offseason.
That being said, Pavelski was the first Sharks player to speak with the media after the game, and was direct and honest with a dash of rancor in his postgame comments, in what could be considered a refreshing change of pace from the old guard.
“We haven’t been good enough. It’s tough. It sucks losing. No one in here is happy with how we’ve been towards the second half of games,” Pavelski said. “If you think it’s gotten better, it probably has a little bit, I think, but we’re getting the same result.
“We’re not good enough. It’s got to be better. It’s going to change. We’re going to get through it. I think guys know that. We’ll stay together. We’re going to do it right, it’s just about getting it done. There’s definitely a different feeling today in the locker room, and we got the same result.”
Is there anything specific that has to change?
“We’ve got to win. That’s the bottom line. You have leads like that, you can’t give them up, multiple leads throughout the game.”
The Sharks will have a rare home practice on Friday, with a chance to clean things up. Considering their peripatetic schedule that includes another week of road games starting on Sunday in Anaheim, expect it to be a long and thorough skate.
“We’ll get a practice in [Friday] and will work on the defensive part of the game,” McLellan said. “But, to a man and to the units, we have to be much better in a lot of areas.”