SAN JOSE – Through the first 14 games, the 10-1-3 Sharks are exactly eight-tenths of a second from not having a single regulation loss in the 2013-14 season.
Where has it gotten them? They are tied for the Pacific Division lead with the Anaheim Ducks with 23 points, and the Phoenix Coyotes, who beat San Jose 3-2 in a shootout at SAP Center on Saturday night, are only a point behind. Vancouver, which visits on Thursday, is in striking distance of the top spot with 21 points, as are the L.A. Kings with 18.
[Instant Replay: Sharks stumped by Smith in shootout loss]
The Sharks do have a game in hand on Anaheim, Phoenix and L.A., and two on Vancouver, but the point should be clear. The Pacific Division is the best of the newly realigned NHL landscape, and it will likely be a fierce battleground from now through the regular season’s end in mid-April.
Which made San Jose’s defeat to the Coyotes in the skills competition all the harder to swallow, as the Sharks threw 50 shots on net and owned the territorial advantage for the majority of the 65 minutes of play.
“We probably deserve the two points, but that’s how it works some days,” Joe Thornton said. “But, the guys competed hard. That’s how we want to play.”
Dan Boyle, playing in his first game since a scary head injury on Oct. 15, said: “It’s unfortunate we got the loss tonight. We probably deserved a little bit better.”
The head coach wasn’t as quite as unperturbed as two of his veteran leaders. Sure, the Sharks fired a half-century’s worth of shots on Smith and were in the offensive end for long stretches, but there wasn’t enough jam around the goal crease or in the slot for his liking.
“We had every opportunity to finish it, to end it,” Todd McLellan said. “We had some good looks at the goaltender. I’m not sure how hungry we were around the blue paint, or how much we were in the goaltender’s eyes. He looked comfortable in there. When a guy like that gets comfortable, he makes a lot of saves.”
Smith did just that, stopping 48 Sharks shots and allowing only Logan Couture to convert in a five-round shootout. Radim Vrbata and Antoine Vermette scored for the Coyotes.
On the other end, Antti Niemi made 28 saves, but allowed two stoppable shots to get past him in regulation. Vermette scored in the game’s first minute to give the Coyotes the early lead, while Mikkel Boedker converted from a bad angle midway through the second to tie the game at 2-2.
McLellan said: “If Nemo was standing beside me, I think we’d like to agree we’d like to have a couple of those shots back, especially the second one. He’s been there for us a lot, and we can’t always rely on him to win us games. The forwards and d-men had plenty of opportunities to find the third or the fourth one, and they didn’t.”
The most encouraging aspect of the Sharks’ performance on Saturday was their power play, specifically the top unit, which was aided by Boyle’s return. Although it converted just one of six chances, on Boyle’s wrist shot from the faceoff dot at 5:10 of the second period to give the Sharks their first lead, it looked dangerous all night.
Smith was outstanding during a four-minute Sharks power play in the first period when Vrbata was called for high sticking Scott Hannan.
Thornton said: “It looked good. We only scored one goal, but it looked deadly. We had a lot of real good scoring chances.”
“The power play, even though we only scored one goal tonight, I thought we had a lot of good looks,” Boyle said. “We were in their end the whole time.”
A second power play goal could have been the difference. But, it never came, and the Sharks are now lumped in with a group of outstanding Pacific Division teams that are already battling for position.
“It’s going to be that way all year,” McLellan said. “I don’t see it changing.”