Tony Medina/Icon SMI)
While no team in the Pacific Division has a centimeter of breathing room, the San Jose Sharks’ flailing season may be the mark of a drowning franchise.
Monday, with their competitors idle and a chance to move from ninth to third in the West, San Jose was dealt a heavy blow by the struggling Anaheim Ducks.
But, rather than hardware-winners like Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne doing the damage, it was the Ducks’ third line lighting up the Sharks for a combined eight points. Nate Guenin scored his second career goal for the game-winner. Instead of hot-hand goalie Jonas Hiller, it was third-stringer Jeff Deslauriers between the pipes to earn the 5-3 Anaheim win.
The Sharks gave up goals on the Anaheim shifts immediately following their own tallies twice.
“The lack of energy and jump that we had as a team was baffling. It really is, when we’re supposed to be as desperate as we are apparently,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan told reporters after the game.
"Some nights if you don’t have it, you have to rely on your hockey sense and your brain to put you in position to be successful, and we didn’t have that going, either," added McLellan, who shuffled his lines early and frequently Monday.
For the Sharks, it came as the latest in a series of setbacks.
They entered the season with four consecutive division titles and a trip to the Western Conference Finals last year. They also made two big-name offseason acquisitions in defenseman Brent Burns and winger Martin Havlat.
Now, they might exit the season with April fishing trips booked and limited job security from top to bottom.
“We are obviously in a funk. We need to get out of, we need to work hard,” defenseman Douglas Murray told reporters Mar. 5.
Since then, the Sharks showed signs of life, stringing together a 3-0-1 stretch before Monday’s loss.
Havlat returned from a major hamstring injury to the second line. He has scored three goals in his last two games including an overtime game-winner against Detroit.
Meanwhile, their defensive corps has continued to produce mixed results and their penalty kill has persisted in sinking into the bottom three in the NHL.
Tuesday, the Sharks face an underachiever who has turned their season around in recent weeks, the Los Angeles Kings, with whom they are tied in the standings, one point behind Dallas and Phoenix. They will also close the season with a pair of critical home-and-home contests with the Kings.
“It’s disappointing. We could have hopped over a bunch of teams tonight but that’s sports. It’s unfortunate we just didn’t win,” captain Joe Thornton told reporters. “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We have to go to L.A. and play hard tomorrow.”
The Sharks were in win-now mode, but they also have an exit strategy.
Only recent pickups Burns, Havlat and goalie Antti Niemi are under contract beyond the next two seasons, with each of them having three years left on their deals.
For now, general manager Doug Wilson has demonstrated confidence in his core consistently in his comments. But if the Sharks cannot hit their stride in the closing weeks of the season, the Sharks ownership may think differently.
"You feel like your game’s there, and it’s a good opportunity with everything on the line," Thornton told reporters Monday. “You just shake your head and don’t know what happened."
Pacific Division Notes
Hiller ended his 32-game streak of consecutive starts, resting for the first time since Jan. 10 … Tommy Wingels is nearing a return for the Sharks and could play Tuesday at Los Angeles … Michal Handzus missed his fifth straight game when the Sharks played Anaheim, T.J. Galiardi also missed the match with an upper-body injury… Rookies Jordan Nolan and Dwight King each hit the scoresheet for Los Angeles Saturday, both players have been subtly strong additions to the Kings’ forward corps … San Jose at Los Angeles, Phoenix at Dallas and Calgary at Colorado make Tuesday’s schedule a veritable round-robin of playoff hopefuls.