As well as the Sharks have played this year, a concerning trend is starting to emerge. As of late, they’ve had a tough time beating top teams on the road. Sure, they have beaten the Blues and Canadiens on the road, but they have also lost a heartbreaker in Boston, and suffered blowout defeats in Chicago and Pittsburgh. The loss to the Blackhawks could be explained by fatigue from a long road trip, but Thursday’s loss to the Penguins is rather dumbfounding.
The Sharks came into Pittsburgh having won six games in a row, but thanks to a horrendous seven minute stretch in the second period, a seventh consecutive win was out of the question. Pittsburgh scored four times during that time period, and what makes it even more frustrating is that the Sharks brought it on themselves. They didn’t move the puck well, they committed numerous turnovers, and they weren’t able to capitalize on scoring chances. Pittsburgh’s second goal came off of a bad pinch by Jason Demers, and their third goal was a direct result of a defensive zone turnover.
San Jose also made mistakes on the power, albeit less obvious ones. All four penalty killers sank too low in the defensive zone and Pittsburgh had the entire perimeter to move the puck. As evident from Pittsburgh’s fourth goal, which came on the power play, the Sharks barely provided any pressure and allowed a talented Penguin’s team to move the puck at will. In fact, on Pittsburgh’s first power play, the Sharks played the same way and only avoided a goal thanks to a shot off the post.
The positives for the Sharks were that they outshout the Penguins 45 to 30, and actually seemed to control play for much of the game. Unfortunately, when a team plays so poorly for an extended period of time, the chances of a comeback are not high. When the Sharks play against top teams on the road, their play resembles a team that doesn’t want to lose, rather than one that wants to win. At home the Sharks play an aggressive style of hockey, and from the onset, put pressure on their opponents. They skate fast and beat their opposition to the puck, which until the Sharks fell behind by four goals, was not evident on Thursday night.
Despite the loss, the Sharks should be able to improve their team based on Thursday’s loss. For starters, if not evident before, it is now clear that Martin Havlat is not playing up to his capabilities. He was barely noticeable out on the ice, so much in fact that he was moved to the fourth line to play with Andrew Desjardins. Joe Pavelski centers the third line, rather than playing on the first or second, so that the Sharks can get production from their top three lines, rather than just two. It makes little sense to keep a player on Pavelski’s wing who has only two goals in 14 games this year. Havlat’s presence on the third line prevents the Sharks from achieving the balanced scoring that they had hoped for, and the team would be better off moving Pavelski back to the second line to play with Couture and Marleau. Also, Havlat played much better once he was moved to the fourth line, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him there tonight. The Sharks may also benefit from playing young defenseman Matt Irwin more often. Irwin does make mistakes defensively, but he provides more speed and a much better shot than either Scott Hannan or Brad Stuart. The Sharks could use both of these skills, especially against a fast and talented team like the Penguins, who block a ton of shots.
The Sharks know how to win, and a majority of the time they play that way. Games similar to Thursday’s debacle could be attributed to fatigue, the law of averages, or a great performance from the opposition. Regardless of the reason, if the Sharks expect to contend for the cup, they need to figure out how to play better against top teams away from the Shark Tank.