The Sharks entered the “West Side Story” tilt at SAP Center against the Jets on a five-game winning streak, though head coach Pete DeBoer thought his team played its best hockey Thursday in its last six games.
However, it was the one game they lost.
When the NHL postseason bracket narrows to four teams come May, the Sharks and Jets may very well be battling for the right to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final, and Thursday served as an appealing prologue for that scenario.
The Sharks fell to the Jets 5-3 in an tightly-matched game between two of the hottest teams in hockey — San Jose, surging up the standings, had won five straight and Central division-leading Winnipeg five of six prior to Thursday.
“We wanted to see where we stacked up against one of the elite teams in the league. I thought our guys came out and played a good hockey game.”
But a late-game mistake by Sharks goaltender Martin Jones led to the game-winning goal by Nikolaj Ehlers with three minutes to play in regulation. Jones was drawn out of his crease as Blake Wheeler dragged the puck to and then around the net, before passing it out front to Ehlers, who tapped it in with no goaltender in the cage to give the Jets a 4-3 lead.
Ehlers ended the game with a hat trick after adding an empty net goal.
Erik Karlsson, who led the Sharks in ice time with nearly 28 minutes, called the matchup a “heavyweight game”:
“We expect to be one of the top teams. Today, we showed it in bits and pieces, but the full-time effort wasn’t there.”
The teams entered the third period tied 3-3 after Joonas Donskoi equalized for the Sharks with five seconds remaining in the second off a feed in front by Evander Kane, who intercepted Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck’s pass up the boards.
The Sharks outshot the Jets 44-24 and stuck to their gameplan, according to DeBoer:
“We stayed structured. We didn’t give them anything in the second and third. Earlier in the year we would’ve opened that game up and it would’ve turned into a track meet. But I thought we stuck with it and gave ourselves a chance.”
It was a quiet second period compared to a back-and-forth first period that yielded a 3-2 lead for the Jets, with goals being scored seconds apart. Dustin Byfuglien started the scoring less than a minute into the game on a breakaway after stripping Brent Burns of the puck, but Kane answered 45 seconds later on a 2-on-1 break.
Joe Pavelski gave the Sharks a 2-1 lead on a power play midway through the first, tipping in a shot by Kevin Labanc. But Winnipeg scored twice in the next three minutes — Ehlers hit the jackpot with a gaping net after the puck took a strange carom off the end boards to fool Jones and Mason Appleton scored his first NHL goal following a defensive breakdown in the Sharks’ zone.
“If you want to win games against good teams, you’ve got to keep playing the whole game. Can’t make small mistakes early in the game. It’s going to come back and cost you.”
In the third, the Sharks had opportunities to go ahead. But shots rang off the post. Pressure in the zone resulted in everything but a goal. Kane, in particular, was everywhere on the ice. Besides his goal and assist, he took 10 shots, delivered four hits and recorded three takeaways.
“As far as hanging with top teams, we’re a top team. We did enough to win tonight, we just didn’t score more goals than they did.”
And Kane is certain the Sharks will have another run at the Jets — beyond the two remaining regular season matchups — in, say, the postseason:
“I’m sure we’ll see these guys again down the road.”
The Sharks’ four-game homestand continues when the Kings visit SAP Center on Saturday. It is a 1 p.m. puck drop and a nationally-televised game.
Pavelski has scored 9 goals and has 12 points in his last 12 games. … Joe Thornton’s assist on Kane’s goal moved him into a tie for 10th place on the all-time assist list with 1,040 dimes. … With the goal, Donskoi earned his 100th career NHL point and netted his first goal in 14 games.