The Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks were two of the hottest teams in the NHL around the All-Star break. Both had mixed results recently to put an urgency into the game between the two flawed but talented teams Tuesday, Feb. 17.
San Jose almost achieved a sweep of the pictured stars, but the game was competitive as evidenced by its lack of an event summary advantage: 32-21 faceoffs, 5-5 giveaways, 3-6 takeaways, 15-23 hits, 31-30 shots, 55-58 attempts and 12-13 blocks. Until the third period, Tampa Bay spent more time in the lead than its guests and looked more prepared to get back on the winning track.
The Sharks came in a respectable 3-2-1 since the All-Star break but had some bad issues surface. Three really bad periods led to a regulation blowout and shootout loss. A late goal by the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Kings resulted in an overtime loss—a three-point swing against the bitter rival being chased.
Maybe more to the point, they lost their third-pair anchor, leaving them only four solid defensemen left on the roster. Their backup goalie still gives up a bad goal more often than he has a good game. Despite a nine-game point streak (6-0-3) at home, they are still under .500 in San Jose over the 2015-16 NHL season.
A road win over the defending Eastern Conference champions would pretty much address the first issues and another solid defensive game from the third pair could address blue-line concerns. The Sharks would be able to narrow the gap in the Pacific Division to under two games because the Kings would lose later that evening.
Meanwhile, the Lightning had dropped three of four since winning 10 of 11. After getting within a couple games of the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers, the gap is widening and the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings have moved more than a game ahead into the final two guaranteed divisional berths to the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs.
With both teams now in the final third of their 2015-16 NHL season, neither team can be truly considered among the elite but both are certainly contenders. If Tampa Bay won, it would sweep the season series.
Scoring first against San Jose is usually enough. Just over two minutes before intermission, that happened when Alex Killorn moved the puck from Andrej Sustr to Ryan Callahan behind the defense. The backhand deke opened up the wrist-shot wide of Martin Jones.
The Sharks answered within the first two minutes after intermission. Marc-Edouard Vlasic extended his point streak to eight games by moving the puck from Matt Nieto to Joel Ward just inside the zone, resulting in a slap-shot goal through traffic.
Not five minutes later, Joe Thornton extended his point streak to six games by retrieving the puck from Tomas Hertl behind the net and finding Joe Pavelski backing into open space for the easy one-timer goal in the slot. It was the first goal for the captain in seven games, matching his longest drought of the 2015-16 NHL season.
The Lightning only trailed for 2:12 thanks to a lucky break, however: J.T. Brown attempted to send the puck toward the net and Vlasic got his stick on it, but it bounced to an open area Cedric Paquette was able to reach first for a spin-and-fire shot from the right-wing circle Jones could not stop.
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, that held up just 77 seconds past the final intermission. Ward sent the puck past his defender into the neutral zone where the slick-skating Patrick Marleau could scoop it up on his way into the attacking zone before feeding a perfect backhand pass for the speedy Nieto to gather behind the defender, backhand deke and stuff in nearside just behind the 6-ft., 7-in. Ben Bishop’s sprawled leg.
San Jose also got the lucky break back later when an attempt to dump the puck behind the net caromed off the referee and was picked up by Thornton. The play-making great sent a behind-the-back feed to the slot for Melker Karlsson to one-time home.
The Sharks have now earned points in 15 of their last 17 games (12-2-3) and have done so in 21 of 29 road games (19-8-2) over the 2015-16 NHL season. They now have the second-best record in the Pacific Division (.591 point percentage) and a four-game cushion for returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs with 27 games to go.