The San Jose Sharks are out of excuses (not that they have been making them) for their poor play in the 2014-15 NHL season. The Pacific Division rival Calgary Flames were the latest victorious visitor to the SAP Center ice thanks to having most of the pictured star power Wednesday, Nov. 26.
San Jose spent 15 of its first 21 games on the road, limiting the rest of key aging veterans and practice time for key young players. With Calgary just the third game in a week at home, those problems should have been solved.
The Sharks played two teams in the bottom two spots of their division to start the home stand, but that was before they got most of that rest or practice. They faced the third-place Flames Wednesday, but this is a team everyone that knows hockey understands will fall back to earth. They do not have a real first-line forward and their most valuable player was not even in net for this contest because Jonas Hiller had played the day before against his old team, the two-time defending Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks.
That is perhaps the bigger issue: Calgary was the fatigued road team, Karri Ramo was a goalie with a .903 save percentage and just two shutouts in his NHL career but San Jose still fell to 2-4-2 at home. Falling to .500 at the latest in any season since trading for Joe Thornton in November of 2005 has even turned up the heat on the seat of head coach Todd McLellan.
The fact that this loss to the Flames drops the Sharks into the bottom third of the 2014-15 NHL season standings is is no more the fault of McLellan than his predecessor Ron Wilson. This is about certain players making mistakes and certain players the coaches note do not “have the energy” as though it is not something everyone should have every time they play a game they have loved from before they were in school, even without a Pacific Division rivalry to draw from or the nearly six-figure income they get for each contest.
Calgary currently sits in third place in the Pacific Division not because it has ability, as their young talent is a couple seasons away from contending for anything more than a wild card berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It wins for the same reason Barry Trotz’s Nashville Predators did—because the players give everything on every shift and play smart, disciplined hockey.
If San Jose would do that consistently, it would not have a worse point percentage than 20 of the 30 teams this 2014-15 NHL season. Instead, this is a team that keeps repeating its fundamental mistakes or fails to make fundamental plays.
The Sharks have had more than a dozen giveaways in each of the three last home games, with 57 total. They continue to be victims of players failing to get pucks out of the zone, watching the puck or pinching on defense. They fail to crowd the net or follow the system of getting pucks through toward the net to generate chances rather than the classic transition, slap-shot or one-timer goals that the opposition usually shuts down.
After spending most of the 2014-15 NHL season as the league’s worst team in the third period, they are now repeatedly struggling with slow starts. They are giving up odd-man rushes and one-timer goals of their own.
Yet more than anything, scoring 14 goals in the last nine games is not enough. A team with Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns should be able to score two goals each night, even without San Jose’s supporting cast.
Since they are not, all the Flames had to do was wait for their first opportunity and protect the lead once they had it. Four-on-four, Jiri Hudler dropped the puck along the boards to T.J. Brodie and skated to the slot and took the return pass. Antti Niemi had little chance against the shot to the stick-side corner, but it is a good thing he was on his game enough to stop everything else since a practice injury to Troy Grosenick left the Sharks to sign Ryan Lowe as the emergency backup.
Lowe is a 31-year old goalie San Jose has used for practice, but his career peak was one game at the ECHL level. After the game, the childhood fan of the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings deftly deflected questions about such allegiances and kept the focus on how the team was disappointed in the loss or how effective Niemi was in front of him.
Still, Niemi was the only goalie scored on. Hudler would add another on the power play in the final minute with the empty net, getting another assist for Brodie and for Sean Monahan. Statistically the Sharks were the better team: 38-24 faceoffs, 13-13 giveaways, 8-6 takeaways, 32-19 shots and 72-44 attempts. Considering attack time, their 18-22 deficit in hits is really an advantage, and even the shot-blocking difference of 32-14 is less significant: 1.07 vs. 1.36 shots allowed per block with 41.7 vs. 31.8 percent of shot attempts blocked.
The problem for San Jose has been the importance of the opportunities as much as failing to take as much advantage of them as opponents do. For instance, Ramo did not face as many quality chances as Niemi despite facing 14 more shots overall.
If things do not change soon, the Sharks might as well forget about climbing into a top-three spot in the Pacific Division. If the pattern remains in February, general manager Doug Wilson might as well give up on the 2014-15 NHL season and be a seller at the trade deadline.