SAN JOSE -– Holding the NHL’s most high-powered offense to just 17 shots on goal, like the Sharks did on Saturday against Dallas, is no minor feat. It should be a perfect recipe for success against the Stars, who entered the weekend ranked just 24th in the league in goals-against and who have gotten suspect goaltending throughout the year.
It wasn’t to be.
Old friend Antti Niemi was strong between the pipes with 34 saves, and the Sharks took a miserable 0-for-6 on the power play in a 4-2 loss. It was their third straight defeat in regulation, and third straight where they failed to officially clinch a spot in the postseason.
The Sharks will get that asterisk by their name at some point, perhaps even later on Saturday if the Coyotes lose to the Flyers. That in mind, coach Pete DeBoer preferred to keep everything in perspective after the game.
“Obviously we want to be winning every game this time of year, but we’ve won a lot of games over the season where we’ve played like that,” said the coach.
San Jose trailed 3-0 at the second intermission, despite outshooting the Stars 23-14 to that point. Rather than go meekly into the third, they scored a pair of goals by Joel Ward (on a gift turnover) and Tomas Hertl within the first six minutes, and continued to press after that.
Niemi, though, held the line. He got just enough of a Joe Pavelski shot on a Sharks power play, and later Nick Spaling rang one off the cross bar. A Jamie Benn empty-net goal put it away for the Western Conference’s top club.
“Had some chances,” Ward said. “We hit a cross bar and the goalie made some good saves. Just ran out of time.”
Of the Sharks’ 36 shots on goal, 10 came on the power play, but their prime scoring chances while on the advantage were few and far between. Dallas’ penalty killers came into the game red-hot, and have now killed off 34 of their last 35 opponent power plays, including two late ones while clinging to that 3-2 third period lead.
That ended up being the difference.
“They came out hard to the points and caused a little disturbance, forced some plays that sometimes just didn’t work out,” Ward said. “We’ve been used to that. It was just one of those days that we couldn’t connect on every play, but it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before.”
There was no shortage of extra-curricular activity in the first period, especially. Just a few minutes into the game, Brenden Dillon came in and smacked Antonie Roussel across the jaw after the Stars’ agitator was pushing and shoving with Roman Polak behind the San Jose net.
Later in the first, Roussel was punished by Polak and Wingels on successive thundering checks just a few seconds apart in the neutral zone, and he ended up fighting with Wingels.
“This team sticks up for each other,” Wingels said. “When my role is to be physical, I did that in the first, and he didn’t like it.”
There were several after-the-whistle scrums throughout the game with a number of participants, giving the game between two of the Western Conference’s better clubs a playoff-type feel.
The one-goal difference, other than the empty-netter, is also reflective of playoff hockey. And despite not clinching just yet, the Sharks expressed confidence with where their game is after another defeat, especially after not throwing in the towel late in what was an emotional affair.
Despite outplaying the Stars for long portions of the afternoon, it just wasn’t enough.
“It was good to see the guys really respond in that third period,” Pavelski said. “You never want to get down 3-0, but even after the first we felt like we should have been in [the dressing room] with the lead. … Just ran out of time, I think.”
Wingels said: “Even if you don’t win the game, you’ve got to show each other and show the team that you can make that pushback for next game. I’m happy with that. I thought we could have come back and gotten a point there, but ultimately it’s a missed opportunity.”