The Dallas Stars started the 2015-16 NHL season atop the standings but have dropped six of seven after a loss at the San Jose Sharks Saturday, Jan. 16. The hosts had been disappointing especially at home, dropping 12 of the first 17 without any consecutive victories before now running their streak to three.
That changed Saturday thanks in large part to the slight advantage San Jose had among individual performances reflected in the pictured stars of the game. Dallas played a game worthy of not only the point earned, but of the former Pacific Division rivalry between these teams.
The Stars still hold the best record (point percentage being the only legitimate measure) in the best division in the hockey world while the Sharks cling to a 1.5-game lead over two teams back in the weakest division so far this 2015-16 NHL season. At the same time, midseason is when one would expect a regression to the norm.
That could paint a difficult reality for Dallas, a team that was expected to make the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs but not contend for the most difficult accomplishment in the regular season in recent years—winning the Central Division. This team has a ton of scoring and role-playing forwards (technically, every NHL team dresses over a ton of forward talent every night) but what was expected to be underdeveloped blue-line talent.
Also, being backed by streaky Finnish goaltending is not a recipe for winning a competitive division. Having two such goalies helps but that is still a position the Stars would lose at on a nightly basis as often as win.
Meanwhile, San Jose has always been a tough place to play and no one can think any team is going to keep losing more than two of three at home—or even more at all as happened in the 2014-15 NHL season when it won 19 of 41 home games. It seems especially odd given this team added talent from the one that was more successful a year ago.
The good news for Dallas is there was no lack of urgency or competitive response in their game. Troubles on the back end have plagued them since before the 2015-16 NHL season and they are 18th in goals-against average, but they also earned a point because of the talent that makes the highest-scoring team in the league.
The Stars struck first 11:15 into the game when Ales Hemsky backhanded home a rebound from a Mattias Janmark shot to give Antoine Roussel a secondary assist. That score was the only tally in the first period, and suggested back things for the Sharks.
After all, the first to score in San Jose had won that game all 19 times this 2015-16 NHL season. One reason fans have started being replaced by empty seats is that their team often does not come with its best effort in the first. Moreover Antti Niemi had never lost as a visitor, taking both postseason games there on his way to a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in his only other visits.
That was not the case for the Sharks Saturday, finishing the first period ahead in shots 16-13. That effort paid dividends in the first four minutes of the second period.
Tomas Hertl got the puck into the offensive zone and passed off to Joe Thornton from the right-wing boards. The play-making great moved up to 17th on the all-time assist board when he passed to Marc-Edouard Vlasic joining the rush up the slot for the wrist-shot goal.
Over seven minutes later, San Jose grabbed the lead late on a power play when Chris Tierney cleaned up a Tommy Wingels shot to stay on a role after being sent down to the AHL. Matt Nieto was rewarded for his work to keep the puck free so that shot could even happen since he had a secondary assist on the play.
That score held up through the last intermission, but Dallas needed just 33 seconds of the third period for Tyler Seguin to rip the puck from Jamie Benn home in the slot past Martin Jones. The visitors began controlling play, working toward a 13-6 edge in shots in the period.
However, the Sharks managed to regrab the lead late in another power play when Dylan DeMelo moved the puck from Joonas Donskoi to Vlasic for a slap-shot goal through traffic. Even then, the Stars answered 12 seconds later when Benn moved the puck from Seguin to Jason Spezza for a turn-around slap-shot goal over the shoulder of Jones.
Dallas did not have the same jump in the overtime, perhaps after playing a second game in two nights. San Jose was not going to feel sorry about that, having played four games in six days itself.
Just over 70 seconds into the extra session, Vlasic passed the puck to Hertl who put a quick shot past Niemi; Logan Couture earned a secondary assist on the play. The Sharks won this hard-fought contest by being the better team more often than not, as reflected in the event summary statistics: 39-33 faceoffs, 18-14 giveaways, 8-1 takeaways and 29-17 hits, with fewer attempts (63-59) but more shots on goal (39-35) largely because of a 20-14 advantage in blocks.
It took 20 games for the team scoring first to lose in San Jose during the 2015-16 NHL season, but it has now happened. There is little time to rest on the victory, with the Ottawa Senators in town Monday.
For now at least, these teams do seem to be gradually moving toward one another. The Sharks are now have a five-game winning streak and the second-best record in the Pacific Division, while the Stars fell half a game behind the Blackhawks after the Stanley Cup champions won their 11th in a row Sunday.