SAN JOSE – When the Sharks returned home from sweeping a six-game road trip, it looked like it could be an early turning point in their season. They were finally playing new coach Pete DeBoer’s system without having to think, and were overcoming the loss of key forward Logan Couture, who is still sidelined.
Not so fast.
Following a 4-3 loss to the Lightning at home on Saturday, the Sharks have now lost four of their last five after that impressive East Coast swing. At 14-12-0, they are sinking right back into the middle of the pack in what is the weakest division in the NHL.
Although they outplayed a Lightning team for the final two periods in the second half of a back-to-back, were without key blueliner Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and stormed back from a three-goal deficit early in the third to make it exciting by the final horn, a poor start and questionable goaltending did them in.
Markers by Nikita Kucherov and Eric Condra in the first period staked the Lightning a 2-0 lead they would not relinquish.
“I didn’t think it was us playing that poorly, but you spot anybody two goals in this league you’re going to be in trouble most of the night,” Pete DeBoer said. “To our credit, I thought we fought back. We could have rolled over. We didn’t. Just too little, too late.”
Kucherov’s first goal came when the Sharks turned the puck over in their own zone, and the Lightning forward danced around Brent Burns in the slot before shooting the puck in off of Paul Martin just 2:19 into the game. Joel Ward took responsibility for not getting back hard enough on Condra’s goal at 11:20 that was directed in with a skate blade.
“Just a couple of mishaps there, and we got behind,” Ward said.
The key moment, though, came shortly after Matt Tennyson’s power play goal in the second period cut the Lightning’s lead to 2-1.
Neutral zone tripping minors by Chris Tierney and Ward led to Kucherov’s second of the night when he ripped a slap shot over Alex Stalock’s shoulder with 3:16 to go in the middle frame. The Lightning enjoyed a 3-1 advantage headed into the third.
“We’ve got to do a better job of helping ourselves there, especially the penalties in the neutral zone,” DeBoer said. “Tierney’s and Ward’s [penalties], when you’re away from the play like that you don’t want to put yourself in that position, because we were carrying some momentum. That was a big goal they scored at that point.”
The game-winner came early in the third, and it wasn’t pretty. Although Stalock stopped J.T. Brown charging towards the net, he lost track of the rebound despite it being just inches from his right pad. Brian Boyle spotted it, swooped in, and flicked it in over Stalock at 3:01 before the goalie even knew where it was.
“Their last one, I thought I had it,” Stalock said. “The D-man thought we had it, and it ended up their guy had it right back door. Tough bounce.”
Stalock fell to 2-4-0 on the season, and now has a 3.08 goals-against average and .884 save percentage as Martin Jones’ backup. He allowed four goals on 20 shots.
To the Sharks’ credit, they didn’t give up despite the three-goal hole. Ward at least partially made up for his tough first two periods when he tipped in a Burns shot on the power play at 8:26 of the third, and Burns’ spectacular one-man effort about six minutes later cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 4-3 with more than five minutes still on the clock. All of the Sharks’ goals came with a man advantage, as that unit continues to trend the right way.
It wasn’t enough to make up for their poor start or that disastrous Boyle goal, though.
“You look at the stats, [surrendering] the first goal and [trailing] going into the third period, it’s always a tough hill to climb,” Braun said.