“We stuck with it the whole game.”
That’s how Erik Karlsson summarized the San Jose Sharks’ 3-2 comeback shootout win over the Minnesota Wild.
The Sharks, down 2-0 with seven minutes to go in the game, looked dead in the water. Then, Steven Lorentz got in front of the net and put in the rebound from a Marc-Edouard Vlasic point shot. Nico Sturm tied it two minutes later with a long shot that eluded Filip Gustavsson. Finally, Alexander Barabanov clinched it in extra time with his first-ever NHL shootout goal.
But back to Karlsson’s point: There were many times where the San Jose Sharks could’ve packed it in. When the Wild stormed out of the gate with a 9-1 shots rampage. After back-to-back Kevin Labanc offensive zone penalties in the second period. After a Karlsson turnover on the power play gave Minnesota a short-handed goal early in the third period.
That’s why you keep games close. The good teams keep grinding until they see daylight.
It was a couple of old reliables that kept the Sharks in it.
James Reimer got the Sharks out of a listless first period down just a goal, getting a well-deserved shoutout from head coach David Quinn afterwards.
“He certainly has elevated his game,” the bench boss acknowledged.
Per Evolving Hockey, Reimer is currently 14th in the NHL, out of 66 goalies, with a +3.52 Goals Saved Above Expected.
It seems like the 34-year-old veteran has taken over the San Jose net again: Last year, he beat back the challenge by young Adin Hill, acquired for a second-round pick last off-season. This year, young Kaapo Kahkonen, acquired for solid defender Jake Middleton last Trade Deadline, is seventh-worst in the league with a -6.17 GSAx.
GSAx suggests that Reimer has saved 3.5 more goals and Kahkonen has surrendered six more goals than the average goaltender. That’s a meaningful margin for a team with a thin margin for error.
I get that Quinn wanted to get Kahkonen going, and I think he’s a very talented netminder who will help San Jose sooner than later, but right now, if the Sharks want to win games, it’s probably in their best interest to ride Reimer.
Even more reliable is the San Jose Sharks’ penalty kill, the second-best in the NHL right now, the second-best in the league over the last three playoff-less campaigns.
They only killed off two penalties last night, but both came at key times in the second period, as the Sharks were trying to bounce back from their lethargic opening frame.
They also had to overcome the loss of PK stalwart Radim Simek, who played only one shift last night after a high hit by Mason Shaw.
With one less rearguard available for the kill, Marc-Edouard Vlasic played 2:59 of the Sharks’ four short-handed minutes. Mario Ferraro followed with 2:25. Up front, Logan Couture (2:18) and Luke Kunin (1:37) led the way.
From 2018 to 2021, Quinn helmed the New York Rangers, who were just 22nd on the penalty kill in his tenure. So he knows a good thing when he sees it.
“The aggressiveness, the structure that our guys buy into, it really is truly a five-man unit, including the goalie. There’s a lot of pride regarding the penalty kill,” he noted. “Listen, when you come in here, it wasn’t easy for [assistant coach] Ryan Warsofsky to come in here, take over the second-best penalty kill in the league. You want to put your touch to it. He did.
“We didn’t change much, but these guys [did] a hell of a job on the penalty kill. It was huge for us tonight.”
You need to be able to lean on something when you’re down, and by and large, Reimer and the PK have steadied the Sharks over the last two seasons.
And they did so last night, until the rest of the Sharks awoke from their slumber.
“It wasn’t our night. We weren’t feeling our best. Our skill level wasn’t where we needed it to be,” Karlsson offered. “But we grinded it out and we stuck with it. We came away with two points on a night where we probably didn’t deserve it.”
For the Sharks, still trying to figure out if they’re more the 0-5-0 team that started the season or the 5-4-3 group from their last 12 games, last night’s victory should be encouraging. They did what the good teams do, they stole a win, and against a playoff-caliber opponent to boot.
Quinn mused, “We’ve lost some games where you leave, scratch your head, how the hell did that happen?”
Turnabout is fair play, as the Sharks finally authored their first third period comeback win of the season.
Where will San Jose go from here?
The Sharks, it seems, are starting to believe in each other.
“I think we showed that, like we played the second or third today, we can play with teams like Minnesota and playoff teams,” Sturm said.
Next up is the last and biggest test of the road trip: The Pacific Division-leading Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena. Can the Sharks make their biggest statement yet and upset a Stanley Cup favorite on the road?
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