SAN JOSE – There are still more than two months left in the NHL regular season, but if the San Jose Sharks end up missing the playoffs, it will be simple to expose the primary reason.
A 5-4 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday at SAP Center gives the Sharks just four wins in a dozen games against the five teams that started the night occupying the bottom five places in the overall league standings. San Jose is a combined 4-6-2 against Carolina, Columbus, Arizona, Edmonton and Buffalo, including an earlier win against the Hurricanes in which their rookie goalie stole the two points.
On Saturday, it was the team’s veterans that were missing in action, especially for two periods. Former captain Joe Thornton and linemate Joe Pavelski were nowhere to be found from start to finish, while second-liners Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau played like their minds were elsewhere until the third period.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Sharks fall to Canes, suffer another bad loss]
Marc-Edouard Vlasic was a late scratch with an upper body injury, further hindering the home team.
“We weren't very sharp in the first two [periods],” Couture said, referring to the team as a whole.
The Sharks managed to battle back in the third period, turning a 3-1 deficit into a tie game on goals from Tomas Hertl and Couture. The Hurricanes’ fourth goal, which gave them a lead they would not relinquish, came on an unfortunate bounce off of Brenden Dillon’s skate with less than five minutes left in regulation.
Although that key marker involved a bit of good luck from a Carolina perspective, it’s not why the Sharks lost. The first two Hurricanes goals in particular were very preventable, as Eric Staal opened the scoring on a misplay by Antti Niemi, and Andrej Nestrasil scored on some soft defense to make it 2-0 on a play that Tomas Hertl later took responsibility for.
Carolina also scored one power play goal in four opportunities, while the Sharks went 0-for-1.
“The first goal was one we can’t allow and the second goal was one we can’t allow,” Todd McLellan said. “They get the power play goal, which we didn’t get tonight. Their fourth one – that happens. You’ve got to build that into the game. For me, it’s the lack of a power play goal and the first two that were disappointing.”
Offensively, Hertl led the way with his first multi-goal game of the season, as well as an assist on a late Marleau goal that came shortly after Carolina tallied into an empty net.
It was the play of Chris Tierney, though, that was the biggest bright spot for San Jose. The 20-year-old rookie had his second straight multiple-point game with two assists, including a strong play behind the Carolina net in which he bodied John Michael-Liles off the puck and fed Hertl early in the third period for a goal.
He was rewarded with a promotion to the third line with Hertl and James Sheppard in the second half.
“I think he’s very good, and good for him because he is now in the last two games maybe our best player,” Hertl said. “He plays hard. Hopefully, he stays hot.”
The Sharks veterans seemed to get some energy from Tierney, too. Shortly after that Hertl goal, the Couture line finally put together a decent shift that resulted in the equalizing marker.
“He had a lot of fire in his game,” McLellan said of Tierney. “We’re deep into a season where there’s been a lot of miles put on some of the guys that play a few more minutes. We’re looking for energy from the younger group and the guys that are up.”
Tierney looks like a different player than the one who made the Sharks out of training camp before a lengthy stint in the minors.
Fair to say?
"Yeah, for sure,” Tierney said. “I think I'm more confident with the puck. I have better knowledge of the systems, and I feel more confident and stronger down low making plays."
Unfortunately for the Sharks, though, it took way too long for the guys they rely on most to get going against another lesser opponent.
“We're an inconsistent team this year. We need to fix that going forward,” Couture said. “We've got a stretch run here. We're going to need to win a lot of games to get into the playoffs.”